An Attic white-ground lekythos
Description: The body of the vase is covered with a slip of white clay. On it, in a delicate glaze outline, we see a grave stele with red sashes tied around it. On either side are a boy and a girl. The boy wears a red cloak and holds a stick in his left hand. All we can see of the girl is her head. The figures have been outlined with dilute paint that fires to a yellowish brown. The red is added afterwards.
Purpose: The lekythos, a vessel for oil, became a standard offering to the dead. White-ground lekythoi, like this one, were particularly favoured for this purpose in the second half of the fifth century BC. Indeed, because of the white ground, vessels like this would not have withstood constant use.
An economical solution: A notable feature of the construction of these white-ground lekythoi is beautifully revealed in this example in the ANU Classics Museum. Since the offering of oil was a mark of respect to the dead, the vase was always to appear full. But it was considered wasteful (as we shall see) to dedicate so much oil—a precious commodity--for this purpose. So a small container was concealed inside the upper body of the lekythos, attached to the neck. This inner container would have needed only a few spoonfuls to fill it—that is, to allow the graveside vessel to appear to be brimming with oil.
The evidence: The ANU Classics Museum vessel had been broken (before it was purchased by us!) and reconstructed. But the adhesive used at the neck was inadequate. Some decades ago the neck of the vessel became separated from the body—and revealed, for all to see, the sly ‘trickery’ practised by these specialist potters.
There is another clue to the internal construction of white-ground lekythoi: since the inner container sealed off the inside of the vase, a hole had to be made to let air escape during firing. This is often placed as it is on our vessel, on the shoulder of the vessel near the root of the handle.
The painter: The painter of our lekythos has been identified as the so-called Thanatos-painter (‘thanatos’ means death), because he painted some fine scenes depicting Death and Sleep carrying off a dead man. He was a pupil of the so-called Achilles-painter; he was a specialist in lekythoi like ours.
Do come and look at the ANU Classics Museum’s white-ground lekythos. It is on the lowest shelf of Case 3 in the collection (Archaic and Classical Greece). At the moment it is displayed as two pieces, so that you may inspect its cunning construction. In the meanwhile, check out a few more images of the artefact below: