Frying pans

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search

For the modern utensil, see frying pan. For the flower, see Eschscholzia lobbii.

“Frying pan” with running spiral decoration, Early Cycladic I–II (ca. 2700 BC). From Syros?
Frying-pan with incised decoration of a ship. Early Cycladic II, Chalandriani, Syros (Keros-Syros culture, 2800-2300 BC)

The ceramic objects called frying pans, whose use is in fact unknown, come from the archaeological strata called Early Cycladic II in the Aegean Islands and the Early Helladic I and II elsewhere in the Aegean. They are found especially during the Cycladic Grotta-Pelos and Keros-Syros cultures.

There has been much speculation over the mysterious purpose of what are likely prestige goods. Characteristically highly decorated, much care has gone into their making. They have been found at sites throughout the Aegean but are not common: around 200 have been unearthed to date. They are usually found in graves, although they are very uncommon grave goods; their rarity does not help to indicate their specific purpose.[1]


They somewhat resemble a skillet (hence the name 'frying pan') in that they have a diameter of 20 to 28 centimeters, a raised lip and a handle. However, all the decoration tends to be on the outside rim and on the base. The decoration is stamped or incised. The handles vary a great deal (more so on the mainland). It is worth noting that some think the term 'handle' may be slightly misleading as some of the handles seem more decorative than utilitarian.

Two types of "frying pans" are distinguished. One the so-called "Kampos type" is Early Cycladic, characteristically with its straight side decorated with incised lines framing spirals; its rectangular handle with a crossbar; the main circular field commonly decorated with incised running spirals around a central star (ref. Dartmouth). The other is the "Syros type" with a concave undecorated side, and a two-pronged handle; decoration of main circular field with stamped concentric circles or spirals, often accompanied by incised depictions of longboats or what is sometimes interpreted as female genitalia.[2]

Common patterns and designs on these "frying pans" include:

  • large stars with circles or bands inside
  • triangular patterns in rows (very common, called "kerbschnitt")
  • concentric circles
  • wheel-like patterns
  • many small spirals grouped together
  • ships (with paddles and fish banners)

Proposed functions of "Frying Pans"[edit]

Proposed functions of "frying pans" vary widely, but some of the more common theories include:

  • plates
  • cooking utensil (i.e. an actual frying pan)
  • mirrors
  • drums
  • a specifically religious or ritualistic object
  • libation vessel
  • salt pans

The plate interpretation is fairly neutral, as a plate could be anything from a decorative object to a religious one. It is unlikely that they are actual cooking utensils, as there is no signs of food or fire, and as previously stated, they are usually found in burial contexts. The drum theory is unlikely as one would expect a drum to have holes around the edges so that the hide could be stretched across it. Furthermore, with many of the handles found on these objects, it would be very hard for the drummer to hold the artifact in the style suggested.[3]

That they were mirrors is a much more interesting interpretation. Their often intricate decoration is compatible with such a role. Prehistoric metal mirrors often have decorated backs. Ceramics are non-reflective, but it has been suggested that filled with water or oil, these objects could function as a mirror. A study concluded by experiment that the best reflection was provided by darkened olive oil.[4]

The weakness of the religious/ritualistic explanation is that it is the old standby of archaeologists to explain anything that is not obvious. However given that they are found in a burial context, even if they did have a mundane every day purpose, they could also have a deeper symbolic meaning.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ John E. Coleman, Frying Pans of the Early Bronze Age Aegean, American Journal of Archaeology, vol. 89, (1985), pp. 191-219.
  2. ^ Dartmouth College: Early Cycladic pottery
  3. ^ John E. Coleman, Frying Pans of the Early Bronze Age Aegean, American Journal of Archaeology, vol. 89, (1985), pp. 191-219.
  4. ^ D. A. Papathanassoglou and CH. A. Georgouli, The ‘frying pans’ of the Early Bronze Age Aegean: an experimental approach to their possible use as liquid mirrors, Archaeometry, vol. 51, no. 4 (August 2009), pp.658–671.