White-ground lekythoi ceramics offer important evidence for funeral practices in Ancient Greece (5th century BC). The images painted-on these oil containers provide the best visual narrative for the events surrounding death, including indications that the vessels themselves were used as part of the funerary rites. However, until now, their specific function and treatment within the funeral ceremony was not well understood. We present here material evidence that the vessels were ritually burned, together with the body of the deceased, during cremation, as evidenced by a diffuse purplish-red discolouration found on many white-ground lekythoi. Through EPMA and μXAS studies, we show that: (1) this characteristic purplish-red discolouration is due to the presence of metallic copper nano-particles embedded in a glassy layer; (2) this metal-glass matrix formed as the result of a high temperature reaction between painted-on Cu-based pigments (e.g., Egyptian blue) and the white-ground ceramic slip; and (3) the reaction occurred under a reducing environment. Given the mortuary context for these vessels, we propose the reduction firing to which the vessels were exposed was that associated with the cremation of the body. The observation of discontinuous formation of the purplish-red discolouration along adjoining fragments supports the hypothesis that the vessels were broken prior to being burned. The majority of lekythoi in museum collections lack information on their original archaeological context, and our data suggest the presence of this purplish-red discolouration may serve as a visual marker for cremation. As such, it is expected our findings will provide a new basis for interpreting how this important class of ceramic, and associated iconographic imagery, relates to Athenian funerary practices and the ancient Greek notion of death.
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