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A Gallery Renovation: Daily Life in Ancient Greece at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Offering rare images of marriage and death, infancy and old age, the new 'Daily Life in Ancient Greece' gallery at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), allows visitors to connect with the daily rituals and concerns of ancient Greeks who lived more than 2,500 years ago. This installation, opening December 2, provides new insight into an ancient people, exploring their way of life and values through their art, belongings and habits.

A Gallery Renovation: Daily Life in Ancient Greece at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Credit: MFA
The gallery includes more than 250 objects that have all recently been examined and documented by MFA conservators—and one-third of which have not been on view before—ranging in date from the 9th century B.C. to the 3rd century A.D. Together, they present an engaging visual introduction to a variety of activities in ancient Greece. Visitors will encounter the Greeks at home and working—as barbers, doctors, blacksmiths, shoemakers, weavers, fishermen, farmers and artisans—as well as seeing them as athletic competitors and victors, and engaged in military combat.

“Daily Life in Ancient Greece” illustrates a way of life that might at once seem familiar and distant to today’s audiences. In the gallery, visitors will also find an interactive game that invites them to identify members of a wedding procession, depicted on a rare ceramic vessel from 450–425 B.C. that was used to carry bathwater for prenuptial purification. The objects are chiefly made from ceramic, stone and bronze and include household items, trade tools and images of everyday scenes on painted vessels.

“This new gallery provides visitors with a relatable view into ancient Greek society and culture, and draws them in through scenarios and objects that are easily understood—a house, the shoemaker’s shop, a barber cutting hair or funerary traditions,” said Christine Kondoleon, George D. and Margo Behrakis Senior Curator of Greek and Roman Art. “The MFA’s premier collection of ancient Greek art led us to explore a wide variety of objects—from humble, everyday pieces, such as fishing net needles and toys, to iconic works of art found in textbooks. Together, these objects tell stories that allow us to imagine ourselves as a Greek person living 2,500 years ago.”

A Gallery Renovation: Daily Life in Ancient Greece at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Water jar (hydria) with women at the fountain, the Priam Painter c.520 BC [Credit: MFA]
The Greek House

For the Greeks, the house (or oikos) comprised the household in the broadest sense—everyone lived under one roof, including father, mother, children, other dependents and staff including enslaved individuals. It included all movable property, as well as the land with any livestock, pets and animals. The household was the building block of the city-state, or polis. And according to ancient writers like Aristotle, the structure of the household reflected the beliefs and practices of the community and society at large.

Women, Children & Family

To explore the ancient society’s gender roles, the installation presents objects associated with women, children and family, including woolworking tools, cosmetic and perfume jars, mirrors and children’s toys, as well as depictions of marriage rituals and everyday tasks such as cooking and fetching water. An Oil Flask (lekythos) with a woman working wool (about 480-470 B.C.) depicts a seated woman with fine jewelry, elegant dress and long, stylized hair, who is pulling a long skein of wool from her basket (kalathos), as if to prepare for spinning. This scene likely celebrates the feminine virtue of self-sufficiency associated with woolworking. The woman’s rarified appearance is at odds with the job at hand, which would have involved a considerable amount of physical effort. Brightly painted small clay sculptures depict miniature vignettes of ordinary life including cooking (especially baking), education and professional scenes. In one example, Barber cutting a man’s hair (about early 5th century B.C.), two bearded men attend while the barber cuts the hair of the seated man. Also on view is a children’s Spinning Top (about 4th century B.C.), featuring alternating water birds and palmettes.

Masculinity: Athletes & Warriors

Masculinity is illustrated through the world of the warrior and athletic competition. The Greeks were competitive, and through contests—which form the basis of modern day Olympic Games—they expressed values. Athletic victors were living embodiments of excellence and virtue. The Greeks were competitive and through contests they expressed values—athletic victors were living embodiments of excellence and virtue. Much like today, those winners became famous at home and abroad. The ancient Greeks competed for glory rather than riches, with games and festivals dedicated to local heroes and deities drawing competitors from across the Greek world. The bronze Statuette of a discus thrower (discobolos) (about 480 B.C.) depicts a youth performing the sport, while the inscription on Discus (500 B.C.) indicates its weight (nearly 15 lbs.), suggesting it was never used in competition, but served instead as a commemorative object—or a prize given at funeral games. It is one of only three stone discuses that survive from antiquity.

A Gallery Renovation: Daily Life in Ancient Greece at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Corinthian helmet, Greek, Archaic Period, 650–625 BC [Credit: MFA]
Most Greek soldiers were hoplites, or foot-soldiers, and were heavily armed—carrying spears and shields (hoplon) and fighting in close quarters, in a phalanx formation. For protection, they wore bronze helmets and greaves, among other coverings. Armor would be passed down through generations, but once retired, it was likely buried with a fallen soldier or offered to the gods at a sanctuary. Helmet of Corinthian type (510–480 B.C.) is one of a number of helmets on view and exemplifies a type that covers the head and neck fully, and has flexible cheek guards and two eye openings on either side of a long nose guard. Several holes in the top suggest that a crest of horse hair supported by a bronze prop was originally fixed to the helmet.


Ancient Greek families coped with the death of a loved one communally, observing centuries-old rituals. Following the funeral procession, the body was buried, and tombs, statues or carved stelai often marked the site. The soul (psyche) remained strongly connected with that tomb marker, and representations of the grave sometimes depicted the deceased among visiting family members. Mourners would visit the grave to tie ribbons, leave jars of oil, or hang wreaths of olive, myrtle or laurel. In the central Greek region of Boiotia, one tradition involved burying terracotta figurines of female mourners within the grave. Almost abstract in form, these women hold their hands to their heads in the traditional gesture of mourning, as depicted by Female mourner (c. 575 B.C.). On the neck of the vase Water jar (loutrophoros-hydria) with women mourning (about 625–610 BC), women tear at their hair. Such vessels were used to carry water for ritual baths—both for brides and, in this case, for the dead.

Industry & Commerce

Medicine, agriculture and industry are explored through tools from centuries-old professions—farming, medicine, fishing, shoemaking and butchery—reinforcing connections between ancient traditions and modern life. Hunting required expensive horses and equipment and demanded a special set of skills, so among the ancients, it was viewed as a pastime of wealthy men. Fishing, however, was for all. A bronze Fishing-net needle (348 B.C.) resembles the implements still used today by Greek fishermen—with its long shaft ending in two-pronged forks, it was used to make and repair fishing nets. Two-handled jar (amphora) (about 500–490 B.C.) seems to capture a transaction in an Athenian shoemaker’s shop. A young female customer stands on a table for a fitting while an older, white-bearded man (her father perhaps) leans on his cane and points to the seated cobbler, who gestures back with an open palm.

A Gallery Renovation: Daily Life in Ancient Greece at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Two-handled amphora with sandalmaker and blacksmith, the Plousios Painter 
c.490 BC [Credit: MFA]
The Greeks used a variety of instruments in economic transactions and for trade across the Mediterranean. Some of the objects on view in the new gallery, such as Lead weight with cornucopiae, beared Herm, and ear of Corn (2nd–1st centuries B.C.), were used to measure the weight and volume of dry goods, such as grain and nuts; or liquids, such as olive oil and wine. Coinage, a sophisticated method of exchange is the subject of the adjacent Michael C. Ruettgers Gallery for Ancient Coins.

MFA Conservation

Over the last 18 months, more than 250 objects in “Daily Life in Ancient Greece”—many of which hadn’t been conserved in more than 100 years—have been evaluated, studied, documented and treated as needed by MFA object conservators. This has provided the MFA with an incredible opportunity to revisit one of the Museum’s most significant collections, updating research about these objects that are more than 2,500 years old, while also analyzing and conserving them using modern techniques.

After objects were selected for display, conservators completed a survey of all of the artworks, assessing each object’s condition, treatment history and special requirements for display. They then made specific recommendations for the treatment of each object. In total, the team completed 72 minor conservation treatments; 29 moderate treatments (ranging between 25-60 hours each); and nine major treatments (ranging between 100-300 hours each). Two conservators spent 18 months preparing objects for the new gallery, with some additional assistance from MFA objects conservators.

One example of an object that received full conservation treatment is Container (pyxis) with lid (about 440 B.C.). This vessel was likely intended as a grave good; however, its form is known to be used by women to store their cosmetics or jewelry. Before it entered the MFA’s collection, it had been broken into 11 pieces and repaired. Under examination with ultraviolet light, conservators identified shellac and animal hide glue as the adhesives used in repair. The decision was made to remove and replace these old repairs with new materials; previous restorations were visually distracting and very brittle, with the glues creating unstable conditions.

Michael C. Ruettgers Gallery for Ancient Coins

Adjacent to the new gallery, the Michael C. Ruettgers Gallery for Ancient Coins presents more than 500 coins as both works of art and tools of exchange. When it opened in 2012, it was the first gallery permanently dedicated to coinage within a large public art museum in the United States, making it unique in the world for its emphasis on ancient coins as works of art.

Source: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston [December 01, 2017]


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