Not So Dark After All: Greek Designs from the Dark Ages

Pottery in the Greek dark ages: Geometric Amphora, 850 BCE, Agora Museum, Athens, Greece.

Despite lasting only a century (c. 1100-1000 BCE), the dark ages in Greece were an era of material poverty, cultural isolation, and artistic decline. People forgot or lost all use for reading, writing, and figurative art. Furthermore, the anthropological record shows signs of extreme famine and population decline throughout the period. Modern scholars often see the Greek dark ages as a time of stagnation, if not regression. However, the abstract designs that rose out of the period are surprisingly intricate, elegant, and beautiful.

In the mid-12th century BCE, the grand palaces and sprawling kingdoms that had defined life in the Mediterranean began to deteriorate. Perhaps traveling marauders crippled the region’s trade routes, plagues decreased their populations, or natural disasters wreaked havoc on their farmlands. No one really knows what catalyst caused the downfall of these once-powerful kingdoms. Only a few decades after the start of their decay, nearly all of Greece’s centralized governments had fallen apart. The same regions that only a few years prior had been rich with precious metals, artistic talent, and vast trade routes transformed into the small, warring tribes that characterized the Greek dark ages.

Earlier Greek artists had almost always used art as means of replicating the natural world, often portraying scenes, objects, and people from the environments around them. Art in the dark ages completely departs from that tradition, marking a profound shift in both the artwork’s basic appearance and the fundamental purpose of the designs. The art that followed in the footsteps of dark age patterns continued the trend of extreme abstraction for generations, slowly increasing in complexity until it developed into the elaborate, sophisticated works that appeared at the end of the geometric era. This article will examine two of the designs that came out of the dark ages and then explore how these abstract designs evolved in the following two centuries.

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