Greek Iron Age: Art & Architecture

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The Greek Iron Age saw an explosion of philosophy, mathematics, and above all, the arts. In this lesson, we'll explore Greek art and architecture in this era and see how it developed.

The Greek Iron Age

To the ancient Greek poet Hesiod, human history could be divided into five stages. It began with the Golden Age, then progressed to the Silver Age, the Bronze Age, the Heroic Age, and finally, the Iron Age.

We tend to look at Hesiod as a poet more than a historian, but he did latch onto something that historians still note today: changes in metallurgic technology often corresponded with other important cultural and economic changes. Metal use was a way to locate major shifts in human cultures and formed the basis of the three-age (stone, bronze, iron) system still colloquially popular today.

Of course, Hesiod was really only interested in the history of the Greeks, and had good reason to be. Iron may have helped the shift, but the Greek Iron Age, as he observed, was defined by art and architecture.

The Early Iron Age

The Greek Iron Age began around 1,200 BCE with the collapse of the Bronze-Age civilization of Mycenae. It's unclear what led to the downfall of Mycenaean dominance, but Greece entered into the Iron Age through a period of reorganization.

Once seen as a Dark Age in Greek history, the early Iron Age is now recognized as a period of early innovations as people moved about, creating new towns that competed to take over the trade routes abandoned by the Mycenaean collapse.

In this world, the art and architecture of the Mycenaean people was largely maintained. Large, colorful temples were made of wood and mud-bricks, and pottery continued to thrive as a major form of art. The designs on Greek ceramics from this time tended to be abstract and geometric. Sculptural arts were centered around small figurines with abstract features.

Archaic Greece

By roughly the 8th century BCE, the Greek towns had recovered from the Mycenaean collapse and were starting to flourish. Greek trade routes grew larger than ever before, and people had organized into the first Greek city-states, called the poleis. With the wealth from trade and the new urbanization, Greek city-states had the time and resources to develop themselves intellectually.

This is when the Greek alphabet first appeared, which was used to record poetry, mythology, and perhaps above all, philosophy.

It was during the Archaic era that Greek culture really started to change, and this is heavily reflected in arts. Greek arts started to move away from the abstract and towards more representational figures.

Sculpture

This corresponds with the emergence of life-sized Greek sculpture, which was nearly Egyptian in its posing of people in upright, forward-facing, stiff postures. There were two kinds of these, a male nude statue called the kouros, and a clothed female called the kore.

After the 6th century BCE, both kinds of statues started featuring little smirks known as the ''Archaic smile'', likely just to make them look a little more realistic.

A 6th-century BCE kouros statue
kouros

Pottery

This newly found devotion to representational art translated into pottery as well. During the Archaic age, artists started depicting more images from the real world, like birds and fish. Soon, they were depicting people.

The first major example was the Black Figure pottery developed in Corinth in the 7th century BCE. As the name implies, this style depicted scenes of people in black silhouette.

It was followed by Red Figure pottery, emerging in Athens in the 6th century BCE, where the background was depicted in black leaving the people in the red color of the clay.

It's worth noting that Greek pottery went through an Orientalizing period in this time, drawing heavy influence from Syria and Phoenicia, thanks to their increased contact.

6th-century vase painted in black-figure style on one side, and red-figure style on the other
greek pottery

Architecture

The final major development of the Archaic period was in architecture. It was at the start of this era that the Greeks made the transition into large-scale, freestanding stone architecture.

Stone temples soon appeared across Greece, defined by strict architectural rules of proportion and ideal, mathematical harmony. The first of the traditional orders of architecture, the Doric, was fully solidified by the 6th century BCE.

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