Functional Ceramics in Magna Grecia

My wife and I have been traveling in Sicily and Puglia for a month. In Palermo’s Archaeology Museum we found an interesting exhibit of rooftop ceramics from ancient temples. These ceramic pieces worked to funnel water off the temple roofs – not an insignificant consideration since standing water on these large temple roofs would be incredibly heavy. The ancient Sicilian people who made these ceramic elements for their stone structures also decorated them with ornate designs.

These ceramic elements are large. Very large. The pieces displayed are just fragments, but even the fragments are sometimes immense, especially when some of the mortar remains attached.

Today, we tend to think of Ancient Greek temples as undecorated stone structures. In fact, these temples (as well as Greek statues sometimes placed on the temples) were typically highly decorated with colorful paint, obscuring the underlying stone.

I thought ancient craftsman painted directly on the the stone buildings and was interested to see how some — actually much — of that decoration must have been added to ceramics which were then adhered to the stone temples with mortar.

The museum displays these pieces well. You can see both the scale of these ceramic elements as well as close up details. Unfortunately, my photographs don’t do the display justice.

After seeing this display on ceramic elements used on ancient temples in Sicily, I noticed ceramic piping (absent decorative motifs) used for drainage on many Christian churches and public buildings throughout Sicily.

In some instances it looks like ceramic drainage pipes were covered with mortar to integrate them more with the exterior surface of the church while still gaining the advantages of routing large amounts of water from rooftops into busy streets. The images below are from a monastery building in Erice:

All of these examples remind me that ceramics throughout history have served both mundane, functional purposes like drainage and sewer pipes as well as refined, aesthetic purposes like temple decoration.

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