The J. Paul Getty Museum

Attic White-Ground Alabastron with a Black African archer

Object Details


Attic White-Ground Alabastron with a Black African archer


Group of the Negro Alabastra (Greek (Athenian), active 490 - 470 B.C.)


Greek (Attic)


Athens, Greece (Place Created)


about 480 B.C.



Object Number:



14.5 cm (5 11/16 in.)

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Object Description

With its narrow neck, flat mouth, and swelling cylindrical body, this vessel is perfectly designed for dispensing fragrant oil. In shape and color, it imitates more precious stone examples, such as those made of alabaster.

The clay body is covered with a white-ground slip, while the neck and mouth are painted black, as is the bottom. The top of the figure-decorated zone bears two black bands, one thick, one thin, and there is a reserved band beneath the ground-line. Much of the surface is worn.

On the body stands a figure looking back to the left, dressed in a distinctive costume: trousers decorated with dots and stripes; a sleeved jerkin, with a dot pattern on the arms; and a chlamys (mantle) draped over both arms. A quiver is visible, hanging at the hip, and the figure holds an axe in one outstretched arm, a bow in the other. The hairstyle and facial features match other stereotyped depictions of Black Africans on Athenian vases (compare 83.AE.229), and a palm tree on the reverse situates the scene in non-Greek lands. Under the figure’s outstretched left arm is a stool.

Around 80 vessels like this one are known, and the Black African archers are often interpreted as mythical figures, for they sometimes appear alongside Amazons. According to a lost Greek epic poem, the Aithiopis, the Amazon queen Penthesilea assisted the Trojans during their legendary war with the Greeks. She was followed later by Memnon, king of the Aethiopians, and so the Black African archers could represent Memnon’s fellow fighters. This interpretation assumes that the figures on these vases are male, although Jenifer Neils has proposed that they are women. Noting that women were the typical users of the perfume vessels (alabastra) on which so many of these figures occur, Neils cites a variety of pictorial and literary evidence to argue that these Black African archers are in fact Amazons. Whether Aethiopian males or African Amazons, they serve as an appropriately exotic motif for the valuable fragrance that these vessels once held.

We do not know who made or painted this vase, and the attribution to “The Group of the Negro Alabastra” is a modern classification based on shape and style. The name was used in 1942 by the British scholar Sir John Beazley (1885-1970), who dedicated his career to studying Greek painted pottery. For painters whose ancient names are unknown, Beazley often devised nicknames based on a distinctive pictorial feature, and his terminology continues to be employed.

- 1971

Royal Athena Galleries, sold to the J. Paul Getty Museum, 1971.

Selected Works from the Ancient Art Collection of the John Paul Getty Museum, Malibu, California, (May 29 to July 10, 1971)
  • Hetzel Union Gallery (State College), May 29 to July 10, 1971

Selected Works from the Ancient Art Collection of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Malibu, California, exh. cat. (University Park: The Pennsylvania State University College of Arts and Architecture, 1971), no. 95.

Neils, Jenifer, "The Group of the Negro Alabastra Reconsidered." In Il Greco, il barbaro e il ceramica attica. Immaginario del diverso, processi di scambio e autorappresentazione degli indigeni 4. Atti del Convegno Internazionale di Studi 14-19 Maggio, 2001 edited by F. Giudice and R. Panvini. Rome 2007, 67-74, 73, 32ter.

Algrain, Isabelle. L'Alabastre Attique. Origine, Forme et Usages (Brussels: CReA-Patrimoine 2014), p. 237, cat. no. PAS B59.