A Lesson in the Making

July 10, 2018
Index Magazine

A Lesson in the Making

Kathy King, director of education at the Ceramics Program, Office for the Arts at Harvard, discusses how ancient Greek potters might have made animal-shaped vessels, such as the eagle head mug shown in the picture behind her.

Close looking and intensive research have been crucial for the curators and students preparing for our upcoming fall exhibition Animal-Shaped Vessels from the Ancient World: Feasting with Gods, Heroes, and Kings (September 7, 2018–January 6, 2019). As part of that effort, they literally rolled up their sleeves and got their hands dirty at a session last fall in the Harvard Ceramics Studio.

Susanne Ebbinghaus, the George M.A. Hanfmann Curator of Ancient Art and the exhibition’s curator, brought a small group of students and a curatorial fellow to the studio to re-create the types of ancient animal-shaped vessels that will be in the exhibition. (For some examples of objects that will be on view, see the slideshow below.) Kathy King, director of education at the Ceramics Program, Office for the Arts at Harvard, has been investigating animal-shaped vessels for more than a year, making molds to create reproductions of some of these distinctive vessels.

During the hands-on session, King offered a short tutorial in working with clay, using techniques ancient potters might have employed. The group then tried their hand at making vessels shaped like the heads of eagles, donkeys, and rams.

“Thanks to the museums’ great labs in the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies, we have many ways to study how these vessels were made, including through the use of our specialized tools and equipment,” said Ebbinghaus. “But I think you can understand the actual techniques and skills ancient potters used only when you try to re-create these objects.”

She emphasized that “seeing the traces we leave in the clay” is also a good reminder of the potter’s deeply personal role in creating a work. “The next time I look at an ancient vessel, I can appreciate (and study) that aspect.”

Insights gleaned from King’s expertise and the researchers’ work with clay will be incorporated into a digital tool to accompany the exhibition. Ebbinghaus served as an advisor to Harvard undergraduates who contributed to the content and ideas for this digital tool as part of their coursework for the General Education course Ancient Lives, taught by Gojko Barjamovic, senior lecturer in Assyriology in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at Harvard.

Anjie Liu, a student in the Harvard course, was assigned to research and describe how vessels of clay and silver (the two materials primarily represented in the exhibition) were made. She was an active participant in the Ceramics Studio workshop and undertook an additional fact-finding session in the Straus Center focused on silver objects.

“It’s funny, because you’d think the ancient world is a topic you’d be able to do the least amount of experimental work on,” Liu said, “but this assignment really flipped the tables on that.”

The Potter’s Touch

It’s often not possible to handle ancient vessels, due to their fragility. Making reproductions allows researchers to better comprehend the tactile nature of the objects, which were used for drinking and pouring liquids at feasts and drinking parties, and in religious ceremonies. The vessels in the exhibition, in a variety of animal shapes and diverse materials, were created and used over a span of three millennia in the eastern Mediterranean region, the Near East, and Central Asia.

Though the vessels are thousands of years old, it was easy to imagine them in use when, in the Ceramics Studio, King demonstrated how to sip from one. Holding a reproduction of an eagle head mug by the handle, she raised the cup to her mouth. Almost instantly, it appeared that she had a beak; the vessel doubled as a mask. Workshop participants chuckled.

“Making these replicas, we were just in fits and giggles,” King said. “All of a sudden these austere museum objects became a lot more entertaining and approachable.”

The group at the studio included Ebbinghaus, Liu, and graduate students Katherine Taronas and Suzanne Paszkowski, who worked on the exhibition as part of their internships with the museums, and Elizabeth Molacek, the former Frederick Randolph Grace Curatorial Fellow in Ancient Art at the museums. King showed them how objects such as these might have been produced using a multistep process. First, the wet clay was pressed into molds in the form of animal heads. After these shaped pieces dried to a leather-hard (semi-dry) state, they were removed and gently adhered together. Next, wheel-thrown cylindrical forms were added to the animal-shaped portion of the vessels, with hand-pulled handles attached as well.

“You’d think the ancient world is a topic you’d be able to do the least amount of experimental work on, but this assignment really flipped the tables on that.”

The next step was to decorate the vessels. King explained that the ancient material used for decoration—made of clay slip—was just slightly different in chemical composition from the (wet) clay used to shape the vessels. During firing, the slip took on the red, black, and white shades so commonly seen on ancient Greek vessels. Varying formulations of clay slip will yield distinct shades upon firing, King said, even though the different types of slip look very similar beforehand.

“Just think about that,” King said as the group applied the first brush strokes. “You were using reddish-brown clay and a slightly darker reddish-brown slip. Staring at that all day, the two would have seemed very similar [in hue]. And then when the objects came out of the kiln, with the high contrast of red and black, it must have been a complete surprise.” In addition, gently burnishing the decorated vessel yielded smooth, shiny surfaces—also only fully apparent after firing.

Ebbinghaus said it was eye-opening to see the effect of the burnishing, even before her piece had been fired. “It was amazing how the vessel was smooth and shiny in the part of the decoration that I’d burnished,” she said. Once the exhibition opens, King and Ebbinghaus hope to share this experience with others through similar hands-on workshops in the museums’ Materials Lab and in the Ceramics Studio.

Insights into Process

A week after the Ceramics Studio experience, Ebbinghaus organized a second appointment for Liu: a meeting with Angela Chang, who is a conservator of objects and sculpture and head of the objects lab in the Straus Center, to discuss the techniques of ancient silversmiths. Besides being an opportunity for Liu to interview Chang, the session allowed the pair to study a fragmentary silver forepart of a deer of the fourth century BCE or later (probably from a rhyton, or “flowing vessel”), seen below.  

“This is a really great study object,” Chang told Liu. “Due to its fragmentary state, we can examine the inside, the back, and the edges—literal glimpses into the object’s design.”

Chang explained to Liu how she and Katherine Eremin, the Patricia Cornwell Senior Conservation Scientist in the Straus Center, analyzed the fragment using non-destructive techniques, such as X-radiography and magnification, to discover evidence about its creation. The findings supported their theory that the doe-shaped body may have been hammered from a single sheet of silver, a fact that surprised Liu. (Chang and Eremin’s research will be detailed in their contribution to the exhibition catalogue.)

“It’s so different reading about how these objects were made versus actually looking at them and talking through the process,” said Liu, a physics and comparative literature concentrator. “It gives me a deeper appreciation of the artistry as I sit before these objects and imagine the precision and control required to make them.”

Chang and Eremin also examined the gilded areas of the deer’s coat, and they discovered a small amount of gold foil hidden between the ear and the head. (There are also traces of gold elsewhere on the object’s exterior.) Chang showed Liu these areas under a high-powered microscope.

For Liu, the close looking made clear the complicated nature of art making, in both ancient and modern times. Ebbinghaus hopes that is a prime takeaway for anyone who engages with the objects.

“These hands-on experiences help us gain a deeper understanding of ancient material culture,” Ebbinghaus said. “They also give us a greater appreciation for the skills and technologies that are used in creating these types of objects.”