• Greek pottery came in all sizes—from pinky finger petite to double-wide. The Greeks (and other eastern Med cultures) first came up with the truly colossal pots, called pithos (pithoi in the plural), followed by their Latin cousins, whose supersized earthenware was called dolium (dolia in the plural).
• Capable of holding up to 340 gallons, with dimensions bigger than a grown man, these wide-mouthed clay giants made international sea-trade possible. They also made highly useful storage units on land, holding liquids from wine to olive oil, and solids from grains to seeds. To access the contents, pithoi were sometimes buried neck-deep in the ground, as you see here.
• How did long-ago potters make such monsters? Men built a
wooden framework over which they molded clay, then fired it, perhaps by building a rough kiln around each pithos.
• Expensive to produce yet sturdy, the pithoi lasted for decades. Even damaged pithoi found ready use. In places where wood was scarce, locals found that clay containers made dandy, vermin-proof coffins.
• On occasion, Greeks not yet ready for the graveyard used them
as shelter. Diogenes of Sinope, Athens’ most freewheeling cynic philosopher, found a pithos sitting idle in the agora marketplace.
It became his weatherized albeit claustrophobic home. Ancient accounts relate that Diogenes had celeb visitors like Alexander the Great drop by—and even sleepovers! (Alex? Probably not, but at least one female regular we know of.)
• To me it’s interesting that Diogenes’ earthenware home has frequently been described or translated by later writers as a cask, barrel, jar, or a tub. It wasn’t clear until archaeological efforts around the Mediterranean turned up pieces of the real McCoy just how spacious a pithos was. An apt abode for a philosopher who shunned material things—and gained fame for his, ahem, pithy sayings.