A white ceramic urn decorated with gilded lion griffins.

All that glitters is not gold – emulating luxury in the ancient Greek world

By Kelly Accetta Crowe, Project Curator, Department of the Middle East, with contributions by Alexandra Villing, Curator, Department of Greece and Rome

Publication date: 1 August 2023

Kelly Accetta Crowe, Project Curator for Luxury and power: Persia to Greece, explores how ancient Greeks aspired to costly objects inspired by their Persian counterparts – but couldn't always afford the finest materials… 


If this blog's title sounds familiar to you, it might be because you've heard a version in Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, Gilbert and Sullivan's H.M.S Pinafore, or Tolkien's poem The Riddle of Strider from The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. Although these authors were speaking metaphorically, in the case of some objects from across the ancient Greek world, especially burial goods, the phrase might apply quite literally.

Take this large terracotta cinerary urn (a vessel for holding cremated remains) from 4th-century BC Athens. Although the decoration is heavily worn, it's clear that the lion-griffins which decorate the rim were once covered with gold leaf. When new, it would have appeared as if the white body of the urn was made of ivory and the lion-griffins were solid gold. This was probably a direct reference to the beautiful gold griffin-headed drinking vessels and ornaments that were high status symbols for elites in Achaemenid Persia – and with which Athenians became more familiar in the years after the Greco-Persian wars (499–449 BC).

A white ceramic urn decorated with gilded lion griffins.
Cinerary urn with lion-griffin protomes (adornments featuring a head and upper torso of a human or animal), terracotta, Greece, about 330 BC. 

Persian gold in Greek clay

Confronted by the spectacular spoils from the Greco-Persian wars, wealthy Athenians aspired to owning costly metal vessels in silver and gold, and records suggest that silver vessels were at least several hundred times more expensive that their ceramic counterparts – sometimes as much as a thousand. Athens' prolific potters looked for new ways of manufacturing vessels in affordable clay to imitate metal wares – a process known as skeuomorphism. This black-glazed ceramic jug was one of thousands made with a black gloss finish that evokes the shine of silver and bronze, and even has discs on the handle to mimic rivets necessary for metal attachments but serving no purpose in clay.

A black-glaze pottery jug with tall handle and narrow spout.
Black-glazed ceramic jug, Greece, 420–400 BC.  

Persian gold 2

Gilded motifs and gold inlay were also added to black-glazed pottery, creating visually stunning vessels that echoed those made of silver or bronze. Many of these pots were exported from Greece, suggesting that Athenian potters fed a growing market for affordable luxuries not just among Greeks but throughout the Mediterranean.

Three black-glazed vessels with gilded detailing around the necks.
Black-glazed vessels with gilded 'necklaces'. Made in Greece, found in Italy, about 350–320 BC.

Luxury in the details

Other Athenian vases incorporated gilding to represent objects made of gold in the real world. On one red-figured lekythos (an ancient Greek vessel for storing oil), a figure of Athena clearly echoes the gold and ivory statue of the goddess who stood in the Parthenon and was the masterpiece of the sculptor Pheidias. Although the statue does not survive, written records tell us that it was equipped with a dress, shield, aegis (breastplate) and helmet made of gold and that the flesh was made of ivory. The Athenian vase-painter did not attempt a faithful copy of the statue but clearly drew inspiration from it, using thick lines of clay which were then gilded to evoke the rich relief decoration of the statue's golden armour.

Detail of a red and black ceramic vessel showing the figure of Athena in white with gold details.
A vase painter's ceramic version of the gold and ivory statue of Athena with raised surface details from a red-figured lekythos, Greece, 420–400 BC.

Griffin jug

On another vessel, the gold and blue wings of the guardian griffins recall precious Achaemenid Persian jewellery with multicoloured inlays, while the hoard of gold that they guard is gilded too.

Ceramic vessel decorated with two winged griffins, including gold detailing.
Red-figured lekythos decorated with two griffins guarding a hoard of gold. The wings and hoard are highlighted with gilding. Greece, about 380 BC.

Luxury on luxury

An interesting innovation came from the northern kingdom of Macedon in the late 4th century BC, when (as far as we know) for the first time entire ceramic vessels were coated in gold. Around this time, Alexander of Macedon – more commonly known as Alexander the Great – conquered the Persian empire and adopted some of the objects, customs and symbols of wealth and power that had long been used by the empire's Achaemenid rulers. Some of these symbols, like precious-metal vessels and Achaemenid-style griffins (as seen on the urn at the beginning of this blog), now became popular with the Macedonian elite.  Although, gold had always been a marker of wealth and status in Macedon, so how much of this new trend for gilding can be credited to Persian influence is not clear.

The gold-coated pots were often Greek black-glazed vessels, which already had a certain status and value as foreign imports. To make the 'gold' vessels, thin layers of gold leaf were applied using an organic binder – likely egg or vegetable oil. However, the interiors were typically not gilded, leaving the ceramic nature apparent – and the vessel shapes were not identical to those crafted in metal, suggesting that these weren't intended as counterfeits. The gilding may have had a symbolic role, perhaps adding another level of luxury to an already valued product. 

Macedonians also sometimes coated ceramics in tin, using not just black-glazed but also Athenian red-figure pots. This technique, though, was older and not confined to Macedon alone. Tin-coated pottery has been found in a number of places in the Eastern Mediterranean, mostly as grave goods in elite tombs, including the Mycenaean Greek world of the late Bronze Age (15–14th centuries BC) and in Cyprus, at Salamis, from the late Iron Age (about 700 BC). Although the tin has now decayed, when first coated it would have given the appearance of a silver vessel.

Shallow ceramic bowl with traces of tin oxide coating.
Shallow Mycenaean pottery bowl with traces of tin oxide coating, Greece, 1375–1300 BC.

Why use tin?

But why use tin and not silver? Recent experimental research has shown that the answer is probably an economic one. Tin was cheaper, easier to fashion into thin leaves for application – and organic binders do not tarnish tin as they would silver. Like the gilded vessels, many tin-coated ceramics were only covered on the exterior, except in the case of open bowls (like the vessel from Rhodes shown above). This may have been a way to economise, but also suggests that the transformation from clay to metal was more symbolic or aesthetic than designed to deceive.

Tasteful decoration

A different reason may have been behind the tin-coating of metal vessels. Bronze or other copper alloys had long been used to craft cheaper versions of gold or silver vessels. A tin-coated bronze bowl from a burial in Hellenistic Nubia (present-day Sudan) was probably imported from a workshop in Egypt, although we don't know whether it was coated before or after it was imported. Like the open Mycenaean bowl above, it was coated on the interior as well as the exterior, but in this case the coating may have had a functional aspect: the tin coating would prevent the corrosion of the bronze when exposed to liquids such as wine, thus also stopping the tainting of the flavour. Could the coating then suggest this bowl was drunk from in life before being buried? If so, perhaps its full tin coating, which would appear as silver, was also intended to deceive, elevating the owner above his neighbours in luxury and prestige.

A deep bronze bowl
Rounded tinned bronze bowl, Sudan, 200–100 BC.

Dead ringers

Many of the metal-coated vessels from the ancient Greek and Hellenistic periods seem to be associated with funerary rites as they have been found in the graves of people from across the Mediterranean world. This has led scholars to suspect that the coating was not intended to deceive, but rather to emulate prestige gold and silver vessels owned in life, and therefore represent high social class in the burial without removing the actual valuable metal objects from circulation or diminishing a family's inherited wealth. Similar 'imitation' jewellery found in tombs and temples seems to support this theory. Gilded terracotta pendants, necklaces, earrings and other ornaments in the Greek style have been found across the Mediterranean from the 5th century BC onwards. Fully gilded, they would have looked like solid gold jewellery and they often included intricate details suggesting the use of metalwork techniques such as the tiny balls of terracotta designed to pass as granular goldwork on the boat pendant seen below.

Three gilded terracotta pendants in the shaped of a winged Nike (left), a boat (centre) and a siren (right).
Gilded terracotta pendants in the shape of a winged Nike (left), a boat (centre) and a siren (right). Libya and Greece, 400–100 BC.
Gilded terracotta ornament depicting two serpents intertwined in the form of a Herakles knot
Gilded terracotta ornament depicting two serpents intertwined in the form of a Herakles knot, Libya, 323–30 BC. 

Their oversized nature and funerary or temple findspots suggest that this jewellery was never intended to be worn or taken for 'genuine' but rather that people had no desire to part with valuable metal goods in order to fulfil their ritual obligations to the dead or to the gods. Nonetheless, a passage in a book on household management by the ancient Greek writer Xenophon shows that such jewellery may also have been a tool of fraud and deception.

Xenophon quote

Etching of Xenophon

Tell me, wife, how should I appear more worthy of your love... disclosing to you our belongings just as they are... or by trying to trick you with... wooden necklaces painted gold and clothes dyed purple that would fade?

Xenophon, 'Oeconomicus', 10.3

A golden opportunity

We know from literary sources, iconography and occasional archaeological finds that wealthy Greeks and Macedonians had access to solid gold and silver vessels, jewellery and utensils. But of course, not everyone could afford the finest things! This is not to say that black-glazed pottery and gilded objects weren't valuable – the craftsmanship, imagery, gilding and other colouring all combined to create a class of objects at the upper end of affordable luxuries. Ultimately, imitating, gilding and coating with metal in the Mediterranean world was a clever way of evoking the luxurious life without costing the earth. It's not quite the metaphor as Shakespeare intended it, but even though it's not (solid) gold, it really does still glitter!

Find out more

Many of the objects Kelly talks about were on display in our exhibition, Luxury and power: Persia to Greece, which ran from 4 May to 13 August 2023. You can find the book that accompanied the exhibition in our online shop.  

Supported by 
American Friends of the British Museum

With additional support from 
Julie Fitzgerald and Stephen Fitzgerald AO