Gray wares from Ephesos

A group of very specific vessels is referred to as gray wares that was mainly produced in Ephesos in the 1st century BCE.  Large platters are characteristic and were used for serving food. The last phase of production took place in the first quarter of the 1st century CE and is marked by a unique vessel shape that imitates metal models. In Roman imperial period the gray ware is not continued and is substituted by the sigillata.

Gray wares – an overview

In the late 2nd century BCE and influenced by the Eastern Sigillata A, the Ephesian potters began with the production of gray fired vessels that have a thick black glossy slip and thus imitate a metallic sheen. Although the lead shape of the ware are large platters, that were used for carving and serving food, the repertoire of shapes also includes plates, bowls, closed vessels, and even lamps. Trays of varying shape take on a special position; they have been assigned to the last phase of production in the early Roman imperial period and it cannot be denied that their prototypes are made of metal. In contrast to the Hellenistic platters they were not produced on a potter’s wheel but cast. Only very few vessels of the gray ware are decorated – in most cases with stamped decorations; the same motifs are also found on relief cups from Ephesos. A local production of the gray ware has been verified based on the petrographic and chemical analyses. The clay composition is very homogeneous so that specialized workshops in the immediate vicinity of the city are likely. The gray wares were very popular in Ephesos and were hardly exported. Only the platters are scattered throughout the Mediterranean but also the Alps as is demonstrated by finds in southern Tyrol and Carinthia. 

Available material

As part of a dissertation all Ephesian finds were viewed in search of gray wares; a total of 5,441 fragments were identified and 1,128 diagnostic pieces were analyzed. At the center of the research were questions regarding chronology and typology, furthermore, manufacturing technology and functionality was assessed and they were evaluated based on their economic and cultural and historical information. 


The most important result is certainly the concise typo-chronology of all vessel types as well as a detailed classification of the larger production series of platters and trays. The basis for this analysis were numerous well dated find assemblages from the Terrace Houses, the Tetragonos Agora, and other find contexts in Ephesos that made an absolute chronological classification possible.An essential result for pottery research is the typological sub-grouping of the platters which for the first time permits the reconstruction of a conclusive development for the 1st century BCE, before various forms were more frequently used simultaneously in the Augustan period. The experimentation of the potters in the early 1st century CE is also demonstrated through the start of the production of trays that formed part of the elite tableware exclusively in Ephesos for half a century.Apart from the platters and trays other vessel forms, such as bowls and plates, were also produced, however, they only appear as individual pieces. We must assume that the workshops specialized on platters/trays also experimented with other shapes but these did not compete with the simultaneous sigillata and could not establish themselves. The production of the gray wares remains a phenomenon limited to the late Hellenistic period. Already in the second quarter of the 1st century CE a marked decline in its production is noticeable and is simultaneous with the rise in the production of the regional Eastern sigillata. Already around the middle of the century the gray wares had almost completely disappeared from the repertoire of tableware in Ephesos.