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Exekias, amphora with Ajax and Achilles playing a game

A conversation between Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker in front of an Attic black figure amphora by Exekias (potter and painter), archaic period, c. 540-530 B.C.E., 61.1 cm high, found Vulci (Gregorian Etruscan Museum, Vatican). Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(jazz music) Dr. Zucker: We're in the Etruscan Museum in the Vatican Museums in Rome and we're looking at my favorite pot in the entire world. Dr. Harris: I can see why it's your favorite pot. It seems to almost glow. Dr. Zucker: The thing that makes it so fabulous is we have these two heroes and we have a very simple image, but it's giving us so much information. Dr. Harris: The heroes are Achilles on the left and Ajax on the right, two of the great Greek heroes featured in Homer's Iliad and Exekias, the potter, who signed only two pots as the potter and the painter, has identified these two figures by including their names above them, but he's also telling us what's happening between the two. Achilles on the left is saying the word "four". Dr. Zucker: You can see "tesara". Dr. Harris: And on the right, we see Ajax, saying "three". Dr. Zucker: "Tri". Dr. Harris: We know immediately that Achilles is winning the game that they're playing. Dr. Zucker: But this is, of course, a metaphor for the way that this myth will unfold. Dr. Harris: On either side we see their shields. Achilles still has his helmet on, although Ajax has taken his off. A moment of relaxation between battles. Dr. Zucker: They're on the battlefield of Troy, but Exekias has given us even more information than this, not simply the rolls of the dice, but in a larger sense, their fate. Look at the way, for example, that both figures are hunched over and clearly focused on the game at hand. Remember, these two men are really close friends, so there's an intimacy here, brotherhood. Nevertheless, Achilles, who has the higher roll, is holding his spears loosely. You can see the way the points are actually separating. At the bottom, you can see from the lines, they're not as parallel, but look at the figure on the right, Ajax, whose spears are held in a more parallel way, so that we know that he's actually clenching with his fist, he's tense. Dr. Harris: I even sense a little bit of that tension in his brow. Dr. Zucker: That's right. If you look at the brow really closely, you can see that Achilles has a single incised line to represent his eyebrow, but Ajax has a double line and it is a subtle clue that perhaps there's a little bit of tension there. One other detail that can be easily seen, although it's really subtle, look at the feet of both figures. Achilles, again, is relaxed. His heel is on the ground line, but Ajax, his heel is picked up ever so slightly, so you can see just a little bit of light underneath it, which means his calf is engaged, those muscles are tense, his body is tense. Dr. Harris: He's also a little bit more hunched over. His head is a little bit lower than that of his friend Achilles. That does seem to mean something wider than just this board game. Dr. Zucker: Anybody who was looking at this pot in the ancient world would have known the story of Ajax and Achilles that Homer tells, as you said, in the Iliad. Achilles is a great hero. In fact, as a child, his mother dipped him in the river Styx, which had the magical quality of making him invincible. It's just that she held him by his heel, so his heel was not protected and ultimately, he would be killed by an arrow that hits him there. Dr. Harris: Hence the term that we use often of someone's Achilles heel, that is their vulnerable spot. Dr. Zucker: Nevertheless, Achilles will die a great hero. Ajax will have a more complicated fate. He will outlive Achilles, he will carry his great friend off the battlefield, but ultimately, he'll be in a battle for Achilles' armor. Dr. Harris: Achilles had very special armor, which had been made by the god Hephaestus, the god of the forge. Dr. Zucker: Two people would want that armor and they would both give speeches to convince judges as to who should get the armor, but Ajax, although he was much closer to Achilles, would lose the contest, have a bad moment where he slayed a bunch of Greeks, and ultimately, would kill himself on his own sword. Humiliation at the end of his life. Dr. Harris: It's really interesting to think about this as an ancient Greek viewer who knows that whole story and what will unfold for both of these heroes, but the story is one thing and the way that Exekias, the potter, has represented this moment and these two figures with so much nobility, with such fine detail in the shape of a vase, which is so elegant, is something else. Dr. Zucker: Exekias really was the great master of attic black figure vase painting. These are black figures, they are silhouettes. If you look closely, the decorative forms is mostly incised with a needle. Dr. Harris: And the black surface is like paint, but it's not quite paint. Dr. Zucker: This is slipware. The Greeks didn't have the technology to get kilns, ovens hot enough to vitrify, that is to create true glazes, the way ceramics do now. What they would do instead is they would take very fine particles of clay, suspend them in water, and use those as a kind of paint. Depending the amount of oxygen that they allowed into a kiln, they could turn it black or red. They would paint the surface with this slip and then they would burnish it. That is, they would take a very smooth surface, imagine the back of a spoon, and they would rub it back and forth so you get this surface that is really glossy and it almost looks like glaze. Dr. Harris: When I look closely at the decorative borders on the handles or the decorative border just above the (unintelligible) of figures, I can see beautiful detail and almost three dimensional form of the slip is almost raised in areas, so it catches the light. Dr. Zucker: The Greeks did often use a syringe to paint the finest lines onto the surface, so one could imagine, almost, decorating a cake. You have a kind of syringe and you have the icing and it leaves a kind of bead that is raised against the surface and at a much finer level, that's what we're seeing here. Dr. Harris: So Exekias is a master. His pots stand out in so many ways in their shape, in the painting, in the detail, in the drama that he was able to convey. Dr. Zucker: Certainly the Etruscans thought that was the case, because they must have spent a good deal of money importing this pot from Greece, across the Mediterranean, all the way to the Italian peninsula where they lived. So many of the great pots from ancient Greece are actually buried in Etruscan tombs. They were imported. The Greeks did a tremendous business exporting such pots, but Exekias was one of the great masters. (jazz music)