Week 2–A Modern Symposium

Madelena Brancati
I am a freshman and intend to major in Archaeology with a minor in Museums and Society. I have a strong background in the visual arts, and therefore hope to provide a stylistic perspective throughout the course of the semester. I am thrilled to be a part of this experiment and to see how people of different disciplines approach the same craft.

This week—the second week of our semester-long endeavor—our class was transported to a different time and place. We were given the privilege of holding several of the museum’s kylikes (drinking cups) in our hands, instantly creating a tangible connection between our class and the symposium-goers of ancient Greece.

Dane Clark and Ashley Fallon hold the kylix by Epiktetos (JHUAM B3).

Dane Clark and Ashley Fallon hold the kylix by Epiktetos (JHUAM B3).

As described by Kathleen Lynch in her analysis, “Drinking Cups and the Symposium,” (In Cities Called Athens.  Studies Honoring John McK. Camp II, edited by Kevin F. Daly and Lee Ann Riccardi. Lanham: Bucknell University, 2014: 231-271), a symposium was a communal drinking event usually attended by seven to fourteen men typically of elite status. Symposia provided a forum for the formation of a cultural identity as well as a medium through which individuals or social groups could distinguish themselves. In this context, elites would differentiate themselves from the rest of society through the exclusivity of the event, while variations in the kylix shape and decoration displayed by each attendee would reflect in-group competition or individual distinction.  Drinking cups are the most numerous of all the sympotic forms in the archaeological record, and they were also the most used, repaired, and replaced, indicating their importance to sympotic culture. The cups provided an indispensable, utilitarian service while also existing as a tangible declaration of its owner’s identity.

As we passed around the cups, the general consensus was that they were much lighter than expected.  The glossy black slip mimicked a metallic sheen, and the thin, top-heavy shape gave each cup an air of weightlessness. They were smooth to the touch and curved exactly to the shape of the hands holding them. As I placed my fingers around the bowl, the handles slid perfectly into the space between my thumbs and index fingers.

We proceeded to take the measurements of each of the cups, since determining the dimensions of an object is the first step in an accurate recreation. It became evident that each cup displayed similar proportions: the height of the cup was divided evenly into two sections (from the base to the bottom of the bowl and from the bottom curve to the rim), and the total width of the cup was divided into thirds by the two handles and the base. However, these measurements were far from precise, with each cup slightly off-proportion in some way or another. It was at this point that Matthew Hyleck of Baltimore Clayworks explained the essential role of the potter’s hands in the formation of these vessels. Without measuring tools, the potter’s hands served as guidelines for proportion. Master potters could produce hundreds of vessels in a few hours, forming the shapes from muscle memory.

Matt shows the class how he measures cups.

Matt shows the class how he measures cups.

Each cup produced reflected the hands of the potter who made it. This effect is intrinsic to the form of the kylix, allowing it to take on a personal quality as it moves through the hands of its owners. The same sensation was experienced by each of us—over two millennia after the fact—as we wrapped our fingers around the smooth slipped surface of the cup.  As we move forward into the production stages of our project, it will be important to keep in mind this relationship forged between pot and potter throughout the process and how it contributes to the overall impact each cup has in the hands of its user.

At roughly the size of the average Greek symposium guest list, our little group of potters and apprentices exists as a modern twist on the ancient tradition. As we attempt to recreate the kylix shape, I believe an understanding of the context in which and for which these vessels were made will prove invaluable, for the shape of the cups and their context are inherently linked.

Preparing to look at the cups under ultraviolet light for evidence of restorations and other changes.

Preparing to look at the cups under ultraviolet light for evidence of restorations and other changes.

13 Responses to Week 2–A Modern Symposium

  1. Another wonderful post! I find it extremely interesting that the cups all basically conform to the same set of dimensional ratios. Having taken graphic design and photography classes, I know that there are some ratios that are inherently aesthetically pleasing (including thirds, as found in the proportions of the handles and foot relative to the bowl diameter). It would be interesting to see if any aspects of the cups follow other known aesthetic principles, such as the golden ratio (based on the Fibonacci sequence). From there we might start to think about whether the potters deliberately used those measurements, or whether they ended up that way because they “looked right”.

  2. Thanks Maddy for the great post!

    Picking up those cups for the first time was such a nerve-racking experience that I had to take a moment to calm down, relax, and really take in what I was feeling. Like Maddy mentioned, we were all surprised by how light the cups were compared to their size. The closest comparison I can make to the sensation is picking up a fine china mug and then picking up a bone china mug of the same size. The lightness of the bone china surprises you, since fine china and ceramics are more common. It makes me wonder whether there is a mineral akin to bone that is added to ancient Athenian clay that enables the pottery to achieve a similar affect.

  3. Maddy, I love that you drew attention to how personal these cups were because the proportions were determined by the potter’s hands. I think that a lot of people don’t realize the relationship between ancient crafters and their objects, especially when there isn’t something obvious like a name or fingerprint to draw attention to it. A lot of these cups look similar because of the overall shape and proportions, but they’re all different because different people made them and being able to recognize such individuals in the past is always exciting!

  4. Madelena, it was very observant of you to see that our class size was similar to that of a symposium. We were up to similar activities, too: sharing ideas while handling drinking cups — all we were missing was the wine! Speaking of which, I found our discussion of the wine to be fascinating. Drunkenness was common! To the point where there were warnings in the art inlayed in the cups.
    Handling these cups was nothing other than thrilling. Time stood still. And then we measured them, but assigning hard numbers to these imperfect works of art felt artificial and forced — often it was, just due to the irregularities in shape.

  5. At first, the lightness of the cups is certainly surprising. However, they probably wouldn’t be terribly useful if they were as heavy as they looked. They would be difficult to manipulate due to their shape and size. The cups can also hold quite a lot of liquid, which adds a significant amount of weight during use. Because of these factors, a heavy kylix would not have been easy to use (and spilling drinks might have been common). As a result, they might not have gained such popularity.

  6. Thank you Maddy for the post!

    There is a subtle variation in the design of one of the cups we examined. It had a vertical rim (concaving slightly outwards) instead of an unbroken (pun unintended) curvature from the pit to the rim that we see in the other cups. It was mentioned in class that this vertical rim design might be intended to catch some of the sediments from the wines that were drunk during a symposium. This goes to show that with changes in drinking culture (e.g. old wines with sediments today are usually decanted first), the design of cups that we drink from (and a multitude of other things) would inevitably change too. While recreating these ancient greek cups, it is therefore important to keep in mind the mutli-layered meanings of “recreating” as we would probably discover more than a replica of these ancient drinking vessels.

  7. Maddy, your post is terrific! It’s great that you bring up how well the cups fit in your hands when picking them up. At first glance, these drinking cups look really awkward and rather unwieldy. They have handles, but they are way too fragile to actually serve too much of a purpose beyond aesthetics. However, when we got to finally pick them up and hold them, everything just felt right. The cups are designed to be very shallow and to be generally held from below rather than by the handles. You also brought up a good point, Maddy, about how the handles fit perfectly next to where your thumbs naturally fell! They probably helped offer a bit more control over the cup when it was full of wine.

  8. Wonderful post, Maddy! The proportions of the cups will be an important factor which we will need to be considered as me move forward and begin to spin our own kylikes. The extraordinarily thin ceramic of the kylix makes it so light, and as we observed despite their varying size the weight was minimal. In addition to the thin body and hallow stem on which the bowl of the cup sits, these cups are designed to have certain proportions which create a balanced object; this is not only to the eye but for the cup’s function. The Greeks were notorious perfectionists in both visual and structural aspects of their architecture, art, sculpture, and as we’ve seen in their pottery.

  9. Oh that’s awesome Maddy! I didn’t even think to compare us to a symposium. I thought that entire conversation we had about symposiums was so interesting, especially how the men all attending would often bring their own special cups (kylikes) to show off a bit. After holding the cups and experiencing their shape firsthand, it was easy to imagine shopping for them for these symposiums. They were perfect to hold and the images on them were so diverse that it was striking. The cup with the picture of the young man buying a cup was especially interesting. One would think it would be hard to choose the perfect one. Its no wonder why these glossy kylikes were so popular.

  10. Travis, you bring up a good point about how drinking culture influenced how important the kylix was to symposiums. It might be interesting to note that one of the most common images depicted on the cups is Dionysus, the god of grapes and wine. Dionysian symbols like satyrs and maenads were also popular. Looking ahead to our own cups, since we will configure modern equivalents to ancient symbols as decoration, maybe the coca-cola sign would be a good idea? Also, Lauren what you said about the weight is extremely valid, but what struck me was how shallow the cups were. Surely in the state that the ancients were in at symposia the wide shallow structure would indeed incur spillage. Perhaps the cup with the lip also helped avoid messes!

  11. Nice job Maddy! Concerning the lightness of the cups, in addition to Haley’s comments about the clay possibly containing a material akin to bone matter, Matthew also mentioned that the cups’ light weight could be attributed to the manner in which Greek potters shaped the clay on the wheel. The cups begin with a solid, thick base and then slowly become thinner as the potter continues to work the clay towards the top of the vessel.

  12. I cannot stop repeating in my head a comment that Matt made last week: “Imitation drives innovation”. Although he was referring to experimentation concerning form and technique that resulted from the competition between potters, it applies to our process of studying these cups as well. Our curiosities are not new, and several hands and minds have touched these cups before us. However, the observations of others fuels our research, encouraging us to engage with fact and mystery. Gisela Richter’s account with Ancient Greek ceramics is tremendously encouraging for its dedication to understanding these objects through process. By mimicking others and approaching our own research through their techniques, we too will make original and substantial discoveries.

    On a separate note, was I the only one that noticed the fingerprint in the bowl of the unillustrated cup? It was not imbedded in the clay or slip, but appeared to be a result of dirt or residue settling in the print’s mark after production. I am looking forward to visiting it again and reacquainting myself with the mystery apprentice, art dealer, archaeologist, scholar, or civilian that encountered the cup long before I did.

  13. These kylikes are deceptive! I was so surprised by the lightness of even the largest kylix we handled. Taking measurements really illuminated the balance of these cups. The ratios were almost exact; keeping in mind that each of these pieces is handmade, this is an incredible feat. I can’t wait to try making my own! My question is, how much wine did each of these cups hold, and could the symposium-goers keep the wine balanced in the cups!

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