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Identification and Creation

Object Number
Attic White-ground Lekythos
Work Type
450-400 BCE
Creation Place: Ancient & Byzantine World, Europe, Attica
Classical period
Persistent Link

Physical Descriptions

H. 25.7 cm (10 1/8 in.)

Acquisition and Rights

Credit Line
Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Gift of Charles F. Hovey
Accession Year
Object Number
Asian and Mediterranean Art

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The decoration on this vase is faint and poorly preserved although the vessel is intact.

The shoulder is decorated with tendrils and palmette.

On the body: in the center there is a gravestone topped with a palmette, and with a red fillet wrapped around it near the top.

To the left there is a figure who holds something in his or her hand.

On the left there is a woman who is draped in a cloak (himation), probably over a tunic (chiton) which is no longer preserved. Her hair is tied up by a fillet.

A band of meander pattern decorates the top of the body.
This vase is an example of a special type of Athenian vessel, the white-ground lekythos (oil flask). Unlike other Athenian pottery, which was regularly produced for export across the Mediterranean, and especially to Italy, white-ground lekythoi are only rarely found outside of Attica, the region surrounding Athens.

The white-ground decorative technique produces decoration which is much less stable than the red-figure or black-figure technique and is mostly used for vessels with funerary or ritual functions that do not demand heavy use. White ground lekythoi regularly feature decoration only on the front of the vessel, with the back left blank, and even decorative friezes extending only halfway around the vessel.

This type of vase was in common production from around 480 B.C.E. until towards the end of the fifth century. Its popularity in this period may be related to the absence of any private gravestones in Attica from around 490-80 to 430 B.C.E. Exactly why the Athenians stopped producing gravestones for half a century is not entirely clear, but the white-ground lekythos might be thought of as replicating some of the ritual and commemorative functions of a gravestone. A great many examples feature a representation of a grave monument.

These vases were designed to hold oil and seem to have been used in a number of different ways in funerary ritual: burned with the body in cremations, for pouring oil libations on the body or the grave site, and as offerings left at or in a burial. The great majority have been found in and around graves.

Accordingly, their painted decoration usually features scenes connected with funerary ritual or the mythology of the afterlife, and can give us some insight into ancient Athenian funerary practices and ideas about death. This scene probably shows a visit to the grave by the family of the deceased. Sometimes scenes of this kind will include a figure who seems to represent the dead individual, but it is often not possible to make identifications like this with any certainty.

On white-ground lekythoi in general, see:
J. D. Beazley, Greek Vases: Lectures by J. D. Beazley, ed. D. C. Kurtz (Oxford, 1989), pp. 26-38 with pll. 17-24.
John H. Oakley, Picturing Death in Classical Athens: The Evidence of the White Lekythoi (Cambridge, 2004).

Publication History

  • Sarah Jane Rennie, "The Identification of Original Decoration on a Collection of Attic White Ground Lekythoi" (thesis (certificate in conservation), Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies, 1994), Unpublished, pp. 1-24 passim

Verification Level

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