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 – –

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!


By Matthew Skalik

This past semester in GRS 482A, I had the opportunity to research a rim fragment from a marble bowl found within the Blue Stone Structure at ancient Eleon (Figure 1). The fact that the vessel was made from a non-local stone, that only a fragment survived, and that this fragment was found within a funerary structure, although not within a grave, all posed important questions regarding the provenance, lifespan and dating of the artifact. By examining evidence for marble imports into Boeotia and the island of Keos, or the lack thereof, and analyzing the findspot of the bowl fragment from Eleon, I concluded that the marble bowl from which the fragment came was not a recent import, but rather of much older Cycladic origins. Contrary to my initial expectations, the imported vessel had been broken and discarded long before it was unintentionally deposited as fill to cover the graves of the Blue Stone Structure (BSS). In this blog post, I will sketch out a plausible biography of this artifact from its Cycladic origins to its endpoint at Eleon and add some reflections on working with material culture.

Figure 1: Fragment of a marble bowl rim from the Blue Stone Structure at Eleon (Eastern Boeotia Archaeological Project).

The use of marble in the Cyclades is well-attested by the 3rd millennium BCE, during the Early Bronze Age, when the famous Cycladic figurines, but also various types of marble bowls and vessels were produced (Figure 2). Cycladic material culture was widely traded throughout the Aegean during the Early Bronze Age, including to inland Boeotia where Cycladic or Cycladic-influenced items such as metal daggers, ceramic ‘frying pans’ and marble artifacts have been excavated. Early Cycladic marble bowls have been found at Lithares, Eutresis, Thebes, and elsewhere in Boeotia, however, all these attestations pre-date the Blue Stone Structure in Eleon by several hundred years. In fact, from the Early Helladic III period onwards, there is a scarcity of Cycladic marbles in Boeotia that suggests a decline in marble imports beginning around the Middle Bronze Age.

Figure 2: Early Cycladic II marble bowls from the prehistoric cemetery in the quarry near Phira, Museum of Prehistoric Thera inv. nos. 1163 & 1345 (Zde/Wikimedia Commons), CC Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International.

I looked to the island of Keos to examine whether the Eleon marble fragment might be a rare example of a Middle or Late Bronze Age marble bowl, closer to when the Blue Stone Structure was active (approximately 1700–1600 BCE), or was imported in the Early Bronze Age and maintained as an heirloom for hundreds of years.  As the first major island one encounters when sailing from Boeotia towards the Cyclades via the Euboean Gulf, Keos is well-situated for trade between the Cyclades, Minoan Crete and the Greek Mainland. Throughout the Early and Middle Bronze Age, Keos grew in wealth and prosperity due to its role in these trade networks as demonstrated by the settlement of Ayia Irini.  Despite a significant amount of excavation at the site, Cycladic marbles were rare at Ayia Irini also after the Early Bronze Age and produced no good parallels for the fragment from Eleon. 

If the Cycladic marble vessel at Eleon originated in the Early Bronze Age, it is possible that it was kept as a rare antique or prestigious object.  Such a phenomenon may be observed at Ayia Irini where some marble figurines from the Early Bronze Age appeared in later destruction levels indicating an extended lifespan for such objects. This possibility for the provenance and usage of the marble vessel, however, does not explain how it ended up in the BSS, for it was not intentionally placed in a tomb and only a small fragment was recovered.

The marble rim fragment was found within the BSS (Figure 3), sandwiched between the layers of earth and mudbrick overlying the capstones for the graves, but below the cobblestone layer that sealed off the funerary structure. Assorted mendable drinking vessels were found amidst the same layers of earth and mudbrick indicating a ritual drinking custom performed by the community over the tombs. As far as we know, Cycladic bowls were not involved in drinking rituals but rather, since pigment is often found inside, they seem to have been used to store or grind pigments which would decorate the human body. While the bowl could have been repurposed by the local inhabitants, its rim would not have made a very convenient drinking vessel and its shallow bowl counld not hold much liquid.

Figure 3: The interior of the Blue Stone Structure at Eleon showing grave stelai, cobble surface, and thick fill covering the graves (Eastern Boeotia Archaeological Project).

Given the small fragment that survives, it seems more likely that the marble bowl was accidentally introduced as fill when the layers of brick and earth containing the drinking vessels were laid over the graves. The earth may have been taken from an area designated for abandoned household objects, as evidenced by a spindle whorl and a loom weight fragment found near the marble fragment – two objects which also have no obvious relation to drinking. In reconstructing the life of the marble fragment, one can imagine that, after some time, the bowl broke and was discarded outside where, later, a fragment was inadvertently gathered up as part of the earthen fill or perhaps even incorporated into a large mud brick that was then used to cover the graves of the BSS.

Over the course of this project, I found just how exciting it can be to reconstruct the life of an artifact and critically think about its production and usage. For the first time as an undergraduate student, I was able to work directly with excavation material and develop skills in interpreting excavation reports and journals for a project. What started as simply trying to determine the exact findspot and the context of the fragment quickly evolved into attempting to piece together how and when the fragment got there, which was followed by broader questions regarding the prevalence of marble after the Early Bronze Age, the nature of interregional exchange between Boeotia and the Cyclades, and the potential significance of the artifact to the ancient inhabitants of Eleon. But, perhaps the best part of working with material from Eleon was that I truly had to ask my own questions to conduct research rather than re-examining already published artifacts. By independently studying the material record from Eleon and relating it to the broader archaeological record in Bronze Age Greece, I know that I gained a lot of knowledge myself and, hopefully, I also contributed a little to the study of Eleon while doing so.