Reverse engineering ancient Greek ceramics: An interdisciplinary collaboration

Sanchita Balachandran, Matthew Hyleck, and Patricia McGuiggan


This project addresses the 2500 year-old enigma of how the ancient craftsmen of Greece developed the artistically and technologically superior corpus of objects known as red figure ceramics. Manufactured between the 6th and 4th centuries BCE, and perfected by potters and painters in the ancient Kerameikos, or ceramics quarter of Athens, the original manufacturing processes of these vessels continue to elude scholars. In spring 2015 at Johns Hopkins University, the undergraduate course “Recreating Ancient Greek Ceramics” brought together artists, art historians, archaeologists, art conservators, materials scientists, and college students to consider how these objects functioned in antiquity. A key concern of the course was to integrate recent materials science research into the process of examining ancient red-figure cups from the Johns Hopkins Archaeological Museum’s collection, and to use these observations to guide the making of contemporary ceramics in collaboration with a master potter. As part of this process, thirteen undergraduate students—from backgrounds as diverse as biomedical engineering and materials science to archaeology, classics and studio art—worked alongside conservator Sanchita Balachandran and potter Matthew Hyleck to recreate every stage of the manufacturing process. To this end, we threw cups based on extant examples, levigated clay to make slip for painting, built a replica of a Greek updraft kiln based on excavated examples, and fired our replica kylikes in an 11 hour firing cycle in an alternately oxidizing, reducing and then oxidizing environment. These processes were extensively documented on the museum’s website (, results were shared through a film that documented the experience (“Mysteries of the Kylix”), and three segments about the course were broadcast on the local National Public Radio station. The course provided insights into the gestures and muscle memory essential for successful potters and painters, the complexity of workshop organization, and the difficulty of producing high quality wares for a mass market, as was the case in antiquity. The products of the first firing were also uneven, but encouraging, raising numerous technical questions that remain unanswered in the growing materials science literature on ancient Greek ceramics. Two specific areas of manufacture—the preparation and physical characteristics of slip (thinned and levigated clay), and the sequence of firing stages which produced juxtaposed lustrous black and matte red surfaces—still remain a matter of intense debate. With a Johns Hopkins University Discovery Grant, awarded in July 2015, the research on ancient Greek ceramics has taken on a new dimension, that of supporting a collaborative and interdisciplinary research project combining the expertise of a conservator, a potter, and a materials scientist (Patricia McGuiggan). All three experts bring particular perspectives on the material properties of clay, and on the production processes of ceramics.

This paper highlights insights gained on ancient Greek ceramics as a result of this truly collaborative approach, following the work of analyzing ancient ceramics and the recently made replicas, and using this information to reverse engineer the ancient production processes.

2016 | Montreal | Volume 23