The J. Paul Getty Museum

Pitcher (Oinochoe) in the Form of a Black African Male Head

Object Details


Pitcher (Oinochoe) in the Form of a Black African Male Head


Attributed to Class B bis: Class of Louvre H 62 (Greek (Attic))


Greek (Attic)


Athens, Greece (Place Created)


about 510 B.C.



Object Number:



21.5 × 8.9 × 12.7 cm (8 7/16 × 3 1/2 × 5 in.)

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Object Description

This jug (oinochoe) belongs to a tradition of Greek ‘head vases’ – drinking or pouring vessels that incorporate a hollow mold-made head. Athenian potters and sculptors would often have used the same clay and the same kilns, and these vases – part figure, part vessel - demonstrate that the two crafts overlapped and interacted. Furthermore, the use of a mold meant that head vases could be produced in series, and there are other examples that have been attributed to the same workshop as the Getty vase.

The most popular face for fifth-century Athenian ‘head vases’ is that of a young woman (such as 83.AE.242). Head vases in the form of Africans are less common. Besides the use of black gloss for their skin, the faces are often rendered with thick protruding lips, flared nostrils and closely-curled hair – stereotyped physical features that characterize them as African.

Mythical stories indicate some Greek familiarity with Africans. Herakles, for example, was captured in Egypt and destined to be sacrificed by the priest Busiris. At the last minute, he broke free of his snares and conquered his captors. In the story of the sack of Troy, Memnon was king of the Ethiopians, and led his men to fight as allies of the Trojans. Moving from myth to history, some ancient Athenians would have encountered Africans through trade networks and travels, and perhaps on the battlefield too. Some Africans might have lived in sixth- or fifth-century B.C. Athens as metics (essentially resident aliens, with some of the privileges and duties of citizenship); others might have been the property of citizens. Ancient Athens, though famous today for giving rise to democracy, was a highly stratified society. Citizenship was restricted to adult male Athenians, and most households would have had at least one slave. Enslaved peoples were obtained primarily from the eastern Balkans, regions around the Black Sea, Asia Minor (modern day Turkey) and the Levant. A small number of Athenian vases show Africans in subservient roles, and these individuals were perhaps valued or sought after as exotic. This pitcher – a jug for pouring and distributing – incorporates a server into the form of a serving vessel. 

- 1983

Galerie Nefer (Zurich, Switzerland), sold to the J. Paul Getty Museum, 1983.