It’s About Time – Sifnos and Ceramics

Sit down in any taverna on Sifnos, order their home wine from the barrel, and you are likely to find yourself participating in the oldest of this island’s arts. It’s not the wine that I speak of but the vessel in which it arrives, a clay pitcher with the restaurant’s name inscribed in its glaze. Made by a potter who lives and works close by, it is yet one more example of a craft that dates back on this island to the Bronze Age at least. And now in January 2022, the United Nations’ UNESCO added the ceramics of Sifnos to Greece’s National Index of Intangible Cultural Heritage, a designation that recognizes the craft’s contributions to life on the island and beyond and aims to preserve the practice for generations to come. It’s about time, some might say, the very long time that this art has made Sifnos what it is.

Walk into any of the island’s small but impressive museums and there you will find among the collections examples of pottery that range through the ages and from the very tiny to those that are spectacularly huge. Kastro’s archaeological museum and the one at the Mycenean acropolis at Agios Andreas have pieces that were shaped by Sifnian hands in the early Cycladic period, some 4000 years ago. Apollonia’s folklore museum has a large collection as well, this from the more recent past. But to learn what pottery means to Sifnos, no museum visit is needed. Simply look around wherever you are. Pottery is everywhere and even if you tried, you couldn’t escape it. Plates, cups, cooking pots, water jugs, flower pots, chimneys, ash trays, signs for businesses, even beehives in the ancient style, and yes, wine pitchers – if it’s possible to mould any item, practical or decorative, out of clay, it’s been done. And it’s used every day.

But to fully experience the legacy of pottery on Sifnos there’s an even better and, I’d argue, more satisfying way. Sit down in any of the island’s tavernas, the more traditional the better, and let its owners feed you. Delicious food is everywhere and for that, you can thank the island’s potters long gone. Pottery developed here early and back in the mists of time, when in much of the world cooking consisted of nothing more than hanging a piece of meat over a fire, on Sifnos they had pots. They’d place inside whatever of the island’s bounteous produce they’d gathered from the fields, toss in wild herbs they’d picked as they walked through the hills, some wine, and set the meal to simmer over hot coals for hours. As a result, instead of lamb cooked on a grill, on Sifnos you’re likely to find it as mastelo – stewed slowly, slowly to fall-off-the-bone tenderness in a clay pot in wine and, if you’re lucky, potatoes that soak up every drop of its savoury juice. And no visit to this island is complete without a taste of its signature dish revithia, chick pea soup, placed in communal ovens on Saturday nights and left to cook through the night so it can warm hungry bellies after church the next day. Such magic, such comfort and richness of flavour created from so few and such humble ingredients. It’s little wonder that crews of Greece’s merchant marine have long considered themselves lucky if they have a Sifnian as their ship’s cook.

As old and glorious as the pottery of ancient times was, one of the golden ages of Sifnian pottery remains within living memory and there are those still working today who practised it during that time. Through the 19th and well into the 20th centuries, the island gained fame for the quality of its products, their utility and the beauty of the designs, and the industry was a major source of employment and surely pride for Sifnians. Workshops in every seaside village grew in number and by the 1960s even tiny Heronissos had six of these tsikalaria in its environs. Large ships arrived regularly to lay anchor in the bays, then departed laden with pots and storage containers destined for kitchens throughout Greece and beyond. Tsikali, a kitchen’s main cooking vessel. Skepastaria, the narrow-necked lidded pot every islander knows must be used for chick pea soup and nothing else. Stamnes, storage jugs for water. Plates and bowls. Perhaps flaros, the decorative pieces Sifnians place atop every chimney.

Then … near disaster. Plastics arrived, more modern cooking methods, and ceramics came to be seen as passé. One-by-one the pottery wheels on Sifnos stopped turning, furnaces grew cold, tsikalaria closed, their owners forced to find other ways to earn their living, and many of these buildings found other uses. Fear grew that the art of ceramics on this island was at its end. Fortunately though, a few stubborn potters held on and some continue to work even today in shops that will whisk you back to centuries ago.

Photo by Anna SimitiPan

Fortunately too a new generation of craftspeople recognized the potential in the growing number of visitors to Sifnos, asked the old-timers to teach them the skills, and pottery shops are now everywhere on Sifnos again. In every town, every village and in between. Some sell wares in the traditional designs while others use the same methods to create their own more modern styles.

Tourists who are new to the island are often surprised to find laid out on a street an array of identical pots in wet clay, placed there in the sunshine to dry. But whether a first-time visitor or one of those devotees who return often from afar, rare is the one who leaves without at least one piece tucked into their luggage somewhere. I need only look at my collection at home to see that.

Only a part of what I’ve brought home over the years. And, this being Sifnos, many of these pieces were gifts.

UNESCO got it right. This ancient skill that has long defined so much of life on Sifnos, its Intangible Cultural Heritage, continues to do so to this day and it’s unthinkable that the craft should ever disappear. To those Sifnians who worked hard to bring this important designation to their island, I say Μπράβο – Bravo! And they’re far from finished yet. A museum in Artemonas dedicated to the art of ceramics, they tell me, is in the works. The diligence of Sifnians, their commitment, their pride, their inventiveness know no end. These qualities are as enduring as the pots that survive from four millennia ago.


One thought on “It’s About Time – Sifnos and Ceramics

  1. What a great good-news story. I’m glad that some people saw the value in the craft/art and kept it alive. I love your personal collection, too. What beautiful blues.


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