Joining the Dots: A Musical Puzzle on an Ancient Vase

Armand D’Angour

In 2022 a beautiful late-5th-century Attic red-figured bell-krater by the Nikias Painter was acquired by a private collector in the USA.[1] The Nikias Painter is known for scenes of daily life, such as festivals, symposia, worship, sacrifices and processions, and many of his vases show scenes with music and auloi (pipes).

One side of this krater depicts a procession (kōmos) of three young male music-makers proceeding from left to right; two of the figures have the back foot flexed, indicating that they are to be thought of as walking forwards. The foremost of the three komasts is playing the aulos with his head inclined downwards, appearing to study his fingers on the pipes. The second and third figures are not holding instruments but clasping wooden staves (baktēriai) in front of them, evidently to beat the ground in time to music being performed.

While the first and last figures are depicted naked, each with a cloak (himation) draped over part of their body (in the former case over the left shoulder and in the latter over the left arm), the central figure is fully dressed with ankle-length tunic; he and the following figure have their heads tilted back, looking upwards, with lips visible, according to the 5th-century vase-painting convention for depicting figures singing.

Both the latter figures have their gaze directed at a series of white blobs (stigmai) painted above them under the lip of the vase and arranged across two lines. The stigmai are painted in what is technically known as “added white” paint, i.e. paint laid on top of the black slip before firing; and smaller white blobs are also used to depict ivy berries in the sympotic ivy wreaths draping the hair of all the figures. Added white does not easily adhere to the smooth black-slip surface, so it can drop off both during firing and in use, as well as simply over time. In this case most of the stigmai appear excellently preserved; an upper line with seven or eight (depending on whether the left-most stigmē is counted as a single or smudged double dot), and a lower line of nine mainly well-formed circular stigmai of different sizes.

No other neatly presented and extended series of stigmai like this is to be found in the whole corpus of extant Ancient Greek vases. The marks pose an intriguing puzzle to which no accepted answer has been given, and for which perhaps none ever will be. Given that the subject matter of the image is a procession of music-making revellers, however, the stigmai to which the two figures are directing their faces are surely intended to have some sonic reference. But what exactly did the vase painter intend that reference to be?

The simplest answer may be that the stigmai are intended to represent in general terms the idea that sounds are emanating from two of the revellers’ mouths or are circulating around their heads.[2] A number of other vases with musical scenes display dots of a roughly similar kind emerging from a musician’s mouth, although in no case are they as carefully organised or as extensive as here. A vase by the Agrigento Painter, for instance, shows a musical procession with single and double blobs appearing to emerge from a singer’s mouth.

And an Athenian vase in Madison Wisconsin depicts an aged, bearded lyre player, in front of whose mouth appear three or four sets of double stigmai (similar to the double stigmai found here), which are then continued by a row of (real or imitation) alphabetic letters likely to indicate the enunciation of words.

Since other vases by the Nikias painter show properly lettered names placed above the figures, it is reasonable to suppose that a painter who knew the alphabet well would not have used stigmai alone to represent words.

My first response to the way that the marks are laid out was that they represent a metrical or rhythmical indication. In particular, the way the top line is grouped into single and double stigmai brought to my mind dactylic rhythm with its single long and double-short elements. If the marks were thought to match the direction of the procession moving from front to back, they should be read from right to left. Assuming the leftmost mark to be a smudged single dot, I initially took the layout of the top line to read, rather excitingly, as representing a dactylic ‘hemiepes’, the metrical shape of the opening phrase of the opening words of Virgil’s Aeneidarma virumque cano – which artfully reflect the metre of the opening of the most famous poem of antiquity, Homer’s Iliad: μῆνιν ἄειδε θεά.  In today’s metrical notation the metre would be indicated ᴗ ᴗ ᴗ ᴗ . I imagined the painter hearing such a rhythm in his mind and painting from right to left a series of stigmai to represent it thus:

     ⦁⦁    ⦁   ⦁⦁   ⦁

What about the lower line? Having reached the end of the hemiepes on the left of the upper line, the eye might be expected to drop down to read the inscription boustrophēdon, that is “turning like an ox” to read the lower line from left to right. It is noticeable that the marks on the lower line are offset from those on the upper: that is, the dots are deliberately placed between rather than directly beneath the marks of the upper line, with the exception of the final three dots on the right, where for the only time we find a central dot that seems noticeably smaller than the outer two.

Could the lower line represent the continuation of a hexameter verse? If so, the first long element of each foot is missing, but perhaps could be assumed from the pattern of the top line (as a rough analogy, on Ancient Greek musical documents a note symbol placed above a syllable is considered to apply on unmarked succeeding syllables). One might then read the first six dots of the lower line as indicating () ᴗ ᴗ () ᴗ ᴗ () ᴗ ᴗ , with the long elements (as shown in brackets) understood as having been supplied by the rhythm of the upper line.

As the final three dots are the only ones not offset with the upper line, I suggested that they represented the final – – of the hexameter, with the small dot indicating a prolongation of the penultimate element as it might have been heard in performance. Together, the top and bottom line could then be read as representing the rhythm of a complete dactylic hexameter.

Neat and enticing as this interpretation is, there are two potentially fatal objections to it. First, in the top row of dots there’s an imperfection in the black slip (visible on the image below), which could have been caused by a blob of white popping off. While this cannot be certain, it seems more than coincidence that the phantom stigmē is directly in line with the others, has the right shape and dimensions for a single blob, is spaced in proportion to the rest of the dots, and would give artistic balance by extending the line of stigmai to above the head of the rearmost reveller.

The second objection is that there is good reason to interpret the penultimate inverted-V shape next to the phantom mark as an attempted double dot. Vase painters sat holding vases cradled in their left arm (as vase paintings show), their left hand grasping the right handle, with the top of the vase tilted upwards and away on the painter’s left side. When painting the far left area under the rim, the painter would find it hard to hold the brush perpendicularly on its tip: so the conjoined dot suggests that the painter was reaching up and around with his brush to get to this corner of the vase. The shape is similar to the slanted double-stigmai seen both in this and in other images. Accordingly, with the phantom stigmē restored and the inverted V read as a double-dot, the pattern appears as follows:

  ⦁⦁   ⦁⦁   ⦁   ⦁⦁   ⦁

Various other issues arise for interpreting the stigmai. What rhythm would the komasts be likely to be singing in? Rather than dactylic hexameter, the metre of sombre epic verse, an anapaestic (e.g ᴗ ᴗ ᴗ ᴗ , ᴗ ᴗ  ᴗ ᴗ ) or iambic rhythm (e.g. ᴗ , ᴗ ᴗ ᴗ ᴗ ) might be more fitting, and could also be shown to match in some way the long and double-short elements shown on the image.

A number of alternative interpretations have been proposed (so far informally), ranging from the view that the marks are nonsense syllables to an interpretation that would make of them an extremely complex formal pattern of aeolic metrical cola. But can a 5th-century vase painter be credited with coming up with a symbolic notation for representing rhythm similar to the scansion marks first attested only some fifteen hundred years later?[3] Further suggestions are that one or both lines represent dance movements, in view of the way two of the revellers’ feet are lifted and the fact that stigmai are used on musically notated documents to indicate arsis (a raising of the feet, legs, or body); or that the spacing indicates not two separate lines, but notes of a single musical line going up and down (as if on a stave).

I have come round (somewhat reluctantly) to the view that the Nikias painter simply wanted to indicate “words in a particular rhythm are being sung”, without intending to represent precisely what that rhythm is – any more than the single and double dots occasionally used on other musical vases specify. In the absence of firm evidence, however, no theory can be considered more than speculative.

Since the vase poses an icono­graphic puzzle, it is worth insisting that any interpretation should above all do justice to the likely reflexes of a Classical visual artist and vase painter, rather than to the predilections of a metrician, musician, or literary scholar; after all, the technicalities of ancient music, metre, and orthography were far from developed in the period in which the Nikias painter flourished. We may hope, at least, that one day some kind of evidence will come to light that allows us, in a more satis­fying and definitive manner, to join the dots in interpreting this beautiful, unique, and mysterious image.

Armand D’Angour is Professor of Classics at the University of Oxford. He has written previously for Antigone on the music of Sophocles’ Ode to Man here, the Song of Seikilos inscription here, and Sappho and Catullus here.


1 Beazley Archive Database, vase No. 340050. Published in J.D. Beazley, Paralipomena (Oxford, 1971) 480, and securely provenanced: pre-1970 the property of Gallery Serodine, Ascona, Switzerland; 1970–2022 in the collection of Dr F. Hieronymus and Marie-Louise Schaller, Basel; 2022 acquired by Jean-David Cahn AG, Basel, 2022, and sold to the current owner, whom I thanks for permitting this article to be written and for sharing images and expertise.
2 The notion of  ‘circulating’ is reminiscent of the term used in the first book of Homer’s Odyssey (1.351–2), where Telemachus advises Penelope to allow Phemius to sing what he wishes on the grounds that “the most successful song is the one that circulates most fresh (νεωτάτηάμφιπέληται) among the listeners”.
3 The earliest use of scansion marks that I have found, identical to those used today, are found on a MS dated to the mid 10th century, which can be seen online here. However, the notion of long and short syllables, however indicated, would have been familiar from ancient times.