Curator Favorites

When it comes to the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology’s collections, not all artifacts are created equal. Some call out to us intellectually, others emotionally. To that end, we asked our curators to name their favorite Kelsey artifact or object. Here is the sixth in a series.

BY LAUREN E. TALALAY, Curator Emerita and Research Associate (retired Associate Director and Curator for Academic Outreach), Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, Adjunct Associate Professor, The University of Michigan

 Favorite Artifact: Amphora by the Berlin Painter. Clay, Attic Red Figure (ca. 480 BC). Common Fund purchase 1977. KM 1977.7.1

Amphora by the Berlin Painter
Amphora by the Berlin Painter.

Why. The amphora’s aesthetics as well as its subject matter. The simple beauty, wonderful color, rich black background, and elegantly drawn people move me. I love the way the painter has given us two individuals focused only on each other. It’s a poignant moment frozen in time of a warrior going off to battle or returning from war. Although the topic’s roots go back to antiquity, we can still relate to the difficult issues of war in our time. While it is hard to see, there is also a shield behind the warrior that was incised by the artist but never painted. It makes me wonder why the artist never finished it.

About Artifact. The painter of this amphora, who like many other Athenian vase painters never signed his name, can be recognized by his style on more than 300 vessels, some of which are among the most beautiful surviving examples of red-figure pottery. He is called the “Berlin Painter” after his masterpiece now in Berlin (Antikensammlung). His simple, elegant composition often “spotlights” one or two figures against the dark background.

The scene on this side is most likely one of sacrifice, with the young warrior setting off to or returning from battle. Facing the youth is a woman who may be his wife. The warrior holds a spear; an incised, but never painted, shield is faintly visible behind and to the left of him. The reverse depicts an old man with a staff, perhaps the warrior’s father. The young man also holds a vessel, which, however, seems to be the wrong kind for a libation or sacrifice scene.

Background. In scenes of this nature, figures are more often painted holding a non-footed vessel called a phiale. The piece may have been incorrectly restored before it arrived at the Kelsey. The Kelsey Museum purchased the Berlin Painter amphora through Bruce McAlpine of Bruce and Ingrid McAlpine Ancient Art, London dealers. It was part of the ex-collection of Lord Belper of Nottingham, England.

Find It.  First, locate the ancient Greece exhibit case on the first floor of the William E. Upjohn Exhibit Wing of the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology. This exhibit case faces the wall of windows. While standing in front, look toward the right-hand end of the exhibit case where the artifact sits.

Two Talalay books — In the Field: Archaeological Expeditions by the Kelsey Museum, coauthored by Lauren E. Talalay, and Prehistorians Round the Pond, coedited by Lauren E. Talalay — are available in our gift shop.

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