Geometric Period 900 BC-700 BC

geometric-periodThe Geometric period in Greece, spanning from around 900 BC to 700 BC, is a pivotal era which came after the fall of the Mycenaean civilization and before the flowering of the classical Greek civilization. This era is particularly named for the geometric motifs and patterns observed in the art, especially pottery, of the time.

Following the collapse of the Mycenaean palatial centers, the Geometric period saw a reorganization of Greek society. Small, isolated communities emerged which were largely self-sufficient. This era witnessed a shift from the grandiose architectural projects of the Mycenaeans to more humble and localized constructions.

In the realm of art, the Geometric period is perhaps most famously noted for its pottery, which displayed intricate geometric patterns and designs. The early geometric period produced pottery with simple designs, but as time progressed, the designs became more complex and eventually began to depict human and animal figures. These geometric designs showcase a stark shift from the earlier Minoan and Mycenaean frescoes and pottery which were more focused on naturalistic depictions. The intricacy and discipline of geometric art reflect the social and political changes occurring during this transitional period.

Pottery was not merely an aesthetic pursuit but played a crucial role in everyday life as well as religious and funerary practices. It served as containers for food, wine, and olive oil, and was an essential part of trade, which slowly began to re-emerge during this period. Moreover, pottery and its associated artwork helped in rekindling trade relations with neighboring civilizations, acting as both commodities and communicative mediums reflecting Greek culture.

Apart from pottery, bronze work also became significant during the Geometric period. Small bronze sculptures were crafted, which showcased a more abstract and stylized human form when compared to later periods. This period also saw the establishment of sanctuaries, which later became significant religious centers in the Archaic and Classical periods.

On a societal level, the emergence of the polis, or city-state, was a major development during the Geometric period. This new political structure allowed for more localized governance and laid the groundwork for the political system that would dominate Greece in the centuries to come. The rudimentary formation of the polis during the Geometric period was crucial for the eventual political, social, and cultural development seen in the Archaic and Classical periods.

In terms of funerary practices, the Geometric period saw the emergence of monumental grave markers, showcasing a developing concern with commemoration and the afterlife. The dead were honored with geometrically decorated pottery, often depicting funerary scenes, and monumental grave markers which indicated a form of social hierarchy and familial pride.

The Geometric period, though often overshadowed by the subsequent glory of the Classical period, was a foundational era in Greek history. The period’s distinct artistry, evolving societal structures, and burgeoning political systems played a critical role in shaping the trajectory of Greek civilization, setting the stage for the magnificence of the classical Greek era that followed.

The transition from the Dark Ages to the Geometric period

The transition of Greece from the Dark Ages to the Geometric period began in the middle of the 9th century BC, when trade relations with the East – which had been interrupted after the collapse of the Mycenaean world – gradually began to be restored. The period that followed – from 900 to 700 BC. approx.- it is conventionally called “Geometric” from the geometric rhythm of pottery that was originally developed in Athens and spread to the rest of Greece. Although the rate of recovery was not uniform for all regions, during the 8th century there was a sharp rise in the standard of living throughout Hellas.

The contrast with the poverty of the previous centuries was so strong that this period is often called the “Hellenic Renaissance”. Archaeological evidence attests to a remarkable increase in population that led to a series of developments, which also indicate a change in social structures. The fact that there are more residential remains from this period shows a shift of the population to more permanent establishments. A major problem was the lack of arable land, which initially led to quarrels between neighboring cities – or even citizens of the same city – and resulted in the establishment of colonies in Asia Minor, the West and, to a lesser extent, the Black Sea.

The contact of the Greeks with the peoples of the East facilitated the cultural exchanges between them, most importantly the knowledge of alphabetic writing as well as the re-introduction of techniques that had been forgotten during the Dark Ages. Art experienced a remarkable flourishing, as there was a renewed interest in the rendering of figurative scenes in vase painting and metalwork. The composition of the Homeric epics dates back to these years, which were widely spread throughout Greece after the recovery of the knowledge of writing. At the same time, the fame of the great Panhellenic sanctuaries spread, while in 776 BC. according to tradition, the first Olympic Games took place.

Oriental influences

The first contacts of Greece with the Middle East are archaeologically attested as early as the beginning of the 2nd millennium BC. and continued until 1050 BC. ca., when overseas Mycenaean trade collapsed.

A period of relative but not absolute isolation followed, during which copper and gold, widely used in the Mycenaean years, disappeared. But already in the middle of the 11th century BC. the technique of processing iron spread to Greece – probably through Cyprus -. Trade relations with the East gradually began to be restored, as evidenced by the Greek pottery of the 10th century BC. found in Tire and the imported eastern objects in Crete dating from around 900 BC.

In the following century, Greek traders reappeared in the Aegean and the Mediterranean, following the example of the Phoenicians. They even established trading posts at Tarsus in Cilicia and Al Mina in Syria to facilitate imports from the East. In Greece, mainly metals and handicrafts made of metal and ivory were imported in exchange for agricultural products and pottery. In some cases it is considered possible that oriental artisans and palm merchants settled in Greece, mainly in the Dodecanese and Crete.

Contacts with the East peaked in the 8th century BC. and later and naturally the imported objects – the so-called orientalia – and their local imitations exerted a great influence on art, mainly on jewelry and metalwork. In the middle of the century, the Phoenician alphabet was introduced to Greece, the “Phoenician” letters according to Herodotus. Finally, in vase painting, the geometric character was preserved until the beginning of the 7th century BC. when in Athens and Corinth two different “oriental” rhythms were born -under the influence of Eastern art.

Use of the Alphabetical Scripture

An important element of the era is the use of alphabetic writing, which took place already from the first half of the 8th century, without knowing precisely the time of its introduction, which according to various theories ranges from the 11th to the 9th century. A definitive answer to this question can only be given after the discovery of some new element. According to one view, the Greeks received the alphabetic writing from the Phoenicians. The first evidence of this event is found in Herodotus, who refers to the Phoenician letters. This information is repeated by Diodorus the Sicilian in his “Library”.

As is known, the Greeks adapted the Phoenician alphabet to the needs of their language, adding the double consonants (Φ, X, Ξ, Ψ) and the vowels, which were an invention of the Greeks. According to other opinions, the Greek alphabet comes from the Mycenaean writings (linear B’). According to Roger Woodard, the creators of the alphabet combined the symphonic script of the Phoenicians with Greek and the syllabic script of Cyprus. This writing found a strong basis in Greece, where there was no writing at that time. According to Barry Powell, the Greek alphabet was invented specifically to record the Homeric Epics, but his propositions are based on assumptions that can hardly be proven.

The two oldest inscriptions of Greek alphabetic writing come from: the first from a wine cellar found in Dipylos and dated around 750 – 725 BC. and the second from an inscribed vase, known as Nestor’s glass, from the Pithikousa colony dating from 750 – 700 BC. Since the Chalcidians and Eretrians settled in Pithecuses around 750 – 725 BC, this inscription is contemporary with the first generation of settlers. Since the colonists, therefore, brought writing with them, logically the use of writing will precede the metropolises, probably older than the 8th century, at the end of the 9th century.

Geometric Art

geometric-artThe geometric art was the art that developed from the 11th to the 8th century BC, during the geometric era. It is called geometric from the geometric designs that adorn the clay vessels. Also, the figures of people and animals are geometric, whether they are painted on vases or clay or bronze figurines. The most impressive vases of the geometric style were made in Athens during the second half of the 8th century BC; their use was funerary, an element that often determines their decoration.

It is noteworthy that the largest of these vases were not used as urns, but as burial monuments (signs). This explains the fact that their dimensions are in some cases really impressive. The shapes always refer to wine and the banquet, i.e. amphorae (for transporting the wine) or kraters (for mixing the wine with water). Knowing that banqueting is a preeminently aristocratic activity, it is easy to understand the impression created by such brilliant vases placed over the tombs of the most prominent and wealthy citizens and their families.

The decoration of these truly monumental vases is geometric, with linear ornaments organized in overlapping bands, between which rows of uniform animals may be interspersed. But the most noticeable element is the often multifaceted narrative performances, always placed where the viewer’s eye first falls, between the handles. The subjects are mainly taken from burial customs, as the use of vessels dictates. One of the most brilliant examples is the so-called amphora of Dipylos (fig. 18), in which the intention is depicted, i.e. the exposure of the deceased to the public expressing his mourning. Human figures are rendered in the schematic manner used by geometric art: the head and limbs are shown in profile while the body is frontal.

geometric-art-vaseThus the artist (whom we conventionally call the “Dipylos painter”), by combining the most characteristic aspects, creates a simple and recognizable image that can be easily repeated, like a hieroglyphic symbol. So it should not surprise us that the body of the deceased (it is a woman dressed in a long tunic) appears perpendicular to the bed on which it is lying, nor that the cloth covering it is depicted a little higher as a rectangle with two small projections and an abacus decoration.

Around the bed are depicted people (mostly men), mourning with their hands on their heads. The structuring of the forms makes the representation easy to read. On a large krater by another, probably slightly younger, Athenian potter, we see the exhumation of a dead man, i.e. his transportation to the burial place, in a carriage pulled by two horses. The scene is flanked by two lines of men who follow the procession in mourning. We see that the bodies of the animals are joined together, while their heads and legs are separated; thus indicating that they are placed parallel, right next to each other. A little further down is a zone with a chariot procession of warriors. The men’s bodies are covered by their large, distinctively shaped shields.

At this time, however, we also find other representations on the geometric vases, such as battles or wild animal hunts. It is possible that some of these scenes are taken from myths known from epic poetry, although the absence of clear pictorial elements does not allow us to say this with certainty. In some cases, however, such an interpretation seems very likely. Thus the depiction of a man holding a woman’s hand next to a warship with rowers, which decorates a late 7th century BC bathhouse immediately brings to mind the most famous mythical abduction, that of Helen from Paris.