Figurative decoration is almost entirely absent from the pottery of the Early Iron Age. It became more common from the late ninth century BCE, beginning with individual figures of humans and animals and soon more complex scenes. Battle scenes are among the earliest depictions, and these include fighting both on land and on the sea.
From the Middle Geometric Period, beginning around 850 BCE, monumental vases were used to mark the graves of some individuals in the Dipylon Cemetery in Athens. The most famous of these grave markers is the so-called Dipylon Amphora, currently in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, which dates to the Late Geometric Ia Period (ca. 760-750 BCE). On this amphora, there is a scene of a prothesis – the laying out of the deceased’s body prior to burial. Mourning men and women surround the shrouded body.
Other graves were marked with monumental kraters rather than amphorai – the former usually associated with wine-mixing, the latter wine storage. Based in part on the figural decoration on the respective vessels, it is usually assumed that amphorai marked the graves of women and kraters those of men. On kraters we also see protheses, but also processions of chariots and warriors carrying the so-called Dipylon shield, and occasionally scenes of battle.
New York MMA 34.11.2
There are three of these monumental kraters from the Dipylon Cemetery in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The earliest, New York MMA 34.11.2, dates to the first quarter of the eighth century BCE, the Middle Geometric II pottery phase. As with most Geometric vessels, the entire body is covered with decoration. The majority of these are the geometric shapes from which the name of the style is derived: meanders, concentric circles, and more. There are three panels with figurative decoration.
On either side of the vessel, between the handles, there is a small prothesis scene. The scene is not well-preserved on either side, but it appears to show the deceased on their bier, on which a smaller figure also kneels in mourning. Beneath the bier are birds – at least three, perhaps four – and beneath this, a row of five mourning figures. This scene is fairly typical of the genre of prothesis scenes.
Below this, around the belly of the krater, is a continuous frieze of warriors and battle. Two boats, positioned somewhat off-centre of the prothesis panel above, host a number of warriors in combat. Between the boats are rows of Dipylon warriors – striding figures carrying the scalloped-circle shields characteristic of Late Geometric pictorial scenes. Each of these warriors carries two spears, has a sword across their middle, and wears a plumed helmet.
The battle scenes have several characteristics in common. A bird perches on the stern of each boat; on Side B, next is a figure wearing a helmet who appears to be seated, and is perhaps the steersperson. On Side A – this article’s featured image – this figure is absent, but both sides then feature a duel between swordsmen – blades pointed at one another’s bellies, hands grasping their opponent’s helmet or forelock. Like the Dipylon warrior, this is a standard scene in Late Geometric vase painting.
The central section of Side A is missing, but as the scene resumes we see a javelin-thrower raising his weapon to throw at a lost enemy; he is back-to-back with an archer, crouching to fire at an encroaching javelin-thrower standing on the ship’s prow. This javelin-thrower is not clearly wearing any armour and, unlike the archer, does not even have a sword at his waist.
Side B is also missing parts of its central section. Half of a Dipylon warrior can be seen until the break; a fragment of crossed legs suggests another pair of duelling swordsmen in place of the archer at the bow. However, it is the central part of this scene that is particularly unusual. Next to the fragmentary Dipylon warrior, the bottom edge of what appears to be another Dipylon shield is sat on the deck of the ship, clearly not carried by another warrior; a very small part of another Dipylon shield seems to be visible on the other side of the central fragment. In the centre, beneath the sail, an unarmed human figure sits.
In it for the booty
In her pioneering study of Late Geometric battle scenes, Gudrun Ahlberg suggested that the figure sitting in the middle of the scene on side B was a woman. She suggests that the hair of the figure is closer to other depictions of women and the position of the figure’s arms suggest that she has been tied to the sail, an unusual position for a figure in Geometric art. Ahlberg further suggests that the woman and the Dipylon shields flanking her were battlefield booty.
What is happening in this scene? On side A, the javelin-thrower stood on the prow suggests that the ship is beached when this battle takes place – perhaps the victims of the raid are attempting to board the ship. On side B, however, the figure at the aft who appears to be steering the ship may indicate that they have returned to the sea with their attackers on-board. The narrative we may suggest, then, is that ship-borne raiders have beached, captured a woman and some armour, but in retreating to their ship they have been chased and must now fight off their victims, even as they return to the sea.
As the title of Ahlberg’s study suggests, battle scenes including ships were a recognizable feature of the Geometric pictorial pottery repertoire. In contrast to earlier depictions of ship battles such as the Late Helladic IIIC Middle (ca. 1150-1100 BCE) scenes from Kynos in the Euboean gulf, or later depictions such as the seventh-century Aristonothos Krater from Cerveteri, most of these Middle and Late Geometric battle scenes take place on board or around the ships, rather than between two ships in conflict. As such, it is typically assumed that these must be conflicts on land, near beached ships. This may also be indicated by the presence of birds around the combat, which usually indicates proximity to shore rather than the open sea.
While connections to the sea had been important throughout the Early Iron Age, in the eighth century BCE there are changes in the settlement pattern that suggest such connectivity was becoming even more important. Furthermore, while raids from the sea may have been an expected part of life in the Iron Age, the eighth-century Athenians appear to have been connecting such raids strongly with the identity of some of their most prestigious burials.
There is also evidence that the stripping of the war-dead was becoming increasingly common throughout the eighth century. Ahlberg has interpreted a scene on an oinochoe now in the Louvre as the stripping and execution of captured warriors after battle. An amphora from one of the eighth-century polyandria in Paroikia, Paros, shows a battle over a fallen warrior who is then carried off the battlefield and buried.
In many other scenes, the battlefield dead appear to be naked, stripped of their armour and weapons. Another amphora from this pair of polyandria shows a raid with a chariot, perhaps a similar kind of hit-and-run encounter as that which we can envision in the ship scenes. Thus, we see a scenario in which battles are increasingly the location at which one can accumulate a certain kind of wealth: weapons, armour, and perhaps women.
The warfare depicted in the Homeric epics is, in some ways, quite different from that depicted on Geometric pictorial pottery. Hans van Wees has detailed, at length, the differences in weapon use, and how the warfare in the epics looks much more similar to that depicted in seventh century vase painting. Nevertheless, we can see that certain values in the warfare of the Homeric epics are visible in eighth-century vase painting. It is likely, as Van Wees has also noted, that there was less difference between eighth- and seventh-century battle than we might assume.
Homeric combat includes many battles over the dead (e.g., Il. 16.755-764), as on the Paros amphora; these dead are also often stripped of their weapons and armour. The Iliad begins with a dispute over women, Chryseis and Briseis, captured in raids by Achilles against the cities and temples around Troy. The war at Troy is a battle for the return of a woman, Helen, who may have been taken against her will, or may have chosen to leave with her lover. The idea of combat for the return of a kidnapped woman would not have been alien to eighth-century Greeks.
Booty, too, is of supreme importance in the Homeric epics. When Agamemnon seizes Briseis from Achilles, whom he blames for the return of Chryseis to her father, Achilles withdraws from the battle not because of his concern for the woman, but because in taking his booty Agamemnon has offended his honour. Booty was a symbol of how great a warrior an individual was, whether it was an actual human woman or the equipment of a fallen enemy.
The scene on MMA 34.11.2 combines stock features of the emerging Geometric pictorial repertoire, alongside unique features that suggest the possibility of narrative. A ship has been beached and a raid has taken place in which a woman and a pair of Dipylon shields were captured. The offended party has launched a counter-attack on the ship, which is in progress.
In the context of the eighth-century Greek world, this narrative aligns with some features of the emerging epic poetry, with the changing settlement patterns, and other unusual scenes on pottery that seem to show captured warriors being stripped of their armour. Battle was perhaps one way in which the wealthy Athenians of the Dipylon cemetery achieved their status.
- Gudrun Ahlberg, Fighting on Land and Sea in Greek Geometric Art (1971).
- Cezary Kucewicz, The Treatment of the War Dead in Archaic Athens (2020).
- Hans van Wees, “The Homeric way of war: The Iliad and the hoplite phalanx”, Greece & Rome 41.1 (1994), pp. 1-18 and 41.2 (1994), pp. 131-55.
- Hans van Wees, Status Warriors: War, Violence and Society in Homer and History (1992).