This object is a squat lekythos. Or, at least, that’s what it was until it lost its neck and its handle. With this amount of damage, it’s really not much more than a broken fragment of black-and-red pottery, about 4.5 cms tall and 5.5 cms across. Apparently with zero potential as a subject for a Random Treasure blog posting. So, perhaps this will only be a short piece. After all, how much can there be to write about an item as insignificant as this? We’ll see.
This little ruin arrived very recently as part of a mixed lot of small pieces including a glass boat, a menagerie of charming miniature pottery animals, a pressed glass plate made in 1894 to commemorate the opening of the Manchester Ship Canal, some old ink bottles, a glass fishing net float and a broken metal candlestick. The lot also included another damaged but plainer squat lekythos, and a spindle flask or unguentarium. There were 23 pieces altogether, and I won them all with a bid of just £10. With buyer’s premium and VAT added, the bill came to £12.40. That’s very slightly less than 54 pence per item.
Several pieces from the lot have already found their way into the box to be taken to the charity shop. The pottery animals have been put aside to amuse the grandchildren. The pressed glass plate has been sold on eBay to a buyer in Salford, very close to the canal whose opening it commemorates.
I’m keeping three items: the squat lekythos and its companion, and the spindle flask. The first three antiquities to enter my collection, price 54 pence each.
I had a notion that these three little pots were ancient when I viewed them in the saleroom, but of course I didn’t know anything specific about them. Now, after half an hour’s online research, I’m an expert. Let me enlighten you. It’s time for some mansplaining about my Attic terracotta red-figure-decorated 5th-century BC squat lekythos. Stand by.
A lekythos (plural lekythoi) “is a type of ancient Greek vessel used for storing oil (Greek λήκυθος), especially olive oil”. It has a single handle and a narrow neck with a flared rim but no pouring spout. It was used at baths and gymnasiums and for funerary offerings – which means, I think, that oil was stored in a lekythos for cosmetic and ritual purposes and not for frying ancient Greek sausages.
Lekythoi were first used near the start of the 6th century BC, and over the next couple of centuries, as pottery techniques and fashions changed and developed, so did the characteristic shape and decoration of the lekythos. Early examples have an elongated oval body, then developing into a shouldered shape, and later still into the squat lekythos with a short globular body and long neck. Earlier lekythoi were decorated in the black-figure style or (for funerary lekythoi) the white-ground technique, but in later times, the decorators tended to use the red-figure technique.
With me so far? The Wikipedia entry on red-figure vase painting is highly detailed and unusually readable, so if you want to know more about this style, I recommend that you click on this link: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red-figure_pottery.
“Red-figure vase painting is one of the most important styles of figural Greek vase painting. It developed in Athens around 520 BC and remained in use until the late 3rd century BC. It replaced the previously dominant style of black-figure vase painting within a few decades. Its modern name is based on the figural depictions in red colour on a black background, in contrast to the preceding black-figure style with black figures on a red background.” 
My squat lekythos shows a simple side view of a plump naked figure (gender uncertain), lying on his or her front supported by the elbows and contemplating something-or-other (a plant? a snake?) which is rearing up before it. An enigmatic scene, but not a unique one. Descriptions of other similar objects describe the figure as a child or a baby. For comparison, there’s one in the British Museum  (middle), and another in the Royal Albert Memorial Museum, Exeter  (right).
One wonders if perhaps this type of squat lekythos showing figures of babies or children might have been especially labelled for containing baby oil? Why not?
There is nothing rare about these objects. if you search for images of “red figure squat lekythos”, you’ll see pictures of hundreds or thousands of them. It seems that altogether some 65,000 red-figure vases and fragments of all shapes and sizes have survived to be studied and catalogued. My squat lekythos increases that total to 65,001. Many of the examples of the genre that you see illustrated are unbelievably sophisticated and beautiful works of art made by identified (but for the most part unnamed) painters, and thousands have been preserved in unbelievably good condition. I guess we can assume that these objects adorned the homes and the graves of the rich and powerful citizens of ancient Athens.
By contrast, my modest, rather crudely-decorated squat lekythos is not particularly beautiful or elegant. Does this therefore indicate that it’s a cheap gewgaw that would have belonged not to a rich and powerful Athenian citizen, but instead to someone rather lower in the social hierarchy? I don’t know the answer to this question but, my on the basis of my scant knowledge of daily life in Athens, my guess is that a squat lekythos would not in fact be a treasured item for a poor person. I think it would merely be a piece of throwaway packaging for a rich person.
But even if it’s just a broken piece of throwaway packaging, I have no doubt whatsoever about its authenticity – which means that for 54 pence I bought something made around 2,400 years ago. For comparison, the British Museum example illustrated above is dated circa 450-400 BC; the Exeter museum is more coy about the date of its example, simply saying that it’s ancient Greek.
Wow! But that’s really old! If you think about it, it’s very much too old for it to have rested for all this time on someone’s shelf in someone’s house. That wouldn’t be feasible. So the only possible explanation for its longevity is that it must have emerged at some time in the relatively recent past (say in the last century or two) from an archaeological excavation, probably but not necessarily in Greece where it was manufactured.
Likewise for the other two 54 pence antiquities that were included in my job lot. One is a second squat lekythos with handle and neck lacking, painted black with rings carved into the terracotta but without red figure decoration. I’m guessing that this is from much the same date (circa 400 BC) and geographical area (Athens) as the red figure example. The other is an unglazed terracotta spindle flask or unguentarium, a perfume container from the Hellenistic period in the 2nd – 1st century BC, perhaps originating in Cyprus.
The sheer oldness of these objects gives rise to several random observations:
- First observation: On the longevity of ceramics. This is an unoriginal thought, but ceramic objects, especially pottery vessels, have two successive existences: firstly, for tens or hundreds of years on shelves and tables as useful and/or decorative home objects; and secondly, after breakage, for hundreds or thousands of years in the ground as broken shards. This, of course, is why pottery is such a key class of material for archaeologists: textile, leather and bone rot, iron rusts, paint fades, bronze and precious metals and gems are scarce, but ancient pottery is plentiful and ubiquitous. It goes on and on and on and every shard retains its own history and its own stories virtually in perpetuity.
- Second observation: On the evanescence of ephemera. My baby oil container is 2,400 years old. If you throw out a plastic baby oil container now, or even a glass one with a paper label, will a collector be able to recognise it for what it is and describe it in detail in 2,400 years’ time? Unlikely. A plastic bottle is estimated to take 450 years to biodegrade , a period which will reduce drastically as recycling becomes universal. So in the year 2520, an archaeologist might still be able to dig up a baby oil bottle from 400 BC, but won’t have any chance of finding one from 2020 AD. Unless of course someone has the foresight to preserve an example in a museum right now, in order to show scholars of the distant future how primitive humans of the twenty-first century oiled their babies.
- Third observation: On provenance and ownership of antiquities. Most antiquities remained in the ground for millennia waiting to be dug up by archaeologists, but digging for antiquities is in itself a venerable pastime. For western objects, particularly those from ancient Greece and Rome, serious excavation started during the Renaissance, when scholars, collectors and artists began to investigate ancient ruins. So, for the last few hundred years, up until the present, antiquities by the million have been discovered, looted, stolen, bought, sold, imported and exported throughout the world. But who owns them? Is it a simple matter of “finders keepers”? Is it fair that so much of the ancient cultural heritage of southern Europe and the near East (and elsewhere) has been plundered and removed by archaeologists and adventurers to other countries? Is it legal? These are hugely controversial questions and well beyond the scope of this blog. But at my nano-scale should I be asking if my squat lekythos is really mine, or should I send it back to Greece? There is in fact an answer to this question. In effect an antiquity takes on a new life and has its clock reset as soon as it emerges from an excavation. Laws on the removal and exportation of antiquities have developed exponentially since the UNESCO Convention was signed in 1970 , and for most antiquities from most countries there’s an excavation date after which objects should be accompanied by provenance documentation to prove that they are kosher. In the case of my two squat lekythoi and my spindle flask, it seems perfectly clear that they were collected (or bought, or stolen, or looted) and imported to Britain long enough ago for them to have become British antiques as well as Greek antiquities. And in addition they are so insignificant that no-one in Greece is likely to ask for them to be repatriated anyway. After all, the National Archaeological Museum in Athens already has 6,000 ancient Greek vases on display .
- Fourth observation: On the market value of antiquities. How is it possible in 2020 to buy three fascinating two-millennia-old objects for just 54 pence each? It’s madness! Is it merely that they were on a shelf in the auction room grouped in a single lot with 20 other tiny artefacts and no-one noticed them there but me? Possibly. I guess that if the three objects had been lotted together or offered individually, and if they had been properly identified and catalogued, then the price would have been significantly higher. But a busy local auctioneer doesn’t have enough time to do that sort of thing so I got lucky. But it’s difficult to establish a market value for a broken red-figure squat lekythos, because although there are thousands of them in existence (the British Museum has 139 squat lethykoi illustrated in its online collection, plus a few hundred more catalogued but not yet photographed), they seldom come onto the market. My impression is that collecting everyday antiquities is a rather brainy, dusty, nerdy, non-instagrammable, antiquated sort of pastime, and that demand for low-level and damaged items is severely depressed. By contrast, top-end objects are, of course, buoyant in the market. Two examples: a beautiful squat lekythos in perfect condition sold at Bonhams in 2018 for £1,750 ; and a magnificent 39.4 cm tall red-figure vase or krater was sold at Christie’s in 2016 for £182,500 .
My two squat lekythoi and the spindle flask or unguentarium will have to stay with me because they are simply too interesting to part with. But they are also problematic because, frankly, they’re a bit of a nuisance. They are insignificant-looking and won’t display nicely. The spindle flask won’t stand up unsupported. All three pieces are delicate and need to be protected from further damage and deterioration. If I show them to my grandchildren I’ll get blank expressions.
So they will probably go into a box with some tissue paper, and will be put somewhere to gather dust. And then one day, hopefully later rather than sooner, someone will be clearing the attic and will say “here are some pieces of dull broken pottery that mad old Grandpa has put in a box, God knows why. Suppose we’d better stick them in the local auction along with all the other inexplicable junk”. And so they will likely change hands again at 54 pence a pop. Thus their survival will extend ever into the future, unappreciated but indestructible echoes of art and life in a classical civilisation receding into the increasingly distant past. Sic non transit gloria mundi.