Potters prepared and worked the clay to make various functional and decorative wares. In the island of Lesvos they are known as tsoukalades or koumarades, meaning “crock-” or “cruse-makers”. However, there is a slight though important difference between craftsmen that mass produced pots (at low cost), and certain artists that decorated their pottery with elaborate designs. Today, this distinction has led to the exclusive production of decorative pottery, since its functional character has been extinct. The reason was the development of modern water supply infrastructure and the use of industrial plastic and glass pots for storing alcoholic beverages and other liquids.

Many potteries operated in Lesvos since the early 19th century. Apparently, the art of pottery was deeply influenced by craftsmen from Asia Minor, since some of them had been immigrated to Lesvos. On the other hand, the famous centre of Çanak Kalé had great influence on the ornamental art of Lesvos. It was mainly a family business, and in local level many of these businesses were organised in guilds (esnafia or sinafia). The young men of each potter’s family usually learnt the art from their father, in order to take over his business. The working period lasted from May to September and the rest of the year the family used to work in the fields, and mainly in the olive groves.

The villages of Mandamados and Agiassos were the two major pottery centres of Lesvos. Some of the most famous potters’ families in the late 19th and early 20th century in Mandamados were of Dimitris and Stylianos Stamatis, Panagiotis Panagiotellis and Efstratios Sarris, while in Agiassos (it seems that) the Kourtzis family had started working in the pottery field already from 1820, after the arrival of Panagiotis Kourtzis from Asia Minor; this was also the case for the family of Anastasis Hatzigiannis.

It should be noted that not only did the pottery production cover the island’s needs but also exports were made to the rest of Greece as well as abroad. A great variety of objects was produced: crocks, bowls, cups, cruses (k’maria), small pots (tsirokoumara), ewers, water pipes, tiles, bricks, plates (testa), bee smokers, measuring pots, cooking pots (kakkavia), two-handled jars for storing oil or cheese (koutrouvia or koutroupia), clay flutes and goblet drums (toumbelekia), pithoi, vessels for holy water etc., usually with hand painted motifs and folkloric representations.

The main materials they used were water, twigs, wood and different types of earth depending on the region. In Mandamados, for example, they used fine soil (linohoma) and black earth (melegas) which is thin, clean and hardens enough after the “firing” of the pots; while in Agiassos they used red soil, yellowish soil, limestone soil (from ground limestone) and black earth. According to G.L. Paraskevaïdis (1987: 464-475), the main tool used by potters was the wooden foot-wheel (tsart[i] or tsiark[i]): “The potter’s wheel, the real tsart(i), is a vertical one-axle device, with its higher end supported at the workbench and its lower end at the floor. The axle is made of thick wood or iron. The lower part with the big wooden flywheel (kopana), which is kicked to spin, ends at the floor in an iron point (mouchli). The iron point is placed in an iron aperture in the middle of a wooden board on the ground. This aperture is regularly oiled to facilitate the spinning, like a ball-bearing. The higher part which is supported at the workbench ends at a round wooden base, the wheel-head (tsifalouria or kefalouria)”. Potters also used a square sieve, a wooden knife which is a small bevel blade, a large wide bottom square pot (gialak[i]) for wetting their hands with water during the clay moulding, and a brush (ploumistiri) made of donkey hair, for the pots’ decoration.

The preparation and working of clay in the past as well as today (despite some differentiations due to the use of modern technology and the replacement of the foot-wheel by the respective electric powered one) is as follows: first, potters collect the earth and after leaving it to dry they pound it with a mallet or thresh it with the help of donkeys and sift it to become like powder. The stage of puddle follows, during which the mixture of the earth with water and black earth (melegas) becomes a paste. The moulding follows on the wheel and after that, potters fill the kiln, which is a big open-air oven, with brunches to fire the moulded objects. After firing and drying them, it is time for the decoration (ploumisma).

Today, very few potters still practise this art, and produce a limited amount of mainly ornamental objects, since the functional pottery utensils have been replaced by metal and plastic ones. They dispose their products mainly in the local market, while exports have been really decreased, since the market has been overflowed by the mass production of “industrialised” pottery.

Sources used

  • Interview with Fondas Nikoltsis [potter], in Agiassos, Lesvos, 24/05/96, within the framework of the implementation of the “Aegean Ark” programme, under the scientific supervision of S. Chtouris
  • Interview with Nikos Kourtzis [potter] and Eleni Kourtzi [painter], in Agiassos, Lesvos, 21/05/96, within the framework of the implementation of the “Aegean Ark” programme, under the scientific supervision of S. Chtouris
  • Interview with Dimitris Stamatis, in Mandamados, Lesvos, 28/03/97, within the framework of the implementation of the “Aegean Ark” programme, under the scientific supervision of S. Chtouris
  • M. Vogiatzoglou, “Traditional pottery in modern Greece. The case of Agios Stefanos, Mandamados of Mytilini”, Ethnographika, Publication of the Peloponnesian Folklore Foundation, issue 2, Nafplio 1979-1980: 37,38,41,42,44,45
  • K. Korre – Zografou, Pottery of the Greek area, “Melissa”, 279-286,21-23,26, 175-176, 329
  • G.L. Paraskevaïdis, Mandamados of Lesvos, Thessaloniki, 1987
  • G. Tallis, D Tsolakaki, E. Panagou, E. Soupourtzi, Potters of Mandamados, project within the context of the course “Qualitative Research Methods” of the Department of Cultural Technology and Communication of the University of the Aegean, Mytilene, 09/11/2001