- Museum number
- Object: The Prunay vase
Pottery pedestal vase with cordon, wheel-thrown. Plus loose sherds. Gritty fabric (thin section). Decoration is combined bichrome negative and bichrome positive. Neck zone has six repeats of a defined key motif in black or dark red, i.e. bichrome positive. Main zone has three identical repeats of a complex double scroll in reserved red with a black ground, i.e. bichrome negative. Lower zone has a scroll in black on red ground, i.e. bichrome positive. Finish: exterior glossy burnish, interior smoothed off. The pattern is produced by double stage firing, the reserved red coating contrasting with secondary fired black areas forming the background. The first firing oxidizes the vessel to produce an orange-brown matrix, with red-coated and orange self-coloured zones. The vessel is then reheated to char the painted patterns, and unprotected zone at the foot smoked black at the same time.
- Production date
- 400 BC - 350 BC (circa)
Height: 300 millimetres (approx)
Weight: 1812 grammes
Width: 215 millimetres (approx)
- Curator's comments
- Stead and Rigby 1999
Found in an inhumation cemetery at Prunay, Marne, France.
Repaired. Fabric Group 4a: Abundant, well-sorted, fine sand ('Gritty').
In detailed shape and proportions the Prunay Vase is remarkable. The body from the maximum girth upwards is a hemisphere resulting in an unusually rounded shoulder, while the lower body tapers markedly before flaring into a cone-shaped pedestal. The chief measurements are broadly related. The height is about three times the rim diameter. The maximum girth is just over twice the diameter of the rim, three times that of the waist and two-thirds the height, so that the vessel is comparatively narrow-necked for such a wide body. The diameter of the pedestal is greater than that of the rim, so giving stability, but when viewed horizontally, it can be seen to equal the lower line of the red coating which defines the decorative zone. Viewed vertically from above, the cordon at the base of the rim fits exactly round the beaded lip of the rim, while the maximum girth totally masks the pedestal foot. The decorative zone lies equally on either side of the maximum girth. There is just one other pot with practically the same proportions, although the cordon is not in precisely the same place at the base of the neck. It was found in grave 51 at 'la Fosse Minore' cemetery, Caurel, a commune adjacent to Prunay (Charpy, J.-J., 1987, Les épées laténiennes à bouterolle circulaire et ajourée des IVe et IIIe siècle avant J-C en Champagne, ‘Etudes Celtiques’ (24), 43-80, pl. 3, 9). It can scarcely be accidental that the proportions of two wheel-thrown pots are so similar; the Caurel vase was made by the Prunay potter.
Because of its shape, the Prunay Vase presented the painter with major problems when laying out and executing the design. Only half of the decorative zone was visible from any angle whether vertical or horizontal. The wide-bodied shape means that the circumference at the maximum girth is not far short of twice those of the upper and lower edges. When the pot was inverted, the flaring pedestal impeded access to the lower section of the decorative zone, but, by defining the bottom edge of this zone at a point where the diameter was equivalent to that of the pedestal, difficulties were at least reduced.
The single integrated curvilinear design covers the entire decorative zone: it comprises three repeats alternating with three inverted and reversed repeats of a scroll motif arranged so that there are three whirligigs evenly spaced on the upper and lower edges. Each upper whirligig is directly opposite to a lower example, so that the design was based on at least six points evenly spaced around the circumference. No guide marks have been identified, but a grid must have been laid out on the red coating for such a degree of symmetry to be achieved. No other decorated vessel in the Morel Collection exhibits such symmetry, rather the reverse, as if accuracy of repetition achieved by measurement was not sought.
In terms of Celtic Art style, the Prunay scroll is typical of the Waldalgesheim phase of the fourth and third centuries BC when the exploitation of a mirror-image technique was integral to creating the pattern. The whirligig terminals are circular and contain the 'ying-yang' motif, so the painter was fully conversant with the grammar of the current decorative style which was chiefly demonstrated in metal. This is also the period of high-relief plastic ornament on metalwork when decoration was at its most florid; the red scroll occupies what would be raised motifs while black is the recessed background. The balance between red and black in the pattern strongly favours the reserved red; the most extensive areas of black occupy only perhaps half of the red equivalent.
When the Prunay vase was cleaned and restored in 1980, it provided the opportunity for detailed scientific analysis of a small sherd.
Analysis of the fabrication techniques:
In the fracture the matrix is orange throughout except where it is thicker at the base, and here there is a light grey core with orange margins and surface, demonstrating an extended final phase of oxidation when the pot was fired. The fabric is rich in quartz without any other added temper. Its most obvious characteristic is the density of visible white quartz grains in the matrix so that it resembles coarse sand paper.
In thin section a pale brown, birefringent, fired-clay matrix contains about 35 per cent well-sorted, subangular monocrystalline quartz grains about 0.1 mm in diameter with sparse sub-angular grains of red-brown iron oxides (information from Ian Freestone). The red coating forming the surface over which the patterns were applied had to be able to withstand a short period of low temperature reheating without contamination by carbon which could turn it black. X-ray diffraction analysis showed that the thick dark-red coating which covers the exterior from the lip edge to a line well below the maximum girth contains abundant haematite. In order to gain more precise details of the nature of the relationship of the coating to the underlying matrix, techniques such as scanning electron microscopy and elemental analysis using an energy-dispersing X-ray analyser were necessary (analyses were undertaken by Andrew Middleton). No coated sherds from the decorative zone of the Prunay Vase were available for study, but there is one from a similar vessel in the Morel Collection, the pedestal jar ML.2967, and also a pedestal bowl from the Marson cemetery, ML.2606. The coatings were seen to be of uneven thickness and the grains of haematite appeared to penetrate into the clay matrix (Rigby, V., Middleton, A.P., and Freestone, I.C., 1989, The Prunay workshop: technical examination of La Tène bichrome painted pottery from Champagne, ‘World Archaeology’ (21, 1) 1-16, figs 5-6, where the full technological analysis is reported in detail).
The results suggest that the haematite was in powder form and that it was applied when the pot was leather hard, using a wet-hands slurry method to cover the surface thickly. It was then thoroughly burnished so that particles of haematite penetrated into the surface of the clay matrix and formed a successful coating with a good glossy finish.
Two stages of firing, separated by a period of cooling, were required to produce the two-tone decoration, but the technique needed no purpose-built kiln structure. Stage 1 firing occurred when the vessel was complete and the material to form the red coating had been applied. The final phase of Stage 1 was a period of good deliberate oxidation, with no fuel or smoke in contact with the surfaces, to ensure a glossy, red finish for the coating and self-coloured orange surface of the lower body and pedestal. Examination with a scanning electron microscope indicated that some slight vitrification had taken place during firing suggesting that the firing temperature was less than, or about, 800° C (analysis undertaken by M.S. Tite, then Keeper of the BM Research Laboratory).
A black coating covers the lower body and exterior surface of the pedestal. It is not susceptible to chemical analysis and hence appears to be amorphous carbon, an organic substance which charred and turned black during the Stage 2 firing.
The Prunay Vase was decorated using two different techniques: bichrome positive, used for the geometric pattern on the neck which is in black or dark red, with the red coating forming the background; and bichrome negative, used for the scroll pattern on the body which is produced by the reserved red coating with a black coating added over the red to form the background. Careful examination of the band of bichrome positive decoration around the neck shows the characteristic shape of painted brush strokes which thin down at the end of each stroke. In contrast, examination of the main decorative zone around the body revealed no evidence of how the pigment for the dark background was applied.
Stage 2 firing involved reheating the vessel to produce a red design with black background and a smooth surface. Even when examined under magnification there is no raised edge to the black areas of the two designs although the pigment was applied over the initial red coating. This observation rules out the use of a black-firing levigated slip with fine clay particles in suspension because it produces a raised edge.
Black areas of several vessels, including the Prunay Vase, have been examined by X-ray diffraction and in no case was graphite or an oxide containing reduced iron identified. From the negative results it has been concluded that the black coatings probably consist of amorphous carbon (Noll, W., Holm, R., and Born, L., 1975, Painting of ancient ceramics, ‘Angewandte Chemie’ (international edition in English) (14), 602-13; Letsch, J., and Noll, W., 1978, Material und Gertsellung antiker C-Schwartz-Keramik, 1, ‘Berichte des Deutschen Keramischen Gesellschaft’ (55), 163-8).
Thermoluminescence results were inconsistent but appear to demonstrate that the Prunay vase is not ancient. The only explanation which can be offered is that some of the modern ceramic-like material used in the original repair and reconstruction must have contaminated the sample.
Cordoned pedestal jars: Necked and shouldered vessel shape standing on a tall hollow pedestal foot. Handmade and wheel-thrown, with the handmade examples varying considerably in overall shape and typological detail and the wheel-thrown providing some evidence for standardized production. La Tène I to III, late fifth to first centuries BC.
In the Morel Collection there are twelve wheel-thrown examples which vary in overall shape and typological detail. Thin-section and grain-size analysis grouped together the fabrics of four vessels, including the Prunay vase, suggesting that they were made from the same raw materials and hence could have been made in the same workshop, if not by the same potter (Rigby, V., Middleton, A.P., and Freestone, I.C., 1989, The Prunay workshop: technical examination of La Tène bichrome painted pottery from Champagne, ‘World Archaeology’ (21, 1) 1-16). Five pots are red. One, from St-Rémy-sur-Bussy (ML.2702), has a self-coloured burnished finish which was oxidized in firing. Four were coated with a red-firing powder from the lip edge to the lower body; haematite was used for the Prunay Vase, and probably for the remainder also.
A possible derivation for the basic form lies in their similarity to one of the later metal jug forms when the handle and spout are omitted; for example the bronze jugs from ‘Fürstengräbern’ at Reinheim (Keller, J., 1965, ‘Das keltische Fürstengrab von Reinheim’, Mainz, 37-40) and Waldalgesheim (Jacobsthal, P., 1944, ‘Early Celtic Art’, Oxford, no. 387) can be interpreted as possible prototypes of the characteristic body shape and pedestal foot. A somewhat high-shouldered version was found in Champagne at St-Jean-sur-Tourbe 'le Catillon'. The top cordon of the repoussé decoration lies at the neck base, typically where the cordon of ceramic versions occur.
The pedestal jars are wheel-thrown, and it is reasonable to see them as being within the general development of ceramic techniques in Iron Age Gaul, not as exotics, which were produced erratically, at intervals. None appears in a grave earlier than the turn of the fifth/ fourth century BC. The earliest context may be the Somme-Bionne cart-burial in the last decade of the fifth century BC.
Bibliography: Morel, L., 1898, ‘La Champagne souterraine’ Reims, frontispiece, centre; Déchelette, J., 1914, ‘Manuel d’archéologie préhistorique, celtique, et gallo-romaine’ 2, 3 ‘Second âge du fer ou épogue de La Tène’, Paris, fig. 660, 2; Smith, R.A., 1925, ‘A guide to the antiquities of the Early Iron Age’ (second edition), London, pl. 6, no. 5; Jacobsthal, P., 1944, ‘Early Celtic Art’, Oxford, no. 408; Megaw, J.V.S., 1970, ‘Art of the European Iron Age’, Bath, no. 154; Bretz-Mahler, D., 1971, ‘La civilisation de La Tène en Champagne (Gallia, supplément, 23), pl. 123, 1; Rowlett, R.M., 1969, Une tombe à char de Prunay (Marne), ‘Bulletin de la société archéologique champenoise’ (62) 12-17, 13, Fig. 10, where it is shown as part of a chariot burial, although there is no evidence to support the association.
- On display (G50/dc9)
- Britain, Europe and Prehistory
- Registration number