The Riddle of the Eleon Sphinx Kantharos

By Annika Berendt

Last spring, taking GRS 482A gave me an opportunity to study Boeotian black-figure ware up close as I researched the history of a kantharos excavated at ancient Eleon. This particular kantharos was decorated with rosettes and sphinxes and could be attributed to a known artist, the Horse-Bird Painter. The sphinx kantharos (figure 1) was found in the SE trenches of Ancient Eleon, largely in a medieval rubbish pit. The preserved decoration features two antithetic sphinxes, each with its head turned back to look over its own body. As I spent time learning about this kantharos and the artist who made it, I found myself drawn into questioning how styles develop over time and how the styles of different regions interact with and influence each other. By the end of the semester I was surprised both by how much I had learned from studying a single artifact and by how much I still wanted to learn about it.

Figure 1: Fragment of a Boeotian black-figured kantharos from ancient Eleon (Courtesy of the Eastern Boeotia Archaeological Project).

One thing that made this piece really interesting to study was that it can be attributed to a known artist, an itinerant craftsperson who migrated from Athens to Boeotia known as The Horse-Bird Painter. Because of this, I was able to look at other ceramics painted by the Horse-Bird Painter and compare styles, motifs, and ceramic shapes within the large body of work of one of Boeotia᾽s earliest black-figure painters.

The Horse-Bird Painter frequently decorated their vases with sphinxes, sirens, horses, lions, and swans. Lions, sphinxes, and sirens can be seen on the Horse Bird-Painter’s tripod kothon (figure 2). The sphinx kantharos found at Eleon matches well with the Horse-Bird Painter᾽s later style which showed greater consistency and accuracy than the earlier works of their Athens period. Animals were a popular motif on Boeotian black-figure ware, including mythological ones. Sphinxes were second only to sirens in depictions of mythological creatures and they appear on several works by the Horse-Bird Painter. The monochrome painted fragments suggest that the handles and possibly bottom of the kantharos would have been entirely black, as was generally the case for kantharoi.

Black-figure ware is made through the process of “painting” an unfired vase with a clay slurry which blackens during firing when exposed to a reducing atmosphere, giving it its name. The outlines and details are created through incisions which expose the underlying clay, and despite the name, black-figure ware could be done with or without additional added colours. The kantharos from Eleon, for example, shows use of an added reddish purple pigment on the faces and body of the sphinxes, as well as in bands applied over top of the otherwise monochrome black interior.

Multiple black-figure painters came from Attica to Boeotia, like the Horse-Bird Painter, and probably from other places as well. Black-figure ware was popular in Boeotia during the 6th and 5th centuries BCE, and while there are examples as late as the 2nd century BCE, it was no longer the dominant style and Boeotian ceramics had switched to other styles like the palmette cups found at Tanagra, which although drawing on the black-figure technological tradition, no longer exhibit the use of incision or added colour.

Figure 2: Tripod kothon by the Horse-bird group = peintre des alabastres du horse-bird group (Musée du Louvre, Département des Antiquités grecques, étrusques et romaines, CA 683 – https://collections.louvre.fr/ark:/53355/cl010263361 – https://collections.louvre.fr/CGU).

Boeotian black-figure ware had strong inter-regional ties to Attic and Corinthian black-figure ware, East Greek and Euboean black-figure ware were also less prominent influences. Based on Boeotia’s position as a crossroads within Greece, it is not surprising that these influences factored strongly into the Boeotian black-figure repertoire. Corinthian influences upon Boeotian black-figure—like the rows of dots found on some of the Horse-Bird Painter᾽s work—were stronger when the style was first introduced, but later in the 6th century, Attic influences become more dominant and we even know of Athenian artists such as the potter Teisias, who set up workshops in Boeotia.

The combination of these stylistic overlaps and the prolific looting and illegal excavations carried out in Boeotia throughout the 19th century can make Boeotian black-figure ware quite difficult to identify and finds are often misattributed to Attic production in order to maximize their value on the art market.  Furthermore, because of the presence of itinerant Athenian artists working in Boeotia, there is Attic style black figure which is in fact produced in Boeotia, including a workshop that has been linked to the site of Akraifia.

The effect of Attic and Corinthian styles on Boeotian black-figure is often characterized as a dependency rather than an influence. This understates the adaptations made to Attic and Corinthian styles by Boeotian artists to better suit local tastes, often involving the blending of influences from multiple different regions. Some adaptations can be seen in the extensive use of kantharoi, often decorated with popular Boeotian themes like animals or komos (drunken revelry) scenes­, in a manner specific to Boeotian tastes. The change in the types of ceramics the Horse-Bird Painter painted after emigrating to Boeotia is also indicative of this. Their Boeotian works consist mainly of alabastra and aryballoi, which, as early Boeotian black-figure ware was influenced more by Corinthian than Attic ware, shows they were producing works specifically for Boeotian audiences. The result of these adaptations is an eclectic repertoire of black-figure ware which at times closely resembles Attic or Corinthian ware, and at others only borrows or adapts motifs from these regions, making it difficult to define a cohesive Boeotian corpus in the way that Attic, Corinthian, Euboean, or East Greek work can be defined.

This black-figure kantharos from Eleon is a fortunate addition to the known works of the Horse-Bird Painter, particularly since despite the large number of attributed works and the popularity of kantharoi in Boeotia, the Horse-Bird Painter was not currently known to have painted this shape. It is difficult to say what the kantharos’ exact purpose was at the site. Its find spot in a medieval rubbish pit suggests that it was disturbed hundreds of years after its initial deposition. The fact that this pit was cut into the ramped entrance to the site which has produced abundant redeposited votive offerings, however, may indicate that it was originally dedicated at a shrine or temple on the acropolis of Eleon.

One of the things that draws me to archaeology is the idea that so many questions have yet to be answered, and so many more have yet to even be asked. The more I looked into this object and its artist, the more new questions and interests arose, and I look forward to exploring them more in future classes!

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