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Ancient Greece Daily Life

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April 6, 2015 by jrenner1

The British Museum’s digital history website “Ancient Greece Daily Life” is a site dedicated to representing the lives of ordinary people in the ancient Greek world, and pays particular attention to women in contrast to each other and their male counterparts. Although it does place some emphasis on slaves, the real comparison is between “citizen” women and men, and how they engaged in ordinary daily activities. The site is broken up into three basic categories, which are Story, Explore, and Challenge.


Content:
Doormat:
The site’s introduction serves to distinguish the major categories of people being characterized by the site’s interpretation. It is here that we first learn about the seclusion of women in “Greece” to the home (what the site is really referring to is the seclusion of women in Athens, rather than Greece as a whole, although the generalization is perhaps made for simplicity purposes). We also see an established distinction between women of “Greece” (Athenian) and women of Sparta, who appear to be less secluded and more active. We also see the first mention of the importance of slavery to ancient Greece, and the roles a slave might have. Lastly, the site’s introduction discusses where evidence of daily life comes from. The site appears emphasize pottery as the leading source of information, although they likely utilized literary and funerary art as well.

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Figure 1: Introduction to Daily Life

Story:
From the introduction we can either move into the Story category or the Explore category. The Story category allows you to select two of the following characters: “Spartan Male, Spartan Female, Athenian Male, Athenian Female.” The site then compares and contracts the two characters. For example, I selected Spartan Female and Athenian Female. The site’s comparison allows you to scroll through the various stages of a Spartan Female’s and an Athenian Female’s life, starting from birth. At its start, a Spartan Female baby’s text reads: “When I was born, my mother checked me over and was pleased to see that I was healthy and sturdy. She was sure that I would grow up fit and strong and bear Sparta great sons to be proud of!” This differs from the Athenian Female baby’s text, which reads “When I was born, my family announced my birth by pinning some sheep’s wool to our front door. This is seen as a symbol of the female’s life of domestic work. I was lucky that my family wanted me even though I was born a girl. Some babies are left in a public place where anyone can pick them up or adopt them as slaves.” As one scrolls through the life stages, the differences between Spartan women and Athenian women become more pronounced. The greatest similarity that seems to be emphasized is the importance in bearing male son.

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Figure 2: Parallel Lives: Choose Two Character to Compare

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Figure 3: Life Stage 1: Birth of a Spartan versus Athenian Female

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Figure 4: Life Stage 6: The End of Childhood for a Spartan versus Athenian Woman

With many of these life stages, there is an object (usually pottery) to provide an example of the material culture that provides the evidence of these distinctions.

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Figure 5: A pot with a woman whose hair has been shorn short to represent the importance of Athenian women in the burial rituals of close family members

It is notable that the story section emphasizes the differences between “citizen” men and women of Sparta and Athens, while ignoring the lives of slaves or foreigners in these poleis.

Explore:

From the Story category, one can proceed to the Explore category. In the Explore category, we move away from the binary of men versus women to the boarder categories of “Agriculture, Children, Death and Burial, Education, Music and Entertainment, Religion, Slavery, and Spinning and Weaving.” Thus is appears that these sections are meant to be representative of human experience in ancient Greece, through daily activities, rituals, and categories of social status (excluding the distinctions made between “citizen” men and women in the Story category). Once again the emphasis is on the use of pottery as material evidence to depict the experiences of ordinary people in the Greek world.

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Figure 6: Explore Category’s Main Page

The Explore category starts with a brief explanation on the importance of pots to understanding of ancient Greek culture. From this introduction page, one can click on a specific section (“Agriculture, Children, Death and Burial, Education, Music and Entertainment, Religion, Slavery, and Spinning and Weaving”) or use the thumbnail images of different pottery paintings which are tied to one of sections listed. If one is interested in learning more about the types and purposes of ancient Greek pottery, one can click on a link to “Find out about different pot shapes.”

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Figure 7: Different Pot Shapes

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Figure 8: Find Out More about Specific Pot Shapes: Krater

By clicking on the section headings or image thumbnails, one is directed to a page with a series of pottery artifacts that represent the particular topic you selected. From there, you can pick an image to learn what the pot can tells us about daily life in ancient Greece. For example, I selected slavery as my topic. From there, I clicked on a pot that resembled a man’s face. That pot directed me to information about how the pot likely was meant to represent a Persian man defeated in battle (based on his clothes and facial expression), who would have been sold into slavery.

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Figure 8: The Three Artifacts Used to Learn More About Slavery

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Figure 9: Novelty Cup Representing Defeated Persian who would Likely Become a Slave

Challenge:
The last section of the “Ancient Greek Daily Life” website is the Challenge category, meant to provide an interactive opportunity to test one’s understanding of the content presented in the Introduction, Story, and Explore sections of the site. The Challenge category describes what living quarters might have looked like in a “typical Greek house” by offering a multimedia based exterior and interior rendering. The interior of the house allows you to learn more about each room if you roll the mouse over a specific area. The descriptions usually include the purpose of the room and who was most likely to use it.

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Figure 10: Exterior of a Typical Greek House

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Figure 11: The Interior of a Typical Greek House—Shows Gynaikon Description, or the Part of the House Strictly Devoted to Women

Once you feel you have a good grasp on which rooms were meant for which members of the household, you can play the House Challenge. The House Challenge asks you to select a scene: either a “Normal Morning” or a “Symposium” (male drinking party). The game then provides you with a number of characters, both slaves and citizens, children and adults, members of the household and guests, and you are instructed to “Set the Scene” by placing the characters in the correct rooms. If you place the a character in the proper room (for example, a woman in the Gynaikon), you are told “Yes, this is a suitable room for this character.” If you place a character in the wrong room (for example, a woman in the Andron, the male only party room), you are told way this placement would not have been true to the culture of the time (Ex. a woman would not have taken part in the symposium).

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Figure 12: Correct Placement: “Yes, this is a suitable room for this character.”

Once you place all the characters in their correct positions, you can move on to the second part of the challenge, which gives you a series of artifacts that you are instructed to place with the character that they most likely belong to (for example, earring would go to the mistress of the household or a lyre would go to the female dancer at a Symposium). The attachment of material goods to the people most likely to have used them helps reinforce their meaning and value in the daily activities in Ancient Greece.

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Figure 13: Correct Placement: “This is a suitable object for the character in this room.”

Review:
Overall, the “Ancient Greek Daily Life” website has many excellent qualities. It is almost entirely interactive, and serves as a good tool for exploring the normal experiences of people in ancient Greece. Professionally developed by The British Museum in 2003 as part of a larger interactive website on ancient Greece, it appears to mainly utilize items from its collection to shape its interpretation. The intention of the site is that it be used for educational purposes, with the target audience being teachers and students aged 9-11 (although the staff encourage use among many different people and groups). This age group is consistent with the narrative reading level, as well with the content displayed and described (and by what is not describe in the interpretation—for example, leaves out topics such as infanticide). In the context of the British Museum’s mission statement, which is “the aim of the British Museum is to hold for the benefit of humanity a collection representative of world cultures and ensure that the collection is housed in safety, conserved, curated, researched, exhibited and made available to the widest possible public. Consistent with this aim is the Museum’s mission to inspire and excite visitors and other users of the Museum, helping them to enjoy the collections to the fullest extent, through well-presented and serviced public galleries and study collections, world class exhibitions, education programmes and publications and imaginative use of media,” this website seems to fulfill expectations of exhibitions for public education programs and “imaginative use of media.” Thus, I would argue that it effectively coincides with the goals and expectations of the overall institution.
The “Ancient Greek Daily Life” website design is fun and engaging, and provides interesting content at an easy to understand level of interpretation. It would likely be most useful to visual learners, but also incorporates elements of “visual and textual analysis” that are applied to concrete, interactive scenarios. My greatest complaint with the site is its tendency to generalize. The site has a very limited scope. It really only examines Sparta and Athens. This is somewhat understandable, considering that is where we have the largest archeological and literary evidence for. However, it also feeds into the misconceptions that ancient Greece only contained only the poleis Athens and Sparta, when in reality there were hundreds of distinct polis, all with their own cultural practices that impacted daily life. I can understand the need for simplicity, especially given the target audience, but I also feel that we must be cautious about the generalizations we make in history. I felt that the site really only discussed daily life in Athens, and thus I would argue that instead of addressing/labeling the topic as daily life in Greece, they could have called it “Daily Life in Athens.” Another issue was that the artifacts used on the site also do not include periods, artists, regions, etc. with the objects, nor does it provide links to where you could find that kind of information. Again, this is understandable given its audience. But I think that this site could have a broader impact if they were able to incorporate more links to additional information, thus effectively expanding the people who would find it useful. However, I really enjoyed this site as a whole and if I have the opportunity to teach a world history class with middle schoolers, I would happily incorporate it into my lesson.


4 comments »

  1. nsakas1 says:

    Julie- I agree with you in that I think this site is useful for a general audience. The fact that it uses images and interactives will allow the site to keep people’s attention longer than more text heavy sites. I also liked the comparative function of the site that allows the user to see how gender and different cultures changed the experiences for people of Athens and Sparta. Having the challenge section, I thought, is a good way to reinforce the sites content. I also agree with you that calling the site daily life in Greece while only discussing Athens and Sparta is a bit misleading. That said, the site seems to do a great job of meeting its goals.

  2. Chris says:

    Julie-
    This seems to be a very good way to communicate information about daily life in the ancient world. I also find the conflation of Athens and the totality of Ancient Greece to be a a little worrying as well. While it may be done for simplicity’s sake, I to find a bit worrying as it does take a good deal of nuance out of the interpretation. As does the lack of interpretation surrounding daily life for foreigners and slaves. I do like that there are multiple ways to engage with the content which seem to suit different learning styles. I am curious about the reason that pottery was used as the dominant way in which to interpret daily life in Ancient Greece. It would have been nice to know if this decision was collections driven or not. It is also interesting that this site does not strongly link its content back to the museum. Do you have any insight into that?

  3. acoleman34 says:

    First off, I think it is great that you included some of the images from the site. I agree that the the British Museum site is perfect for general audiences that are looking to view collection without having to travel to London to do so. I mentioned in Chris’s post that it is imperative that sites and museums continue to offer some access or presentation of collections online because it helps expose human history to a wide audience without endangering the objects. Issues of conservation and preservation have long been the argument for keeping impressive historical objects locked inside collection storage rooms but a digital platform allows them to be set free so to speak. Using online tools, as the British Museum has done, really allows curators and collections managers flexibility in their interpretation without them having to worry about UV lighting, grubby little fingers, or any other worries that come along with an exhibition to the public. Content wise the site seems impressive and it is undoubtedly because of the freedom to use the entire collection the digital realm provides.

  4. jeldredge1 says:

    First off, kudos on the screenshots. From your review, it sounds like this is a good site for its intended audience. I’m intrigued by the interactive nature of the site, and I like how you can compare typical lives between the two polises. I agree that it should be more explicit in the narrowing of ‘Greek’ life to be only two city states, and I also wish that they included more about slave life and the numbers of slaves versus the whole population. The creators could also have presented the economic realities of slavery and how it undergirded the livelihoods of the elite. I like the focus on material culture throughout the exhibit, and how it can teach kids how objects and artifacts are ‘read’ for historic information. It is a misstep that they didn’t include the context or archaeological metadata for each object; this could be a great introduction to how archaeologists mine data from the earth, and not ‘treasures’.

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