In the late 19th Century, archaeologists found large caches of Hellenistic vases for carrying water at a cemetery in the Egyptian town of Hadra, east of Alexandria. These water jars, called hydriai in Greek, had been used to hold the ashes of deceased Greek dignitaries. The discovery of these cremation urns has provided insight into the funerary traditions of Greeks abroad during the Hellenistic period, and to patterns of trade at this time.
Unlike earlier examples of Greek hydriai, the vases from Hadra were made of white clay, and were decorated with designs in black, brown, red, and other colours. This unique “Hadra” style sets them apart from Greek hydriai made in earlier periods, and from hydriai which were manufactured later. These beautiful vases were repurposed as cremation urns during the Hellenistic period. Most of the Hadra vases are decorated with the name of the deceased and the date that they died, making it relatively easy for archaeologists to date them.
The first large study of the Hadra vases came in 1885, but they were not nicknamed the “Hadra vases” or “Hadra Hydriai” until 1908. These vases were dated to the 3rd and 2nd Centuries BCE, when Egypt was ruled by a Greek dynasty founded by Ptolemy I, one of Alexander the Great’s generals. Ptolemaic rule of Egypt led to waves of Greek immigration as soldiers, craftsmen, and scholars flocked to the Egypt.
Although the Egyptians practiced mummification, many first and second generation Greek immigrants were cremated according to their cultural traditions. A large portion of the Hadra vases were used as cremation urns for the remains of visiting Greek dignitaries from other states who happened to die in Egypt.
Until recently, it was thought that the hydriai had been made in Alexandria, but analysis of the clay used to make the vases has revealed that most were imported from Crete. “Hadra” style vases have been found in western Crete, where many of the Hadra vases were traced to, which has led archaeologists to deduce that Crete was the centre of “Hadra”-style vase production. These distinctive vessels have since been found in other parts of the Greek-speaking Mediterranean, and local imitations of the Cretan hydriai were made in places like Alexandria and Anatolia.
Cook, Brian F. Inscribed Hadra Vases in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Guldager Bilde, Pia and Lawall, Mark L. Pottery, Peoples and Places: Study and Interpretation of Late Hellenistic Pottery. Aarhus University Press.