Antiquities Exhibit Explores Childhood in Ancient Greece

John H. Oakley
Special for National Geographic News
September 12, 2003

Haunting images on gravestones of children having died too young, baked clay baby feeders, a schoolboy's writing exercises, and children's toys are just some of the objects and images presented in the first major exhibition to explore childhood in ancient Greece.

This remarkable collection of some 128 artifacts, mainly from American museums and collections, but including several major loans from Europe and Canada, opened to the U.S. public last month at the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire.

Entitled "Coming of Age in Ancient Greece: Images of Childhood from the Classical Past," the exhibit features a wide range of objects in various forms and media, including gold jewelery, silver coins, bronze statuettes, wooden writing tablets, baked clay figurines, marble statues, and a toy glass knucklebone. The artifacts range in date from about 1500 B.C. to the fourth century A.D.

One of the revolutionary contributions of this exhibition is that it makes clear how the Greeks were the first culture to represent children and their activities naturally. In addition, it shows that this was true already as early as the second millennium B.C. during the Bronze Age, both on mainland Greece, as well as in the islands.

The exhibition is organized into five major sections that roughly correspond to the chronological development of a child, from birth to the transition to adulthood.

Following the sculpted images of a boy and girl that draw the viewer into the exhibit is a section on myth. Greek artists normally did not depict human birth, rather it was the births of gods, many of them fantastic, that they rendered.

Similarly, many of the dangers children faced while growing up were appropriate subjects only for mythological figures who could overcome these dangers. Depictions of the goddess Athena's birth from the head of her father Zeus and Helen's birth from an egg, along with images of the baby Herakles strangling the snakes sent by the goddess Hera to destroy him illustrate these aspects of childhood.

Life at home in the house is the theme of the second section. Children normally spent their early days in the women's quarter. Several rare pictures on figured vases of children in the household are assembled here, along with a representative sequence of one of the most enduring images in Western art, that of the kourotrophos, or mother and child—a precursor to the Madonna and child. A range of baby feeders, including one in the form of a pig, and classical vase-paintings showing children seated in potties remind the viewer of the daily needs of young children.

Around the age of seven boys started going off to school while girls stayed home to learn a woman's duties, such as weaving, cooking, and child-care. After minimal schooling, boys from less well-to-do families learned a trade, either from their father or as an apprentice to someone else, while aristocratic boys continued their schooling.

Fittingly, the third section focuses on education and work. A charming and rare image of a mother teaching her daughter to cook, pictures of boys going to school, and examples of their writing are some of the artifacts that will attract viewers of all ages.

Certain to fascinate children are the various toys and scenes of gaming in the fourth section, whose theme is play. Play was an integral part of Greek childhood as it is for children today—a time when they learned to socialize with friend and family and when gender stereotyping was reinforced. Pig rattles, wheeled toy horses, tops, and clay dolls are some of the toys represented, along with pictures of boys with wooden hoops and toy carts, and girls juggling and playing seesaw.

Ritual is the subject of the final section. The images on a selection of small ritual pitchers known as choes provide a rich tableau of children involved in various activities, including crawling, playing with pets, and driving their toy carts. Other objects show children involved in cult—girls serving as sacred basket carriers and boys assisting priests making sacrifice.

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