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New evidence on the von Mercklin class of rhyta: a black-gloss rhyton from Agrileza, Laureion, Attica

  • Susanne Ebbinghaus (a1) and J. Ellis Jones (a2)


From the 1997 excavations at a Lavrion silver-mine ore washery, Agrileza Compound B, datable to the fourth century BC, came a fragmentary black gloss ram head rhyton of the so-called von Mercklin Class. The rhyton from Agrileza is at present the only known example of this group with a well-defined archaeological context, and is therefore taken as the basis for a review of the regional and chronological attributions of von Mercklin rhyta in several European museums. A discussion of the relationship of these rhyta to the much more common and better known Attic red-figure animal-head vases sketches the background against which the rare occurrence of pouring vessels with animal foreparts in the repertoire of mainland Greek potters has to be seen.



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1 The authors wish to thank Dr G. Steinhauer, Ephor of Antiquities, 2nd Attic Ephorate of Prehistoric and Classical Antiquities, and Dr E. B. Kakavoyiannis of the same Ephorate, Director of the Joint Greek–British excavations at Agrileza in 1997, and likewise the British School at Athens for permission to publish this note ahead of the full report of the Agrileza excavations. S. Ebbinghaus is grateful to J. E. Jones for inviting her to collaborate on this note, and to Dr H. Kienast of the Deutsches Archäologisches Institut for help with obtaining a study permit. For the opportunity to study relevant material she would like to thank Dr G. Steinhauer and Dr E. Kakavoyiannis of the 2nd Attic Ephorate, the staff of Laureion and Peiraieus Museums, Mrs U. Kästner of the Antikensammlung in Berlin, Ms M. Comstock and Dr J. J. Herrmann of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and Dr Dyfri Williams of the British Museum.

The following abbreviations are used:

Adoption = Miller, M. C., ‘Adoption and adaptation of Achaemenid metalware forms in Attic black-gloss ware of the fifth century’, Archäologische Mitteilungen aus Iran, 26 (1993), 109–46.

Agora, xii = Sparkes, B. A. and Talcott, L., The Athenian Agora: Black and Plain Pottery of the 6th, 5th and 4th Centuries BC (Princeton, 1970).

Agora, xxix = Rotroff, S. I., The Athenian Agora: Hellenistic Pottery (Princeton, 1997).

Antiken = E. von Mercklin, ‘Antiken im Hamburgischen Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe’, AA 1928, 335–40.

ARR = Hoffmann, H., Attic Red-Figured Rhyta (Mainz, 1962).

Greek Vases, 4 = Hoffmann, H., ‘Rhyta and kantharoi in Greek ritual’, Greek Vases in the J. Paul Getty Museum, 4 (1989), 131–66.

Rhyta Addendum = Hoffmann, H., ‘Attic and Tarentine rhyta: addendum’, in Cambitoglou, A. (ed.), Studies in Honour of Arthur Dale Trendall (Sydney, 1979), 93–5.

Schwarzfirmskeramik = Kopcke, G., ‘Golddekorierte attische Schwarzfirniskeramik des vierten Jahrhunderts v. Chr.’, AM 79 (1964). 2284.

TR = Hoffmann, H., Tarentine Rhyta (Mainz, 1966).

2 Antiken.

3 Hoffmann, H., ‘The Persian origin of Attic rhyta’, Antike Kunst, 4 (1961), 23 n. 23; TR 139 n. 33; Rhyta Addendum, 94; Greek Vases, 4, 163 n. 200.

4 The vessel from Peiraieus was brought to our attention by Dr Maria Stamatopoulou.

5 AR 31 (19841985), 106–23; BSA 89 (1994), 307–58; AR 42 (19951996), 45; AR 43 (19961997), 1011; AR 44 (19971998), 1213; AR 45 (19981999), 10.

6 Thanks are due to Miss Photini Spanou and Miss Constantina Voutsa for the restoration of the rhyton at Laureion Museum.

7 Cf. Antiken. The term ‘von Mercklin Class’ was coined by H. Hoffmann. He follows Beazley, who employed the ‘class’ for vases with related potter-work, referring to shape, and reserved the term ‘group’ for the classification of drawing styles: ARR 1; cf. Robertson, M. in Carpenter, T. H. et al. , Beazley Addenda (Oxford, 1989), p. xvi. Such a differentiation is not relevant for the present note, where both terms will be used intermittently.

8 Ashmolean Museum inv. 1974.350; bought in Athens; greatest preserved length c. 6 cm: Greek Vases, 4, 163–4 n. 200, fig. 30. Note the reserved band which runs across the forehead on both examples.

9 Compiled in ARR; for some addenda cf. Rhyta Addendum, 93–4; Greek Vases, 4, 142–3, figs. 9 a–c (correct no. 86.AE.699); 146, fig. 13; 149–50, figs. 17 a–b; 150–1, figs. 18 a–c.

10 TR 106.

11 CVA Kassel, ii (1975), 58.

12 Cf. Greek Vases, 4, 163, taken up by Miller in Adoption, 123.

13 Compare the following pieces from the Kerameikos or other locations in Athens: Schwarzfirniskeramik, 63–4, Beil. 9. 2, 10. 2, 29. 1, 34. 12–13 (charm necklace) and 62, Beil. 14. 2, 36, 38, 45. 10 (olive garland); see also Agora, xii. 20 and Agora, xxix. 49, 59–61, ill. 1. The charm necklace on the Berlin hound's-head rhyton is simpler than the standard Attic ones: it lacks the fillets hung on the string between the ‘charms’, which might have been a later enrichment.

14 On most examples, the gloss has fired brown or brownish-black in parts, while it has come off in many spots on the Berlin hound. As is noted in Agora, xii. 2: ‘… excessive regard for the brilliant blue-black glaze of the Attic products should not blind the investigator to the fact that Attic glaze may be dull, peeled, worn and thin, and may fire red, green, brown and other colors or combinations of colors. At its best, Attic glaze is unsurpassed and immediately recognizable; at its worst, it is no better than the glazing of its less competent neighbors with which it may easily be confused.’

15 Pouring holes: ARR nos. 52, 69, 96, 99, 104–5 (stemmed), 112, 114 (stemmed), 118; this is also true for ARR nos. 52, 97–8, 117 (presence of pouring holes not noted by Hoffmann); Palladion, Basel: Antike Kunst (Milan, 1976), 40–1 nos. 39 a–b; Sotheby's New York, 24–5 Nov. 1987 no. 130.

16 Black gloss is now applied not only to the heads of hounds and boars, but also to the faces of deer, goat, ram, and donkey: e.g. ARR nos. 53, 101, 104, 106–9, 111, 114–15, 124. The beginnings of this tendency may be traced back to the workshop of Sotades, and the so-called ‘Miniature Class’: ARR 23, nos. 25 bis, 26, 31, 39–40, 44. Alternatively, late heads such as ARR no. 118 may be reserved with remains of white slip.

17 Tendrils only: ARR nos. 53, 107–8, 110, and the New York market piece mentioned above in n. 15.

18 e.g. on a bull's-head cup in Boston (ARR no. 111). Generally, too little information is available on the interior treatment of animal-head vessels and related shapes.

19 For the development of the iconography cf. Greek Vases, 4, 141, table 2; in ARR 24, Hoffmann attributes the creation of the goat's-head vessel to Sotades.

20 Cf. ARR pls., passim.

21 ARR nos. 111 and 114, pl. 19.

22 Similar rim mouldings occur on a number of 4th c. black-gloss kantharoi; in many cases, these rims are taller, hollow, and seem more suitable for drinking: see below, n. 31.

23 Both red-figure and von Mercklin deer share what Hoffmann, ARR 43 describes as ‘a marked fondness for patterning facial details’; similarly, both groups emphasize the eyes, but those of the latter protrude rather than being covered by heavy, corrugated brows. Compare Schwarzfirniskeramik, Beil. 8 and Greek Vases, 4, figs. 27–8 to ARR pls. 20. 3–4, 21 and Sichtermann, H., Griechische Vasen in Unteritalien (Tübingen, 1966), pl. 39.

24 Schreiber, T., Athenian Vase Construction: A Potter's Analysis (Malibu, 1999), 236–41 gives a well-illustrated description of how animal-head vessels were produced in clay.

25 Cf. Pfrommer, M., ‘Italien—Makedonien—Kleinasien: Interdependenzen spätklassischer und frühhellenistischer Toreutik’, Jdl 98 (1983), 265–85; Ebbinghaus, S., ‘Between Greece and Persia: rhyta in Thrace from the late 5th to the early 3rd centuries BC’, in Tsetskhladze, G. (ed.), Ancient Greeks West and East (Leiden, 1999), 397405; Academy, Royal exh. cat. In Pursuit of the Absolute: Art of the Ancient World from the George Ortiz Collection (Bern, 1994), nos. 152, 154; TR pls., passim.

26 These schematic folds are prefigured on a red-figure ram's head in Munich (ARR no. 123, pl. 24. 1–2), and a wrinkled nose is generally more common for sheep. Some furrows occur also on the muzzles of Apulian deer: TR pls. 40, 41. 1.

27 Note, however, that Hoffmann's dates (TR 105–8) for the South Italian vessels seem somewhat low in the light of the research carried out by Trendall and others since the 1960s: see e.g. Trendall, A. D. and Cambitoglou, A., The Red-Figured Vases of Apulia (Oxford, 1978), 135, 139 no. 31; 1047 no. 31 a (Painter of Karlsruhe B 9, c. 380–360 BC); 192, 202 nos. 88–97 (Iliupersis Painter, c. 375–350 BC); Trendall, A. D. and Cambitoglou, A., Second Supplement to The Red-Figured Vases of Apulia (BICS Suppl. 60; London, 1992), 48 nos. 88a–c, 91 a–b.

28 Sparkes argues that red-figure and black-gloss pottery were largely produced in the same workshops: Agora, xii. 13–14; Sparkes, B. A., Greek Pottery: An Introduction (Manchester, 1991), 103–4.

29 ARR 44; quote from ARV 2 1550. Compare Beazley's remarks on the (human) head vases of Class W (i.e. the Persian Class) in CVA Oxford, i (1927), 1011 and Charinos’, JHS 49 (1929), 75: ‘… and the pictures, though not all by the same hand, are all in the same general style, the florid, sub-Meidian style current at the beginning of the fourth century’

30 ARR no. 112.

31 Cf. Agora, xii. 117–19, 122; Agora, xxix. 83, 85, 87.

32 Schwarzfirniskeramik, 56, 58 n. 26; comments by Rotroff, 33 Agora, xxix. 40 n. 23.

33 AR 24 (19771978), 1315; 25 (1978–9), 6–7; 26 (1979–80), 17-19; 28 (1981–2), 12–13; 31 (1984–5), 106 ff, esp. 122–3; 42 (1995–6), 4–5 (washery B); 44 (1997–8), 12–13 (Compound B). Parallels can be noted among the latest types discussed in Agora, xii. and the earliest (late 4th–early 3rd c.) considered by Rotroff in Agora, xxix; and also among the material found at the Vari House, dated c. 325–275 BC: BSA 68 (1973), 373–81, 414–18.

34 Among the finds from Compound B there is also the fragment of a kantharos with rouletting on its interior, a decorative feature assumed to have ceased before c. 325 BC; cf. Agora, xii. 118, 120–1; Agora, xxix. 37. In contrast to the rhyton, however, much less survives of this vase.

35 Cf. Greek Vases, 4, 163.

36 Agora inv. P 17461: Agora, xxix. 205, 377 no. 1384.

37 It is part of a group of objects of various dates recovered by members of the Agora staff from a trench for a drain in Pnyx Steet in December 1932.

38 In the case of the Hamburg boar, the beige clay ground has been mistaken for white paint applied to the tusks: Hoffmann, H., Kunst des Altertums in Hamburg (Mainz, 1961), 25.

39 Quote from Agora, xii. 2; on black-gloss with painted decoration in Corinth see now McPhee, I., ‘Stemless bell-kraters from Ancient Corinth’, Hesp. 66 (1997), 99145.

40 Prag, A. J. N. W., Scott, J., and Korou, N. are currently preparing a monograph entitled The Provenance of Greek Black Glaze Pottery: A Study by Neutron Activation Analysis (BAR, forthcoming).

41 Compare Zahn, R., Vereinigung der Freunde Antiker Kunst in Berlin, Bericht über das VIII. und IX. Geschäftsjahr (Berlin, 1922), 22: ‘Die genaue Kenntnis des Fundorts verdanken wir Geh. Rat Professor Fabricius in Freiburg i. B. Er kam nämlich im Mai desjahres 1885 gerade dazu, wie Bauern des Dorfes Proskyna, das 8 km östlich von den Ruinen der alten Stadt Opus in Lokris liegt, Gräber geplündert hatten …’

42 A black-gloss rhyton in Faenza, Museo Internazionale delle Ceramiche 23169 shares all the characteristics of the von Mercklin Class, but the prominent veins of the deer's head find closer parallels among Apulian examples: Sassatelli, G. (ed.), Le ceramiche egee, nuragiche, fenicio-puniche e magno-greche (Faenza, 1995), 39, 156–7 no. 269, compare TR pl. 39. Certain features of the von Mercklin Class occur also on vessels such as TR no. 131, pls. 15. 3–4 and Allard Pierson Museum, Amsterdam: Griekse, Etruskische en Romeinse kunst (Amsterdam, 1984), 72–3, fig. 58 right. Add finally a fragmentary sheep's-head rhyton in Leipzig, Antikenmuseum der Universität T 749: Gymnasium, 74 (1967), pl. 21. 2.

43 Cf. n. 25 above.

44 For example on the calyx crater in Athens, National Museum 11559 (ARV 1437. 14) and on a number of bell craters: Adoption, 126 n. 106, pls. 26. 1, 27. 1–2.

45 Dentzer, J.-M. has calculated that 71 of 113 Attic hero reliefs show the banqueter with rhyton and bowl: Le motif du Banquet couché dans le Proche-Orient et le monde grec du VIIe au IVe siècle avant J.-C. (Rome, 1982), 314, with many illustrations in the plates section.

46 On rhyta in the Persian Empire cf. Tuchelt, K., Tiergefäße in Kopf- und Protomengestalt (Berlin, 1962), 83–9, 99. Many more examples in various media have since become known; a selection of silver rhyta may be found in the following catalogues: Muscarella, O. W. (ed.), Ancient Art: The Norbert Schimmel Collection (Mainz, 1974) no. 155; Royal Academy cat. (n. 25) no. 206; Santrot, J. (ed.), Arménie: Trésors de l'Arménie ancienne (Paris, 1996) nos. 181–2; Metropolitan Museum of Art: Ancient Art from the Shumei Family Collection (New York, 1996) nos. 15–16. This material is discussed in Ebbinghaus, S., ‘Rhyta with Animal Foreparts in the Achaemenid Empire and Their Reception in the West’ (Ph.D. diss., University of Oxford, 1998), 46108.

47 Compare the silver drinking vessel with the protome of a Pegasus listed in the Parthenon inventories at the end of the 5th c. BC: Miller, M. C., Athens and Persia in the Fifth Century BC (Cambridge, 1997), 143–4.

48 A local form which in the case of the animal-head cup had itself been adapted from an oriental vessel type about a century earlier. Gf. Adoption, 116–7, 122–6, 130; Miller (n. 47), 136, 141–4, 147.

49 The formal characteristics of the preserved metal rhyta are more closely reflected in the bent animal-head vessels of terracotta made in Southern Italy (Hoffmann's ‘Main Group’), which hardly ever show the low placing of the handle typical for Attic products: TR pls., passim. Pfrommer (n. 25), 284 considers the effects of Alexander's sending parts of the booty from the battle at the Granikos to Kroton.

50 Adoption, 111–2. See now Zimmerman, N., Beziehungen zwischen Ton- und Metallgefäßen spätklassischer und frühhellemstischer Zeit (Rahden/Westf., 1998) for a careful discussion of the relationship between clay and metal vessels of selected shapes.

51 This information is again taken from the Berlin inventory; compare Zahn (n. 41), 22.

52 Many Apulian rhyta of the ‘Main Group’, i.e. the bent examples, have heavily moulded rims which would be awkward to drink from, while at the same time lacking a pouring hole. Generally, only the upper part of the interior is covered with black gloss: TR 2, 106.

53 Cf. the remarks on ‘devolution’ in Miller (n. 47), 253–5, fig. 150. Meidias boasting of his rhyta: Demosthenes, Meidias, 158; involvement in mining activities: ibid. 167. Meidias' name appears in inscriptions recording the leases of silver mines at Laureion: cf. Crosby, M., ‘The leases of the Laurion mínes’, Hesp. 19 (1950), 204.

54 SE does not share the view expressed by Hoffmann in Greek Vases, 4 and most recently in his monograph Sotades: Symbols of Immortality on Greek Vases (Oxford, 1998), 417, namely that Greek animal-head vessels (indiscriminately called ‘rhyta’ by Hoffmann) were at all times and as if a priori connected with heroic ritual and immortality; cf. Ebbinghaus (n. 46), 263–82. The heroic connection can in fact be shown to be an acquired function, as has already been suspected by Dentzer (n. 45), 564.

55 Crosby (n. 53), 193, with an index to the names of the mines on pp. 306–8.

56 Cf. Jones, J. E., ‘Another Eleusinian kernos from Lavrion’, BSA 77 (1982), 192–9.

57 The following pieces have been omitted from the list, as more detailed information has not been available: Rome, Museo Barraco 269 (Hoffmann (n. 3), 23 n. 23); Chios Museum (Rhyta Addendum, 94); Zürich market (Greek Vases, 4, 163 n. 200). The vessel in Princeton, University Art Museum y 49–14, mentioned by Hoffmann in 1961, is in fact an unspouted animal head cup which Hoffmann himself has listed as Tarentine: TR no. 358.

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New evidence on the von Mercklin class of rhyta: a black-gloss rhyton from Agrileza, Laureion, Attica

  • Susanne Ebbinghaus (a1) and J. Ellis Jones (a2)


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