Researchers from Chenogolovka – specialists of the Institute of Experimental Mineralogy (Russian Academy of Sciences) and of the Institute of Problems of Chemical Physics (Russian Academy of Sciences) made an invention that can be considered sensational by right. Having studied jointly with the colleagues from the Karamzin National University (Kharkov) the ancient Greek black-lacquered ceramics samples dated back to the IV-II centuries B.C., they found out that the “black lacquer” on ceramic vase fragments was not actually lacquer, contrary to what historians had assumed so far. It has turned out that the black drawings were made by a coating of thin glass or enamel that is 14 to 25 microns deep. The researchers have managed to discover that with the help of two microanalysis methods – electron probe analysis and X-ray spectrum analysis.
It should be noted that the black-lacquer (or black-figured) ceramics notion is extremely widespread in history and archaeology. It is regarded that approximately in the VI century B.C. ancient Greeks have learned to produce various ceramic objects (mainly, of course, vases – amphoras, craters, etc.), the drawings being made by black lacquer. They produced vases decorated by a black lacquer ornament – the ones praised by Keats, and later – by a Russian poet Kushner who wrote “…little men come forward in glorious round dance on the antique vase….” However, the content of this lacquer has not been known precisely so far. Moreover, the technology was considered lost and the secret of applying black lacquer has not been fully guessed. However, the decoration was named lacquer. That is, by definition, a dried up thin film of a substance solution in some dissolvent. The check-up has proved that this is a mistake.
So, the researchers have taken six Ancient Greek crocks (samples of black-lacquer ceramics) found during digging of Chersonese, as well as a single sample from digging of the Belsk ancient settlement (this is a Scythian settlement dating back approximately to the same time, the VI-I centuries B.C., in the Ukraine, not far from the village of Belsk in the Poltava Region). The researchers have firstly studied the depth of black layer on the ceramic foundation, and secondly, the composition of both ceramics per se and the black layer. To count the obtained data, the authors used a software package developed at the Institute of Experimental Mineralogy (Russian Academy of Sciences). By the way, it is worth mentioning that both methods are practically nondestructive, that is, they are suitable for studying archeological findings.
The research findings have left no room for doubts. The “black lacquer” is glass or enamel with high content of iron and natrium. In the researchers’ opinion, it is most likely that ancient Greek craftsmen (we do not have the heart to call them potters – they were painters indeed!) used furnace charge to produce black enamel, at that magnetite (dyestuff) and soda or ashes and probably kaolin as well making part of furnace charge. According to contemporary physicists, ancient craftsmen applied furnace charge by the “engobe” method – a thin layer of loamy suspension is applied on the ceramic surface prior to baking. It is well-known in principle that this method was rather widespread in ancient ceramic production.
So, can it be considered that the ancient Greek “black-lacquer ceramics” is clued? It is very difficult to answer this question unambiguously: enthusiasts investigations are only in the initial stage. However, some conclusions can be made. Of course, six fragments are not all antique vases, but it can be considered proved for investigated samples that the drawings on ceramics were made not by lacquer but by enamel. This data is very important for historians as it enables to better understand technical capabilities of antique craftsmen. And it is interesting for those of inquiring mind.