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Etched Vase: How to Discover its Origins?

By: Grahame Johnston - Updated: 8 Jun 2021 | comments*Discuss
 
Pottery Artefact Reproductions Fake

Q.

I have an old pot/vase I would love some information about. I’ve had it for about 20 years since I found it in the cupboard of some old derelict house I was doing some building work on at the time. It measures 8 inches tall and about 16.5 inches around the base. I believe it’s made from some sort of clay or plaster and is etched with patterns and various imagse such as, pheasants, a deer, squirrels and - what I think looks like - a wild boar!

There’s a fair amount of wear & tear, eroding and discolouring. About ten years ago I took it to a museum in Cambridge to try and get some information on it but they couldn’t tell me much about it and said that they had never seen anything quite like it before. They thought it was made on some sort of lathe but didn’t know if it was old (and it does look incredibly old!) or was something made to look old.

Thank you for your time.

(L.R, 11 May 2009)

A.

Thank you for your question and the attached photo. Your measurements of the item would place this pottery piece in the mid-sized artefacts range but at the small end for vases. Firstly, one must stress that identification of such an object, and especially as to origin, is particularly difficult when one is limited to only a photograph. As you point out, even the museum in Cambridge was unable to enlighten you, and they had the benefit of examining the object first hand.

The reason why it is very difficult to provide a conclusive report on any archaeological artefact, found outside of its discovery context, is manifold.

1. Frauds and Reproductions
Archaeology is fraught with fake artefacts and clever reproductions. Many are so good that professional archaeologists, under laboratory analysis, cannot detect the imposters. Many objects of antiquity are copied, not necessarily to be passed off as originals, but simply so that others can enjoy the ‘look’ of something ancient, rare, or valuable. It is estimated that more than 90% of archaeological artefacts on the market today are fakes.

2. Context is Content
Once an object is removed from its primary discovery location it immediately loses much of its ability to provide content about its purpose, period, and importance. For instance, had you found your vase while digging a water well in your back yard, then much more could be said of it. For example: Other items buried with it or in its immediate vicinity may indicate a time period and even the status of its owners.

3. Analysis and Testing
Although many objects can simply be identified by visual observation, others, such as your vase, will likely need to be analysed in order to verify its material and manufacturing process. Both the materials used in manufacturing, coupled with the process used to make the object, all help toward determining its age and origin.

However, without the actual vase, in hand, and access to analysis equipment it is almost impossible to empirically describe the item.

You say that the vase is ‘etched’ however by limited observation of your supplied photo I believe that the patterns, animals, and emblems are in ‘relief’. Your vase shows shapes with deep relief while etching is a shallow process. My first impression is that the relief work is carved on after the vase has been thrown. I draw this conclusion due to the ‘individual’ manner that each animal is carved in contrast to a ‘cast vase’ whose original mould would most likely have received a great deal more attention and therefore would have produced better images.

Vases of Chinese origin frequently sported animals such as the ones here. They are not usually so deep in relief but more beautiful in form and often embellished with incised patterns. Ancient Greeks painted vases in various forms and colours and their vases form some the most exquisite examples of ancient art. Sadly, your vase is not Greek nor Roman, nor very ancient.

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