The Warrior Vase

In one of the buildings closest to Circle A (Fig. 1, F), Schliemann discovered the fragments of a large, decorative ceramic bowl, used for mixing water and wine. Because of its friezes of soldiers, he dubbed it “the Warrior Vase.” It is probably the best known piece of Late Helladic pottery (Figs. 3, 5A).

Figure 3: The Warrior Vase
Figure 4: Krater signed by Aristonothos

For quite some time after its discovery, scholars dated the bowl to the seventh century B.C. They regarded its peculiar bull’s head handles as definitely derived from those found on eighth-century vases.(1) They likewise considered the registers of spearmen as a development from the eighth-century processional friezes on funerary jars found near the Dipylon Gate at the Kerameikos cemetery of Athens. They unhesitatingly attributed the soldiers on the bowl to the Protoattic Period (i.e., early seventh century B.C.) on the basis of style, comparing them to the warriors on another mixing bowl (Fig. 4) painted by a known seventh-century artist; some even ascribed both bowls to the same man. (2) They felt that still other technical and stylistic features of the bowl and its decoration indicated a date between 700 and 650 B.C. for the Warrior Vase.(3) That same vase is now firmly assigned to the early LH III C period, which Egyptian chronology fixes at ca. 1200 B.C.,(4) leaving as problems the peculiar handles and the figural style. Over seventy years ago, D. Mackenzie replied to those who derived its bull’s head handles from eighth-century prototypes, that the Warrior Vase itself proved that such a device “had a much earlier history.” (5) Still, they stood in isolation from the much later handles, originally thought to be their prototype. The more recent discoveries of two other LH III C handles of the same type(6) has provided companion pieces, but has not alleviated the problem.

Figure 5A: Bull’s head handles from the Warrior Vase
Fig 5B Bull’s head handles on a seventh-century vase

Irrespective of the absolute dates for LH III C pottery, scholars had always considered bull’s head handles as a later development from double-loop handles, now artistically rendered as horns surmounting a bovine face. In 1966 N. R. Oakeshott treated the topic in great detail. If the LH III C vases belonged to ca. 700 B.C., as early scholars believed, there would be no problem in deriving the developed handles from the double loops on vases from the Protogeometric Period (i. e., no earlier than ca. 1050 B.C.) onward; but since scholars now assign LH III C to ca. 1200 B.C., and since Oakeshott “searched in vain” for double loops earlier than that date, she concluded that the original idea, first seen in the three LH III C examples, was to fashion a fully-articulated bull’s head attachment, both as a decorative and a functional device. She spoke of “a continuous tradition” from LH III C onward, but, reversing the previous consensus, she assumed that the Iron Age examples descended from those on the Warrior Vase, only later degenerating into mere double loops of clay.(7)

Oakeshott branded the early Iron Age handles “very debased,” part of a “’holding operation,’ almost a tactical retreat.” (8) Her evidence for a “continuous tradition” is solid from perhaps 1050 B.C. (at the earliest) on, but there is a lacuna of at least 150 years between the developed LH III C bull’s head handles and the earliest known “debased” double loops, which they supposedly engendered. Additionally, of all the numerous Iron Age handles from the Protogeometric Period onward, only the most developed forms of ca. 700 B.C. again began to look like articulated bull’s heads, and were “very similar” to those of the Warrior Vase.(9) A vase from Cyprus displays not only “very similar” handles, but also a similar bird to those depicted on the Warrior Vase; the decoration of the Cypriote bird and the friezes of filling ornaments above the handle are also “very similar” to other LH III C pots.(10) Late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century scholars assigned the same dates to the Warrior Vase and the Cypriote pot. After Egyptian chronology set the former into the early twelfth century, while independent Cypriote chronology has fixed the latter in the early seventh, “the gap between the Cypriote products and the Warrior Vase, to which they are typologically closest, has widened” by half a millennium.(11)

Confronted by a lacuna of 500 years between the “typologically closest,” “very similar” examples of bull’s head handles, Oakeshott suggested “that a continuous tradition culminated in this area [Cyprus] in a revival.” (12) We shall soon see that numerous scholars note a revival of LH III C pottery styles in Cyprus and throughout the East Mediterranean after a 500-year gap; still, Oakeshott, faced with a gap of at least 150 years, which unsettles the idea of “a continuous tradition” and observing the closest similarities between fully-developed bull’s head handles of the seventh century (which went through ca. 350 years of continuous evolution from double loops) and 500-year-older handles (which were just as fully developed, but seem to have come about suddenly, and without any ascertainable forerunners) was in a quandary. She concluded that “this is a feature of great interest that others must elucidate.” (13) A chronological revision of 500 years not only elucidates the feature, but also eliminates the problems.

The turn-of-the-century scholars, who assigned the painted figures on the Warrior Vase to the seventh century, did so at a time, when there was a general consensus that the latest Mycenaean pictorial pottery lasted that late. After Egyptian chronology pushed the end of Mycenaean civilization some 400 years earlier than they believed (and the Warrior Vase 100 years still earlier), two problems arose, which remain today. The first is that, during the intervening centuries, there seems to have been what J. N. Coldstream has termed “the darkness of taboo on figured representation in Greek art.” Because he felt that eighth-century painters who “revived” the figural style did so as a result of experimentation and “with no earlier models to guide them,” and because he also considered that artistic revival to be the eighth century’s “most striking innovation of all,” (14) one must explain how the style of ca. 700 B.C., which was a natural development from an only-slightly-earlier “invention,” came to resemble so closely the figural style of ca. 1200 B.C. after such a long break in the artistic tradition. The second problem is, why there should have been a centuries-long period when figures disappeared from art—a phenomenon which one recent observer considered both “strange” and “curious.” (15)

Despite those problems, modern scholars, like Vermeule(16) still see analogies between the friezes of men on the Warrior Vase and those on eighth-century pottery. Unlike earlier commentators, who also saw that similarity, but who had the former develop from the latter, modern specialists must see the Warrior Vase as ca. 450 years earlier than, and devoid of historical connection with eighth-century figural pottery. O. W. von Vacano, like his predecessors impressed by the close similarity of the soldiers on that bowl to seventh-century figures, recently spoke of “an obvious link” between them.(17) If, however, 500 years really do separate the Warrior Vase from the later pottery, with nothing similar to fill the gap, there is, as everyone has noticed, an “obvious” similarity, but there can be no “link,” obvious or otherwise.

The spearmen of the Warrior Vase not only resemble the men depicted on seventh-century Protoattic Pottery from Greece, but, as L. Woolley justly noted, they also look “remarkably” similar to soldiers painted on terracotta roof tiles from Phrygia in Asia Minor, currently dated sometime between the late eighth century and the sixth (fig. 6)(18) Regarding Greek art, “one might almost say that the decorators of Protoattic pottery took up the animal [and human] designs where their predecessors of late Mycenaean times had left off. The similarity is very striking.” (19) With 400 years separating the end of one from the beginning of the other, without anything comparable between the two, “the similarity is very striking” indeed!


  1. F. Dümmler, “Bemerkungen zum ältesten Kunsthandelwerk auf griechischem Boden,” Ath. Mitt. 13 (1888), p. 291; E. Pottier, “Observations sur la ceramique mycenienne,” Revue Archeologique 28 (1896) pp. 20-21; idem, “Documents ceramiques du Musee du Louvre,” Bulletin du correspondance hellenique (henceforth BCH), 31 (1907) p. 248, n. 1.

  2. Pottier, ibid. (1896), pp. 19-23; (1907), pp. 245-248; Walters, (1905), vol. I, pp. 297-298.

  3. Pottier, ibid. (1896), although not all of his considerations are valid for dating purposes.

  4. S. Marinatos and M. Hirmer, Crete and Mycenae (New York, 1960) pls. 232-33 and captions; Lacy, (1967), p. 224.

  5. D. Mackenzie, “Cretan Palaces and the Aegean Civilization III,” BSA, 13 (1906-07), p. 433.

  6. O. Broneer, (1939), pp. 353-54; M. R. Popham and L. H. Sackett, Excavations at Lefkandi, Euboea 1964-66 (London, 1968), p. 20, figs 38-39 (from another “Warrior Vase.” )

  7. N. R. Oakeshott, “Horned-head Vase Handles,” JHS, 86 (1966), pp. 114-115, 121.

  8. Ibid., p. 121.

  9. Ibid., p. 114.

  10. For similarly decorated LH III birds, concentric arcs, and zigzags, see A. Furumark, Mycenaean Pottery (Stockholm, 1941) motifs 7.48-52 (esp. 49), 44.10, and 61.17-18; M. Ohnefalsch-Richter, in his Kypros, the Bible and Homer [tr. S. Hermann] [London, 1893], pp. 36-37, 63-64) long ago recognized those and other similarities to LH III C decoration.

  11. Oakeshott, (1966), pp. 115-116.

  12. Ibid., p. 114.

  13. Ibid., p. 132.

  14. J. N. Coldstream, (1968), pp. 357, 28 and 350 respectively.

  15. B. C. Dietrich, (1970), p. 22.

  16. E. Vermeule, (1972) p. 209 (endorsing the view of others).

  17. O. W. von Vacano, The Etruscans in the Ancient World (transl. by S. Ogilvie) (Bloomington, 1965) p. 81; cf. p. 88.

  18. L. Woolley, Mesopotamia and the Middle East (London, 1961) pp. 166-168. Whereas he dated the tiles to the late eighth century, E. Akurgal, (Phrygische Kunst [Ankara, 1955] p. 64, pls. 45-47; Die Kunst Anatoliens [Berlin, 1961] p. 100, pl. VII C) assigns them to the sixth, an assessment with which M. Mellink (letter of Oct. 31, 1978) concurs. Whatever their true date, and irrespective of which region influenced the other, the Phrygian spearmen more closely resemble the art of seventh-century Greece than that of either the eighth or the sixth.

  19. Broneer, (1939), p. 361.