How Do You Identify a Grecian Urn?

The shape of an urn, what it is made of, designs and scenes depicted on its exterior surface, and the colors of the figures in the scenes are the main ways to identify a Grecian urn. Zigzags and meanders, black figures, gods, warriors and maidens typically appear on Grecian urns.

Grecian urns are usually apple-shaped, have a narrow neck and three handles, and are made of terracotta or bronze. Meanders, a block-shaped spiral, are a recurring design motif. Divine or mortal figures appear in black or red and may be engaged in battle, tending to domestic chores, or flanked by animals or characters with mythological significance.

Grecian cinerary urns evolved over 1000 years from everyday water jars called hydria. The Hadra hydria, named after the Alexandrian cemetery where most have been discovered, had a lid of a different material from the actual urn. The Greeks sealed the lid with plaster to safeguard the decedent's ashes.

Most of these urns were made in western Crete and exported to Egypt, which was home to many Greeks during the Ptolomaic dynasty. Hadra hydria are frequently decorated with black paint and occasionally bear inscriptions naming the deceased and the year of death. Other Hadra hydria are coated with a white slip and decorated with polychrome paint. Evidence suggests these hydria were produced in Alexandrian workshops.