Ross Brendle is a visiting student associate member at the American School of Classical Studies, working on a PhD in Classical Art and Archaeology at Johns Hopkins University. He received his BA in Art History at the University of California, Berkeley.
Q: What is your particular field of interest?
A: I’m working on late attic black-figure vase painting, in particular black-figure vases made after the red-figure technique was introduced, and looking at how black-figure was used differently than red-figure. I’m investigating what particular uses Athenians chose black-figure vases for, as opposed to red-figure.
Q: So what did Athenians use black-figure vases for?
A: The most well known example is for Panathenaic prize amphorae. These prize amphorae carry on black-figure painting longer than any other kind of vase. They continue to be produced even after red-figure stopped being produced in the 4th century.
There are also other uses for black-figure such as funerary lekethoi, which were used for funerary offerings. Black-figure vases were used well into the 5h century. They were more popular in the 5h century than people might realize. So at least in some instances, black-figure vases seem to be associated with some kind of religious or ritual use.
Q: What brings you to the American School of Classical Studies at Athens?
A: I was a regular member in 2013-2014 and a Michael Jameson Fellow. I came back for 2015-2016 as an associate member and the Samuel H. Kress Fellow to do dissertation work and to examine some vases in person. It’s been a great resource to be able to work with Agora material, it’s impossible to do these things justice just with photographs and measurements and descriptions. There’s no substitute for holding a vase in your hands and looking at it and seeing details of how it’s painted and how it’s produced. Late black figure vases are often described as ‘hastily painted’ and looking at how they’re made you can see they’re kind of hastily produced too—a lot of times they’re a little off-kilter which doesn’t often show up in photograph descriptions.
Q: What got you interested in black figure vases?
A: I did my undergraduate degree in art history. Initially I thought I would focus on some other time period but I took a class in archaic Greek art. I was just really amazed with this period in the late 6th century when there’s this transition from black-figure to red-figure and with how painters explored what they could do in depicting the human form. I came to the late black-figure because I noticed it seems to turn up everywhere, but it’s not well studied or appreciated--it’s often mentioned briefly and dismissed as poor-quality. But it must have been so much more common than these really finely painted red-figure vases that get so much attention. It’s worth giving these supposedly low-end vases some more attention and seeing how people might have used them, and why they might have used them.
Q: And you have had some experience creating classical-style pottery yourself?
A: Yes, there was this experimental archaeology class at Johns Hopkins in the spring of 2015 that I got to be teaching assistant for, taught by the curator of the Johns Hopkins Archaeological Museum Sanchita Balachandran. We got to work with a master potter in Baltimore named Matt Hyleck, the director of education at Baltimore Clayworks, to recreate ancient Greek ceramics. It really confirmed a lot of what I thought I knew about pottery— that it takes a lot of skill and a lot of practice to make these vases. Getting the formulation of the slip so that it fires properly and loading and firing the kiln correctly is so difficult that even to produce these hastily-made black-figure vases would have required a considerable amount of skill and knowledge. For the class we decided to make kylixes, which is apparently one of the hardest shapes to throw on a wheel because it’s a shallow cup, and none of the ones I threw came out right. But I did paint a couple.
Q: What is your favorite place in Athens?
A: I really like taking a walk down this pedestrian path around the Acropolis between the Acropoli metro and the Thiseo metro. It gives you a really incredible view of the Acropolis, there’s always a lot of people out and about and always a lot of buskers.
Q: What’s your favorite souvlaki place?
A: I think Stick Bar is definitely my favorite. I might be biased because it’s so close to the school but even beyond that it’s a very good place.
Q: If you could choose to be a Greek god, what Greek god would you choose to be?
A: I don’t know. It’s hard to think of a Greek god that doesn’t have some kind of negative aspect I wouldn’t want to take on, so I don’t think I would want to be a Greek god.
Q: What other places in Greece do you want to visit?
A: This year I went to several islands while I was here and there are still a lot more I want to go to— to Lesbos and Zakynthos and many others.
Q: What do you get from your experience here at ASCSA?
A: One of the greatest opportunities the American School has afforded me is meeting so many other scholars and being able to talk about my project and other projects. It’s an amazing resource being able to exchange ideas and get to be a part of the larger classics community.