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Museums: Classical Kids Volume 56 Number 6, November/December 2003
by Jarrett A. Lobell

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An early fifth-century B.C. Attic vase depicts the birth of Erichthonios, an early Athenian hero said to have been reared by the city's protector, Athena. A terra-cotta figurine showing a woman carrying a child on her shoulders dates to between 500 and 475 B.C. (Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond)

Our vision of the ancient Greek world is shaped largely by politicians, generals, playwrights, and poets--usually upper-class males and always adults. It's refreshing then, that Dartmouth College's Hood Museum of Art has chosen the little-explored topic of children for its newest exhibition. Coming of Age in Ancient Greece: Images of Childhood from the Classical Past assembles more than 130 artifacts that date from about 1500 B.C. to A.D. 100 and come from all over Greece. The show organizes this material around themes--education, work, play, and transition to adulthood--with which all visitors can identify, regardless of their knowledge of the ancient Greek world. Toys, papyri covered with school exercises, and vases showing children playing with their pets hint at an ancient world not too dissimilar from our own. The exhibition also points out the existence of slavery and the gap between educational opportunities for boys and girls as ways in which ancient Greek childhood was quite different.

Coming of Age places special emphasis on the sensitivity of Greek artists to the gestures and postures of the young. They were the first to depict children not as "mini-adults" but as children, with all the awkward grace of youth. A fifth-century B.C. Attic vase shows a baby sitting on his mother's lap and stretching toward his nurse. A terra-cotta figurine, also from the fifth century, has an old man offering grapes to a tiny child who reaches up to grab them.

Early death was often a sad fact of life in antiquity, which the exhibition acknowledges by ending with a wall of children's marble grave markers accompanied by modern poems based on ancient Greek epigrams. The visitor walking by these poems might feel compelled to read them aloud, just as they were meant to be read in an ancient Greek cemetery:

Here I stand, Demainete, daughter of Prokles
Fate took me away from my pet birds and my maid
I was granted a dirge instead of a husband,
This grave instead of marriage.

Coming of Age is accompanied by an excellent catalog and will travel to New York, Cincinnati, and Los Angeles.

Click here for ARCHAEOLOGY's list of current exhibitions.

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© 2003 by the Archaeological Institute of America
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