Aside from differences in “culture”, we can also look at difference in style. For example, Late Geometric Greek art is more abstract, with human figures rendered as dark silhouettes; later Greek art styles, like black-figure and red-figure vase-paintings of the sixth and fifth centuries BC (and beyond) are more detailed, and may seem like they are more “accurate” or “realistic”. The detail is higher, yes, but the interpretive questions remain: vase-paintings are never photographs.
The Geometric vase-paintings may be more sketchy, like a vague description in a text, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are therefore less trustworthy or less accurate, or that more detailed or realistic-seeming depictions are, conversely, more accurate with regards to how things really were. But we really start to veer into deep questions on epistemology, and this is one of the reasons why becoming an archaeologist – or a(n art) historian or related professional – requires years of academic training to hone skills that cannot be easily learned from just reading a book.
How one goes about interpreting figurative art is a complex question, but hopefully this article has helped to shed some light on the difficulties involved and the processes used by archaeologists, art historians, and other professionals. By way of references, we suggest that you check out the article Josho Brouwers and Roel Konijnendijk wrote about the Chigi Vase, which is thought by some to depict a Greek phalanx (we argue to the contrary).
As far as books are concerned, there are lots of works that deal with (figurative) art and how we may interpret it. Some examples include: J.J. Pollitt’s Art and Experience in Classical Greece (1972), Anthony Snodgrass’s Homer and the Artists: Text and Picture in Early Greek Art (1998), Tom Rasmussen & Nigel Spivey (eds), Looking at Greek Art (1999). More in general, you can also get an idea of the difficulty of interpreting ancient sources in general by reading Jonathan Hall’s History of the Archaic Greek World (second edition, 2013) or his seminal Artifact and Artifice (2014). For an interesting take on Corinthian aryballoi, you may also want to check out Michael Shanks’s Art and the Greek City-State: An Interpretive Archaeology (1999).
We’re planning to write more articles that deal specifically with methods and theories related to understanding the ancient world. If you have specific questions, feel free to contact us and we’ll do our best to write a response. Those who support us on Patreon get priority, of course; please become a patron if you enjoy what we do.