UA Students Study Ancient Greek Pottery Techniques
Students are using a replica of an ancient Greek hand-operated potter's wheel to study how Greek pots were created.

By Alexis Blue, University Communications
May 1, 2013


Art student Steve Carcello crafts a pot on a replica of an ancient Greek pottery wheel as biology student Dan Pont measures the wheel's speed.
Art student Steve Carcello crafts a pot on a replica of an ancient Greek pottery wheel as biology student Dan Pont measures the wheel's speed. (Photo by Beatriz Verdugo/UANews)

On a sunny morning on the University of Arizona campus, art student Steve Carcello, dressed in a clay-spattered T-shirt and sunglasses, steps up to what might look to the casual passerby like a round wooden table. In moments, the "tabletop" becomes a spinning blur, propelled by Carcello's clay-coated hands.

Slowly, a pot begins to take shape in the middle. As the form grows, a fellow UA student stands alongside the wheel, taking measurements with a handheld tachometer, recording the wheel's number of revolutions per minute.

The students are engaged in hands-on research exploring how ancient Greek pottery was created, using a replica of an ancient hand-operated wheel.

With no known ancient Greek potter's wheels surviving from that era – just artists' depictions of what the wheels looked like – Carcello, a Master of Fine Arts student, made his own wheel, constructed from spruce and oak.

Unlike modern electric pottery wheels, which are equipped with foot pedals to make them spin, Carcello's wheel is operated entirely by hand. As suggested by Greek artists' renderings from about 600 B.C. to 450 B.C., potters would turn the wheel by hand themselves or with the help of an apprentice. 

Carcello built the wheel last semester as his research project for a Greek pottery class taught by Eleni Hasaki, UA associate professor of anthropology and classics.

"It was an unexpected success," Carcello said.

Now, under Hasaki's guidance, Carcello is part of an interdisciplinary research project exploring the art and technology of ancient Greek pottery.

While Carcello recreates Greek vessels on the wheel, Dan Pont, a senior majoring in biology and minoring in classics, focuses on the math and science behind the wheel, measuring how many revolutions per minute of the potter's wheel are required to create pieces of different sizes. With the help of Mike Jacobs, archaeological collections curator at the Arizona State Museum, Pont has also measured the weights of several ancient Greek pots to examine the correlation of pot size and required speed of the wheel.

Meanwhile, Katherine Bare, a freshman honor's student majoring in linguistics, has been studying ancient Greek drinking vessels as part of an honor's project, creating her own replicas in the School of Art's ceramics studio with assistance from Aurore Chabot, UA professor of ceramic art.

Together, the students are gaining insight into how ancient Greek potters achieved what they did.

"Through hands-on experience, they get an understanding of the techniques and challenges ancient Greek potters faced, and how these tools and these pots were used in society," said Hasaki, a native of Greece.

Much of the students' work is done at the in the School of Anthropology's Laboratory of Traditional Technology, an experimental archaeology lab, founded in 1983 by Michael Schiffer, Fred A. Riecker Distinguished Professor of Anthropology. Hasaki and anthropology professor Dave Killick are in line to take over the lab next year following Schiffer's retirement. A potter himself, Schiffer recently successfully formed several pots on the replica wheel.

"The students are using replicas to emulate what was being done 2,500 years ago," Hasaki said.

In addition to the hand-operated potter's wheel replica, the UA also owns and maintains replica of an ancient Greek kiln, housed at St. Augustine High School in Tucson. Funded by the Archaeological Institute of America, the kiln has been fired 10 times since its completion in 2004, and Hasaki hopes to use the kiln to fire some of the pieces created on the replica potter's wheel.

She says: "We're slowly recreating an entire potters' workshop."