Blog Post #18: Grad Student Feature with Najee Olya

One of Peopling the Past’s goals is to amplify the work of young and/or under-represented scholars and the amazing research that they are doing to add new perspectives to the fields of ancient history and archaeology (broadly construed). We will thus feature several blog posts throughout the year interviewing graduate students on their research topics, focusing on how they shed light on real people in the past.

What topic do you study?

I’m a classical archaeologist in the Program for Mediterranean Art and Archaeology at the University of Virginia, where I am currently writing a dissertation on representations of Africans in ancient Greek vase-painting. The images are part of a larger category of depictions of foreigners that scholars have classified as “the other”. Some of the non-Greeks that are portrayed in Greek vase-painting and other media include the mythical Amazons but also real groups of people, such as Persians, Scythians, and Thracians. There are several hundred different types of vases with images of Africans made from the sixth to fourth centuries BCE that have never been studied together in a systematic way as a larger group, so I am doing this in my dissertation.

Athenian red-figure pelike by the Niobid Painter, ca. 450 BCE. Andromeda and two black attendants. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (www.mfa.org). Photo by Author.
Athenian red-figure pelike by the Niobid Painter, ca. 450 BCE. Andromeda and two black attendants. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (www.mfa.org). Photo by Author.

Earlier scholarship, such as the foundational work of the black classicist Frank M. Snowden, Jr., was concerned with showing how realistic such images are and with combatting earlier treatments which argued that Africans appealed to Greek artists only because they were considered ugly or humorous. Snowden was not an archaeologist or an art historian, however, so in addition to relying on modern racial terminology borrowed from anthropology and taking at face value the superficial “realism” of artifacts, he does not raise specific questions about the function of objects, artist agency, archaeological context, or different audiences.

The occasional research on depictions of Africans in Greek art that has been done by archaeologists and art historians since has tended to focus on a specific type of vase or a particular mythological episode in piecemeal fashion. In my dissertation, then, I am doing two things: I’m working to create an approach that challenges and moves beyond Snowden’s work by asking the questions that he did not, while also building on the smaller studies that art historians and archaeologists have produced. As part of the project, I am also creating a catalogue of these vases with African iconography, which will hopefully become a useful resource in its own right and ideally might become a collaborative database project.

What sources or data do you look at?

While I am working primarily with vases produced in Athens, there are a few examples made in other places, such as South Italy. The images appear on multiple types of ceramics with specific functions. So while some are drinking cups or other vessels associated with the consumption of wine in the Greek symposion, others are perfume vessels and water jars. Some of the objects are also connected with Egyptian material and visual culture. With the perfumed oil vessels, alabastra, these are referencing similar Egyptian vases made of alabaster stone, which gives the shape its name among Greek ceramics.

Athenian red-figure pelike by the Pan Painter, ca. 470 BCE. Herakles confronts the pharaoh Busiris and his priests. National Archaeological Museum, Athens. Photo by Author
Athenian red-figure pelike by the Pan Painter, ca. 470 BCE. Herakles confronts the pharaoh Busiris and his priests. National Archaeological Museum, Athens. Photo by Author.

It is also clear that in some of the mythological episodes in vase-painting involving the hero Herakles that take place in Africa, the artists have explicitly borrowed and adapted Egyptian iconography. Although this has been commented on previously by classical archaeologists, none have taken the next logical step to discuss specific Egyptian examples where the similarities are apparent. Since this is the case, I’m also looking at large-scale Egyptian relief carving and wall-painting where non-Egyptian “others” appear. Classicists and Egyptologists have separately discussed the phenomenon of foreigners or “the other” in art, but almost never consider the specific connections between the two. I think that a better understanding of the vases with images of Africans can only be achieved by considering the historical context of Greece’s ties to North Africa starting in the Archaic period.

How does this research shed light on real people in the past?

One of the questions that I’m having to deal with because of the nature of my dissertation topic is that of race. There is currently no consensus as to whether or not the ancient Greeks had what we can meaningfully call a concept of race, whether analogous to or different from the modern social invention that arose in the wake of the Transatlantic slave trade. A lot of the discussion about “race” in antiquity has focused on written sources, but the inherent elite bias of these documents can only tell us so much. Artifacts, and in particular Greek vases decorated with images of foreigners, circulated widely and were used across social strata, so I think it is important that archaeologists and art historians take an active role in this conversation.

Vase-painting must have been central to how ancient Greeks perceived non-Greek people, but what those perceptions actually were is more difficult to assess, especially if one falls into the trap of trying to use artifacts to reinforce texts or vice versa. It’s also important to remember the agency of the artisans—the potters and vase-painters. It is clear from some of the signatures found on Greek vases that there were foreign craftsmen in the Athenian Kerameikos. Most potters and vase-painters were also of modest economic status, though some certainly were very successful and fairly comfortable. While most of them were producing ceramics primarily for Greeks, what role might their class or status as a foreigner have played in shaping the representations of “others” such as Africans on their vases?

Athenian plastic mug in the form of a black man's head and face, ca. 510 BCE. Museum of Fine arts, Boston (www.mfa.org). Photo by Author.
Athenian plastic mug in the form of a black man’s head and face, ca. 510 BCE. Museum of Fine arts, Boston (www.mfa.org). Photo by Author.

I don’t believe that we can assume there is necessarily a neat alignment with the views of literate Athenian elites. Or, that vase-painters had any awareness, for instance, of the ideas posited in the Hippocratic text Airs, Waters, Places, which is often pointed to as one of several examples of ancient race theorizing. There’s also the issue of non-Greek audiences—what would such images mean to, say, Etruscan elites in Italy who were themselves barbaroi, “others”, according to the Greek view, since they did not speak Greek? A lot of the questions like these are probably unanswerable, but I think that it’s necessary to raise them and problematize interpretations that ultimately consider only the worldview of Greek elites, Athenian or from elsewhere.

Further Resources:

McCoskey, D.E. 2012. Race: Antiquity and Its Legacy. London: I.B. Tauris.

Olya, N. 2021. “Herakles in Africa: Confronting the Other in Libya and Egypt.” Ancient World Magazine.

Snowden, Jr., F.M. 1970. Blacks in Antiquity: Ethiopians in the Greco-Roman Experience. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Snowden, Jr., F.M. 1976/2010. “Iconographical Evidence on the Black Populations in Greco-Roman Antiquity.” In The Image of the Black in Western Art, Volume I: From the Pharaohs to the Fall of the Roman Empire, edited by D. Bindman and H.L. Gates, Jr., 141-250. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Snowden, Jr., F.M. 1983. Before Color Prejudice: The Ancient View of Blacks. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Tanner, J. 2010. “Race and Representation in Ancient Art: Black Athena and After.” In The Image of the Black in Western Art, Volume I: From the Pharaohs to the Fall of the Roman Empire, edited by D. Bindman and H.L. Gates, Jr., 1-39. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

The Author

Najee is a PhD candidate in the Program for Mediterranean Art and Archaeology (PMAA) studying under Dr. Tyler Jo Smith. Prior to his arrival at UVA, he earned a double B.A. with distinction in Anthropology and Classical Civilization at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and an M.A. in Classical Archaeology at the University of Arizona. Najee’s research focus is the art and archaeology of Archaic and Classical Greece, with specific emphasis on pottery produced in the city of Athens. He is interested in such issues as identity, otherness, and how interactions between ancient Greeks and non-Greek peoples in the Mediterranean influenced Athenian material and visual culture. Najee’s dissertation, tentatively titled “Constructing the African in Ancient Greek Vase-Painting: Images, Meanings, and Contexts,” is an exploration of visual representations of African individuals that appear on the painted ceramics produced in Athens from the sixth through fourth centuries BCE, and the sociocultural milieu in which the creation of the vases was made possible.

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