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Daily Life in the Ancient World

These days, we are all complying with “stay at home” recommendations. As we look around at the objects in our home and in our daily life, it is interesting to reach across time and consider what kind of things people in the ancient world would have used in their homes. Functional objects, of course, do not have to be beautiful—they simply have to fulfill a purpose. And yet, throughout history, people chose (and still choose) to surround themselves with carefully decorated and skillfully made items that have come to be identified as art. The Eskenazi Museum of Art has many of these remarkable objects in our collection.

In ancient homes, furniture was often embellished with decorative attachments that enlivened tables, chairs, and chests (large boxes that were used to store clothing and linens since there were not any closets). The armrests for couches were frequently decorated. Tapestries and embroidered textiles were fashioned into tablecloths, cushions, wall coverings, and room dividers.

A griffin is carved in relief and faces left, standing on a ground line. The right paw and part of the tail are missing and a small hole is pierced through the shoulder. Details such as wing feathers, claws, and a heavy brow are carefully depicted.
A bronze object is shaped like the letter "L" in reverse. The top end is decorated with a horse's head looking to its right. A bust of a woman appears in a round medallion on the bottom end and looks to her left.
A bearded man with a balding head is depicted from the waist up. He is wearing cloak, which is draped over his left shoulder. His head is turned toward his left, and he holds his hands up in front of his torso.
This textile fragment is decorated with stylized red rosettes arranged in diamond patterns on the linen surface. Blue and green birds are placed the center of each diamond. The birds are all seen from a side view and are oriented to the left.

Figs. 1-4, clockwise from top left: Greek. Griffin Furniture Attachment, 400-300 BCE. Terracotta, 4 11/16 x 2 5/8 in. (11.9 x 6.7 cm). Eskenazi Museum of Art, Indiana University, 81.59.1; Roman. Headrest (Fulcrum) for a Couch with Horse and Bust of a Woman, 1–100 CE. Bronze, 6 1/4 × 6 3/4 × 2 1/4 in. (15.9 × 17.1 × 5.7 cm). Burton Y. Berry Collection, Eskenazi Museum of Art, Indiana University, 64.58.12; Byzantine. Textile Panel Fragment with Birds and Flowers, 300–600 CE. Wool and linen, 26 x 28 3/8 in. (66 x 72.1 cm). Eskenazi Museum of Art, Indiana University, 86.6; Roman. Bust of Silenus, 1–200 CE. Bronze, 4 9/16 × 3 3/16 in. (11.6 × 8.1 cm). V.G. Simkhovitch Collection, Eskenazi Museum of Art, Indiana University, 63.105.49

Since eating and drinking occurs on a daily basis, ancient people had “everyday” dishes, just as we do today. In ancient Greek households, these everyday bowls, jugs, and cups were covered with a protective mineral-based clay slip (or “glaze”) that turned black in color when fired in a kiln. Many homes also had a set of more elaborate dining vessels. The decorated black-figure kylix or stemmed cup was created in the same manner as the black-glazed cup, but, in this case, the slip was applied to selected areas as figural silhouettes that depict a hunting scene. Another stemmed cup is decorated with soldiers arming themselves for war, this time using the red-figure technique (with the black slip as background).

Metal dinnerware was also used throughout the ancient world. Due to the expense of metals in general and precious metals in particular, this silver ladle was surely made for special occasions. It is intricately decorated with engraved peacocks and the handle is inscribed with the word “Joy” in Pahlavi, an ancient Persian language that was used in the Sasanian period.

A wide, shallow cup has two horizontal handles on a short stemmed foot. The rim, handles, and base of the cup are black, but there are several bands of orange-red on the foot and a wide orange-red band wraps around outside of the cup. This wide band is decorated with the black silhouettes of men on horseback chasing deer.
This wide, shallow cup has a stemmed foot and two handles. Around the exterior of the cup, a number of men in various poses are similarly preparing for war. The orange-red figures stand out against a black background.
A squat black mug with a short, thick neck and a wide, round mouth. Its body is slightly rounded, swelling towards the middle as it rises from a ringed foot. One vertical handle loops to the side, attaching the body to the lip, which has a chip on one side.
This ladle has a straight handle which rises from a rounded bowl. An inscription in the Pahlavi language is engraved in a narrow panel where the handle joins the bowl. The end of the handle is decorated with a ring engraved with peacock heads.

Figs. 5-8, clockwise from top left: Greek. Black-Figure Cup (Kylix) with Deer Hunt, 540–520 BCE. Terracotta, 2 3/4 × 9 7/8 × 7 1/4 in. (7 × 25.1 × 18.4 cm). Eskenazi Museum of Art, Indiana University, 65.5; Greek. Red-Figure Cup (Kylix) with Arming Scenes, 490–470 BCE. Terracotta, 9 3/4 in. (24.8 cm). Eskenazi Museum of Art, Indiana University, 75.19.1; Sasanian. Decorated Ladle with Inscription, 500–700 CE. Silver, gold and niello, 9 7/8 x 3 3/16 in. (25.2 x 8.2 cm). Eskenazi Museum of Art, Indiana University, 83.22; Greek. Black-Glazed Mug (Oinochoe), 450-400 BCE. Terracotta, 5 in. (12.7 cm) [approx.]. Gift of Mrs. Virginia Zeani in memory of Nicola Rossi-Lemeni, Eskenazi Museum of Art, Indiana University, 92.433

Decorated pottery had non-dining uses as well. This Greek red-figure flask was no doubt used for perfume and the small brightly colored glass bottle was probably also used for this purpose. Many objects were made specifically to support this “art” of personal adornment. Women (and sometimes men) in the ancient world would have a table or shelf with perfume bottles, cosmetic containers, jewelry boxes, mirrors, and hair combs. Some of these groupings would rival the similar array that many of us have on our dressers or bathroom countertops today.

Figural decoration wraps around a tall, narrow vessel with a wide, flat rim. A winged boy drives a chariot that is drawn by two swans and a deer runs below the swans. A woman stands on the ground behind the chariot.
A small, dark blue glass vessel has a long neck flanked by two handles and tapers to a very small base. Yellow lines wrap around its neck and upper body. The mid-section of the body is decorated with a pattern of zig-zags in light blue with yellow.
A round mirror that has a handle attachment, but the handle is missing. The back of the mirror is shown, and is decorated with a detailed linear engraving that depicts a woman sitting in a chair, facing to the left. Three figures stand in front of her and one figure stands behind her, while the heads of a figure and four horses appears at the top and a figure with snakes kneels at the bottom.
This wooden comb has thick teeth on the bottom and thinner teeth on the top. A central half-moon panel is situated in the middle, dividing the two sets of teeth, with the curve of the circle towards the top. An organic, curvilinear pattern is carved into this panel and it appears to be the eyes and nose of a face.

Figs. 9-12, clockwise from top left: Greek. Red-Figure Perfume Bottle (Alabastron) with Eros (Cupid) in Swan-drawn Chariot, 350–300 BCE. Terracotta and added color, 10 1/8 in. (25.7 cm). Eskenazi Museum of Art, Indiana University, 78.18; Greek. Core-Formed Perfume Bottle (Amphoriskos), 600–500 BCE. Glass, 3 3/8 x 7/16 in. (8.6 x 1.2 cm). Burton Y. Berry Collection, Eskenazi Museum of Art, Indiana University, 76.35.69; Egyptian. Comb with Anthropomorphic Decoration, 800–900 CE. Wood, 4 7/8 × 3 3/16 × 5/16 in. (12.4 × 8.1 × 0.8 cm). Museum purchase with funds from the Elisabeth P. Myers Art Acquisition Endowment, Eskenazi Museum of Art, Indiana University, 2017.64; Etruscan. Mirror with the Judgment of Paris, 330–280 BCE. Bronze, 10 13/16 x 7 in. (27.5 x 17.9 cm). Burton Y. Berry Collection, Eskenazi Museum of Art, Indiana University, 74.23

In some cultures, both men and women wore jewelry of all types. By the late Egyptian, Greek, and Roman periods, most necklaces, bracelets, and earrings were worn by women. Men wore signet rings and fibulae—brooches that were used to fasten cloaks, the forerunners of safety pins.

Jewelry is worn because it is beautiful and because it displays socio-economic status. In the ancient world, jewelry was also sometimes worn for religious reasons—as talismans that bring protection to the wearer. It is interesting to note that today we sometimes continue this kind of apotropaic tradition by wearing St. Christopher’s image on necklaces, for instance, or by carrying other amulets and good-luck charms in our pockets. The blue pendant on the necklace depicts the head of the Egyptian god Bes, who was the protector of households and of women and children. The pair of earrings portray the god Eros (Cupid) riding on a dolphin, an animal that was associated with Aphrodite (Venus), the goddess of love. The signet ring is engraved with the god Asklepios, who was recognized by Greeks and Romans as the god of healing.

A jewelry set including a necklace, a pair of earring, and a finger ring. Each of the two earrings has a disk with a rosette fixed to a hook, and a dangling pendant depicting a gold, cherub-like winged figure who is riding a dolphin. Each dolphin is carved out of a deep red gemstone.
A dark orange gem is set into a gold ring. The oval gem is engraved with a standing male figure. He holds a staff with a snake wrapped around it.
A small arched bow is widest at the peak of the arch. One end tapers to a spiral loop and continues as a straight pin underneath the arch. The other tapered end is attached to a rectangular latch and supports the point of the pin.
A necklace is threaded with small spherical beads and pendant beads in the shape of small figures. A large central pendant depicts the round face of man with protruding ears and a feathered headdress. Two gold earrings, each shaped like an elongated letter "S," are displayed with the necklace.

Figs. 13-16, clockwise from top left: Greek. Pair of Disk Earrings with Pendants Depicting Eros (Cupid) Riding a Dolphin, 225–150 BCE. Gold and garnet, 1 1/2 × 3/8 × 1/2 in. (3.8 × 1 × 1.3 cm) [approx.]. Burton Y. Berry Collection, Eskenazi Museum of Art, Indiana University, 70.105.15 B.1-2; Roman. Finger Ring with Engraved Gem Depicting Asclepius, 100 BCE–200 CE. Gold and carnelian, 15/16 in. (2.4 cm). Burton Y. Berry Collection, Eskenazi Museum of Art, Indiana University, 65.87.8; Egyptian. Bead Necklace with Pendant of Bes and Pair of S-shaped Earrings, 664–332 BCE. Glass, faience and gold, 21 in. (53.3 cm) diameter [approx.]. Burton Y. Berry Collection, Eskenazi Museum of Art, Indiana University, 69.107.9 A, C.1-2; Etruscan. Leech-shaped Brooch (Fibula), 800–680 BCE. Bronze, 2 9/16 × 1 3/4 in. (6.5 × 4.4 cm). Burton Y. Berry Collection, Eskenazi Museum of Art, Indiana University, 62.117.56

Protective images were brought into the home in other ways as well, and representations of gods and goddesses appeared on painted wall decoration and floor mosaics. Here, the head of Medusa adorns a lamp as protection against the evil eye. Religious rituals were often practiced at home: Egyptian parents recited specific prayers while pouring water over this small stone stele in an effort to protect their children from illness and snake bites. Similarly, Roman fathers performed daily rituals at a home shrine called a lararium, which contained statuettes of guardian deities, and early Christians in the Byzantine period displayed images of saints in their homes as an aid to private meditation. These intimate images were smaller versions of the icons on display in churches.

A young man raises his left arm to the height of his head and holds a shallow bowl in his outstretched right hand. He wears a belted tunic and a wreath of leaves on his head. His left hand and both feet are missing.
An upright, rectangular stone is carved in relief with a boy standing on top of two crocodiles, and he faces forward and holds other wild animals in his hands. A large, round face with protruding ears appears directly behind the boy. Carved symbols are placed in the background, along the sides, and all over the back of the stone.
A round lamp has a flat top and a short spout extending from one side. The head of a woman appears in relief on the top circular panel. The head faces front and is covered in long swirling hair, which incorporates many snakes.
The bust of a bearded man is carved on a small, arched stone panel, slightly broken at the top. He is wearing a robe and a decorated stole or shawl is wrapped around his shoulders. He holds a book against his chest and his right hand rests on it.

Figs. 17-20, clockwise from top left: Roman. Guardian Deity (Lar), 50–150 CE. Bronze, 3 5/16 × 1 3/4 in. (8.4 × 4.4 cm). V.G. Simkhovitch Collection, Eskenazi Museum of Art, Indiana University, 63.105.83; Egyptian. Relief (Cippus) of Horus, 300–100 BCE. Steatite, 5 x 3 1/2 x 1 1/4 in. (12.7 x 8.9 x 3.2 cm). Estate of Joseph F. McCrindle, Eskenazi Museum of Art, Indiana University, 2009.114; Byzantine. Icon with Bust of a Saint, 1000–1200 CE. Steatite, 2 1/2 x 2 3/16 in. (6.4 x 5.6 cm). Burton Y. Berry Collection, Eskenazi Museum of Art, Indiana University, 76.87.25; Roman. Lamp with Head of Medusa, 50–100 CE. Terracotta, 1 1/2 × 5 3/16 in. (3.8 × 13.2 cm). Burton Y. Berry Collection, Eskenazi Museum of Art, Indiana University, 70.60.4

Today, we are surrounded by an extraordinary number of artistic images, many more than our predecessors would have encountered. However, life is not that different. Small, beautiful objects in our homes brighten our lives; they bring pleasure, memories, and hope just as they did in the distant past.

Juliet Graver Istrabadi
Curator of Ancient Art

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Istrabadi, Juliet Graver. "Daily Life in the Ancient World" Collections Online. Sidney and Lois Eskenazi Museum of Art, Indiana University, 2020.

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