Visiting traditional potters in Volos, Greece
Greece is one of the fortunate areas of Europe where traditional potters still exist. However, it is a quickly disappearing world. If you read earlier accounts on traditional pottery production, or visit the same pottery producing areas within the span of a couple of years, it becomes clear that the number of potters at work is quickly diminishing. The main reason is that it is increasingly more difficult to make a living from pottery production. Cheap and ubiquitous plastic, glass, and metal containers have replaced utilitarian ceramic vessels and other objects made of clay over the last 50 years or so. The remaining, but limited, demand, including tourism, is not enough to support traditional potters. As a result, a craft that, in Greece, has mostly been a family affair, dependent upon new generations learning how to make pottery, is slowly dying. Young people are not interested or encouraged in continuing the profession of their fathers and grandfathers (pottery making in Greece is mostly a male craft). Most of the traditional potters you are still able to meet are, more often than not, over 50 years old. It therefore becomes crucial to record – and save – every bit of this fascinating world.
The best known potting areas of Greece, that still stand the test of time, are Thrapsano—famous for the production of pithoi—and Margarites in Crete; and the island of Siphnos, where potters still manufacture some of the best cooking pots in the Aegean – the famous tsoukalia. There are, however, a number of other places in Greece where you can still see traditional potters at work, and Volos is one of them. This lively city on the Pagasetic Gulf has attracted potters since the end of the 19th century, when, soon after the city became part of the Greek state (1881), it experienced a rapid growth that created demand for all kinds of ceramic products. Potters came to Volos from a number of different places, including Siphnos, Kythnos, and from Asia Minor, after the war against Turkey in the early 1920s. These migrant potters established a number of workshops in the city of Volos, and some in the surrounding area. Numerous young people worked within the workshops and learned the craft, and some of them went on to establish their own workshops.
During my stay in Volos, while working on the prehistoric material from the site of Pefkakia within the TRACT project*, I visited some of the remaining potters, a few of whom were not active anymore but had vivid memories of past activities. Here I would like to acknowledge the help of Vasso Rondiri, archaeologist working for the Ephorate of Antiquities of Magnesia. As a specialist in Neolithic pottery and an enthusiast of modern pottery production who also taught in the pottery school at Volos, she was a perfect companion for those visits. Below is a brief account of our discussions with potters.
Nikos Hatziantoniou is an active potter at his workshop in Nea Ionia, an area of Volos where refugees from Asia Minor settled in 1920s, and the president of Σύλλογος Αγγειοπλαστών-Κεραμιστών Ν. Μαγνησίας (Society of Potters of Magnesia) for many years. He learnt the craft from his father, Fotis. Fotis, whose parents were refugees from Asia Minor, first worked and got trained in a workshop owned by a pottery merchant named Iordanis Hatziantoniadi. Fotis opened his own workshop in Paidopolis in Agria (a site of childrens’ orphanage), which he moved in 1970 to the current location at Nea Ionia, where Nikos, his son, still works today. One of the most extraordinary things we saw in his workshop when we visited it this summer was a collection of kaloupia (moulds) for making decorated plaques.
Thomas Goudinis, whose father was a tile-maker (an important part of Volos’ ceramic history), is another potter from Volos who learned the craft at the workshop owned by the pottery merchant, I. Hatziantoniadi. At that time, there were three wheels in operation, and Thomas was able to practice after hours, when one of the wheels was free. Following this training, Thomas opened his own workshop by Larissis street. However, nowadays he runs a small coffee and snack shop, while remains of the workshop can be still seen at the back.
comes from a family of potters who were refugees from Asia Minor. His grandfather, who previously had a pottery workshop in Ana Pazar, close to Constantinople, came to Volos in 1922, and five years later opened a pottery workshop. The workshop has always been in the same area of Volos, in Nea Ionia. It was a family business and it has been continued by Giorgios’es father and Giorgios himself until some time ago. Today, the workshop is filled with pottery produced by the family, while remnants of the old equipment are still around the space, like the traditional kick-wheel. The Hatziplaton family pottery is distinguished by a beautiful painted decoration, a tradition brought from Asia Minor. Other potters in Volos started decorating their pots too, but only when their wives were trained in painting pottery under the initiative of the Thessalian branch of EOMMEX (National Organisation of Greek Handicrafts) and its director, Kitsos Makris.
Giannis Karagiannis learnt the craft at the workshop of Philippeos, who himself originated from Kythnos. He is a wonderful source of stories about generations of potters working in Volos. Now Giannis makes various kinds of vessels on order, like water jars (kanates) or such unique pieces as a Cretan musical instrument. He also makes pots inspired by ancient Greek pottery (mainly kantharoi) and practices the technique of burnishing, which he learned when working near Rhodios, the famous potter from the island of Skopelos.
Generally, potters seem to have adjusted their product repertoire to the local demand, making all kinds of vessels that were required for household needs. Only pithoi have not been produced in the area, and rarely cooking pots, as those were imported from Siphnos. In terms of clay used, most of them got their clay from the large deposits at nearby Dimini, exploited also by the Tsalapatas brick and tile factory. After these resources had been virtually exhausted, clay was extracted from the area of Velestino. Interestingly, clays from both Dimini and Velestino (in addition to those around Sesklo) were used already in prehistory. A sign of changing times is the use of electric wheels instead of the kick wheel, and of electric kilns that replaced the old updraft kilns.
These conversations were undoubtedly very interesting from an academic point of view, but most importantly they comprised fascinating moments on a personal level too. We had the honour of meeting people who opened up not only their workshops, but also shared with us their life stories and the passion for their demanding craft. In addition, we had a chance to admire their or their father’s and grandfather’s products, both vases and moulds, which constitute an invaluable legacy of Magnesia’s traditional pottery production. We strongly believe that this is a heritage that should be taken care of, and we will definitely return to their workshops for more conversations and photographs.
If you happen to be close to a traditional and active potter, and you speak some Greek, do not miss that chance!
Written by: Bartek Lis
*TRACT is a project carried out at the British School at Athens by Bartłomiej Lis under the supervision of Evangelia Kiriatzi, and funded through Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (grant No No 753569).