The lost secrets of classical athenian vases
Rise and Fall of a technique
Ancient ceramic art reached its apogee in Athenian workshops during the 6th-5th centuries BC. The products of Athenian workshops were in great demand throughout the Mediterranean markets from Etruria and South Italy, to Carthage, Egypt and the coasts of Anatolia (Asia Minor). The Attic black and red figure vases, often signed by their creators, served as aesthetic and technical reference points in very much the same way as the products of the great names of European pot¬tery and glass making such as Wedgwood, Sevres, Limoges, Meissen, Galle, Lalique.
The decay of the social and economic fabric of Athens which followed the Peloponnesian war marked the beginning of a long period of gradual decline of both aesthetic and technological standards, the appearance of lower quality imitations and finally, during the Roman period, the complete abandonment of the “iron reduction technique” that produces the characteristic ATTIC BLACK glaze of classical vases. Present day copies sold in tourist markets are painted over and bear no relation to the techniques of the Classical period.
The aesthetic interest in Classical antiquity which followed the Renaissance led to an active search for the lost technique of the ATTIC BLACK glaze.In 1752 le Comte de Caylus published a treatise in France where he describes the glaze as "basically ferruginous earth". Fifteen years later Josiah Wedgwood, after failing to reproduce the glaze produced the now famous "black basalt" substitutes, decorated in the red-figured style to celebrate the opening of his factory at Etruria (Staffordshire). During the next two centuries chemists, archaeologists and ceramists met with the same difficulties to reproduce the ATTIC BLACK glaze devoting numerous articles and treatises to the subject. Several such attempts involved "exotic" additives such as urine, dregs of wine, blood, bone powder, and wood or seaweed ashes or modern chemicals.
The definitive answer to the mystery was provided in 1993 by Eleni Aloupi, founder of THETIS Authentics Ltd, in the course of PhD research on the "Nature and Micromorphology of Paint Layers in Ancient Ceramics". The key to the technique lies in the use of carefully chosen and laboriously processed natural clays, followed by a rather complex firing cycle during which the clay based paints acquire their final black or red colour depending on the kiln temperature and atmosphere. Through research and experimentation the THETIS team has been able to recover and revive the techniques of classical ATTIC pottery and thus produce objects whose style, color, texture, chemical composition and microstructure cannot be distinguished from the original.