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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. https://artmuseum.indiana.edu/collections-online/features/daily-life-ancient-world.php.