ARCH 0420: Archaeologies of the Greek Past

Entries from March 2014

An Early Spring Day in Olynthus House A vii 4 (Angela Cao)

March 25, 2014 · 8 Comments

          This paper seeks to explore a day in the life of an ancient Greek household at Olynthus, drawing especially heavily upon Nicholas Cahill’s plan of House A vii 4 that includes the artifacts were found in each room. The reconstruction further uses readings about Greek daily life and determines in which rooms of this house certain activities occurred, in order to recreate a potential daily routine for the woman of this household. Specific explanations for these choices can be found in thee footnotes below. 2002.01.0022

Soon after the sun rises, I wake in my bedroom on this chilly day. I lie in bed and watch the weak sunlight shine in through the small window.[1] My thoughts wander to strange and faraway places: How long would my family live in this house? What would remain when we are gone? Could someone in the future understand how we live based on what objects and architecture remains? However, it is time to rise and start the day, so I send my slave girl to heat water in the flue and prepare my bath in the adjacent bathtub.[2] I walk down the stairs and enter into the kitchen to take my bath using the fragrant oils and perfumes I store there.[3] Once I am finished bathing, my slave girl empties my dirty bath water in the court where it can drain out to the street, while I go back upstairs and retrieve the peplos I will wear today from my wooden clothing chest.[4] It is early spring, so the woolen peplos will keep me warm. I arrange my hair into a plait and awaken my young son and daughter for the day, helping them to get dressed as well.

Since we are all dressed, I am prepared to begin the day. My children and I go downstairs, where my slave girl is tending to the charcoal fire in the flue. The weather is cold because it is still early in the day, so we use the fire in the flue for warmth.[5] The loom on which I have been weaving a piece of cloth to make a new blanket is in the multipurpose room adjacent to the flue. We use this room to store many things, and because it is next to the flue, I can weave my cloth here and remain warm while having enough light to see the detailed pattern I am creating.[6] I sit down to continue weaving the wool as my children play in the pastas. During this time, my slave girl cleans the family’s dirty laundry in the court, hanging up the clothes until they are ready again to be stored. Later into the morning, I finish making my piece of fabric and remove the completed cloth from the loom so that my slave girl can take apart the loom and put it back into storage in this room. I bring the fabric upstairs and put it into the wooden chest where I keep the bedding for my household, where it will remain until I can weave a plain piece of fabric to be the reverse side to the blanket.

It is almost time for our midday meal, and my husband and our slave boy should return home from the market shortly. My slave girl gathers barley from the pithos in the storeroom and tells me that the grains are nearly depleted.[7] I must remember to restock the barley soon, as it is one of the most important components of my family’s diet. Like most families that live in our area on the North Hill, we only have one relatively small primary pithos buried in the storeroom. Because we are located very close to the center of Olynthus and have easy access to the market, we have no need to store a large amount of grain in our house.[8] However, we do keep extra grains at the communal storage on the North Hill, which we keep in the event that there is suddenly a food shortage.[9] My slave girl grinds the barley at the mortar in the kitchen and then kneads the flour into dough, while I add more charcoal to the fire to ensure that it will be strong enough to bake the dough into bread.[10] I go into the kitchen and bring the olive oil and honey to the room in which we will dine. I set the accompaniments to our bread on the wooden table and ensure that all of the cushions to the seats around the room are in place.[11] Because we Greeks take light midday meals, the only preparation I have left to do for lunch is clean the radishes and figs we will eat as well. I take a bowl from the wooden cabinet in the pastas and place the radishes and figs inside it, arranging the bowl on the table in the dining room.[12] My slave girl finishes baking the bread in the flue and brings this to the table as well, just as my husband and our slave boy return home from the market. My husband has brought back an eel that was caught in Lake Kopaïs. This is one of the best loved foods imported to Greece, and I shall cook it later for my husband to serve to the friends he has as guests in the symposium he will host this evening.[13] I call my children to the dining room, and my family and I eat our midday meal together there.

After we finish eating our meal, our two slaves clear the table together, washing the cookware in the court and storing the serving dishes away. My husband goes to retrieve the scales and weights from the multipurpose room in order to prepare for selling this afternoon, bringing them to the shop.[14] In the shop, my family sells a variety of agricultural goods that change depending on the crops that are growing well. Today, my husband will sell olives and grapes, as well as cucumbers, all of which our slave boy will clean before it is sold. After the fire in the flue is extinguished, my children ask me to help them fix one of their toys, a ball made out of a pig’s bladder. I use the ashes to make the ball rounder and the children go to play in the court.[15] Because the sun is now out, I take some wool that my slave girl has just brought in and brush it out in the court. I like to enjoy of all of the light that the court allows to stream into my house, and the wool can be quite dirty, so it is beneficial to brush apart the tangled wool in the open air rather than in one of the enclosed rooms in my house.[16] When I have finished separating the wool, my slave girl begins to spin the wool that I will use to make more cloth.

My house is in need of more water, so I take the hydria from the pastas and go to the fountain house and collect more water for my house, stopping to speak with a few of the other women that I encounter.[17] I bring the hydria back to the pastas and take out a loom from the multipurpose room, which I set up in the court. The weather is pleasant right now because of the sun, but I must complete my work on the loom before nightfall as the cold weather of the night can damage the loom, and it is difficult to move the loom while there is an unfinished piece of cloth on it.[18] Luckily, I am only weaving a small piece of fabric that will become part of the blanket that I am making. While I work, my daughter approaches me with one of her dolls that has lost an arm. I take a break to quickly mend the doll for her, and she returns to playing in the court. My son is here as well, chasing after our family goose.[19] I spend a very pleasant afternoon completing this piece of fabric while watching over my children. Once I have finished working on the cloth, my slave girl takes apart the loom and replaces it into storage.

2002.01.0023It is now nearly time for my husband to begin preparing to have his guests over for the symposium tonight, so he brings the scales and weights from the shop back to the multipurpose room for storage. Our slave boy cleans the whole of the anteroom and the andron, ensuring that the colorful walls are bright for the guests. To facilitate this, my husband brings the lamps from the kitchen and sets them up in the andron.[20] In the kitchen, I begin to prepare the Kopaïc eel for my husband to serve tonight, while my slave girl restarts the fire in the flue. She prepares the meal for my children and me, which will include pig, grains cooked into porridge, and pumpkin. This is our main meal, so I like to ensure that my children and I will eat a significant amount. My husband and I mix a great deal more in metal kraters for the men to drink after they have finished eating.[21] I finish cooking the rest of the dishes for my husband’s guests and leave them on the kitchen table for our slave boy to serve. My slave girl brings the dishes to the dining room for my children and me to eat, which we do in the light of the lamp. Once we have finished, I go to help my children wash and prepare for bed as my slave girl cleans up after dinner, and then I head back upstairs to bed myself. So ends another fulfilling day in my house.

[1] The second floor may have contained bedrooms, but no archaeological material remains because wooden beds and bedding would have disintegrated over time.

[2] The flue is room D on Figure 1, identified by ashes and burn marks found on the stone floor. The bathtub was next to the flue, in room C, but has since been removed. Most middle to upper class families in Greece had at least one slave.

[3] The staircase on Figure 2 leads downstairs to the court, which is room I. Two lekythoi were found next to the space the terra cotta bathtub used to be located.

[4] Greeks commonly used wooden chests to store clothing and bed linens.

[5] The flue featured an open air shaft rather than a chimney, so Greeks preferred charcoal fires as it burns with less smoke than wood. Olynthus was cold in the winter.

[6] Room B on Figure 1 contained many assorted household items, including 23 loom weights, and was a storage space as well as multipurpose room.

[7] The storeroom is room G on Figure 1 and was discovered with one pithos inside.

[8] North Hill houses like A vii 4 generally contained one single small pithos in the store room that could hold a month’s worth of grain, whereas houses in the Villa Section were farther from the market and had multiple large pithos, used to store a year’s worth of food.

[9] There is evidence of a communal storage facility dug into the North Hill.

[10] The kitchen is room E on Figure 1 and contained a large stone mortar.

[11] A lekythos was found in the kitchen, and Greeks typically ate bread with olive oil and honey. This room is room A on Figure 1, which was found devoid of artifacts. It is a dining room in this essay as the wooden furniture would have disintegrated over time, and the room is private so the family can eat together in peace.

[12] Many eating and drinking vessels, as well as the metal remnants of a piece of furniture, were found in the pastas.

[13] Eel from Lake Kopaïs was a particular delicacy in Greece.

[14] Two scales and weights were found in room B on Figure 1. The shop is room H on Figure 1, identified because it has an entrance directly into the street. A shattered pithos was discovered here, but it is unclear exactly what kind of trade took place in this room.

[15] A ball is a common toy with which Greek children liked to play.

[16] Greek women typically wove textiles for the household from wool that they

[17] A hydria was found in the pastas. There was no well or water sources at this house. Greek women typically collected the water for the household and used the fountain houses as an opportunity to gossip and have social exchanges with their peers.

[18] The court contained some loom weights and would have had a large amount of light needed to weave, as shown in Figure 3.

[19] Dolls were common toys for Greek children, and the material later disintegrated. Geese were the most common pet for Greek households.

[20] The andron is room K on Figure 1, and the anteroom is room J, identified by the offset doors, rich decor, and close location to the street, as well as the platform in the andron. Lamps were found in the kitchen and would provide a low amount of light at night.

[21] At symposia, Greek men drank wine only after the meal had been eaten. No metal kraters were found in the house, perhaps because the residents fled with these vessels or because they were looted later.


Cahill, Nicholas. Household and City Organization at Olynthus. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002.

Cahill, Nicholas. ‘Household Industry in Greece and Anatolia.’ Ancient Greek Houses and Households: Chronological, Regional, and Social Diversity. Edited by Bradley A. Ault and Lisa C. Nevett. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005.

Garland, Robert. Daily Life of the Ancient Greeks. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2009.

Nevett, Lisa C. Housing and Society in the Ancient Greek World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Walker, Susan. Women and Housing in Classical Greece. Croom Helm, 1983


Categories: Weekly posts

The Propylaea (by Guo Wang)

March 5, 2014 · 7 Comments


Today, the Parthenon hogs all the glory on the Athenian Acropolis. Tourists flock to it every day, all but ignoring an equally-remarkable structure as they walk right through it. The Propylaea, part of Pericles’ grand construction plan, straddles the entrance to the Acropolis. Its construction was directed by Mnesikles, and began directly after the Parthenon was completed. Contemporary writers such as Pausanias and Demosthenes valued the Propylaea just as greatly as the Parthenon, naming it as one of Athens’ greatest monuments and going on at length about its marble roofs and gilt decorations. 

Clearly, Mnesikles designed the Propylaea as more than a simple gatehouse  – it was designed as a central hall with four wings projecting from it, two on each side. The building’s core consisted of a wide set of steps leading up to a gatewall, with its five openings of varying size. Interestingly, the threshold of the left-most entrance is much more worn than those of the other gateways. This strongly suggests that the other gates (three of which are larger and more centrally-located) were sealed off at some point (likely with doors, as evidence shows), with the left-most door left open as the only entrance. Taking this one step further, since the Acropolis was intended to double as fortified ground, the Propylaea was almost certainly intended to serve as the fully-sealable gate that barred access to the Acropolis in case the Athenian populace ever retreated there during a siege.

Mcauliffe_FloorplanThis utilitarian function does not explain why the Propylaea was so beautifully designed and well-decorated, however. For example, the Pinakotheke, the larger of the two constructed wings, was anything but a stark guardpost. It was suggested to be a hospitality area to accommodate pilgrims to the Acropolis, though others proposed that it was used as a formal banquet hall instead. Later on, it also displayed pictures within it, though that may not have been its original purpose. No matter whether the Pinakotheke served as a rest stop, a dining hall, or a gallery, it was almost certainly an ancillary component to the full structure, and is not indicative of its primary purpose.

E0702 KLENZE 9463The clue to the purpose of the Propylaea not only lies in its construction, but also in its location. An imposing structure such as this situated at the head of the Acropolis could hardly be missed from most points in the city, including the Agora to the northwest. In addition, it also lies at the end of the Panathenaic way, guarding the entrance to the most sacred ground in the region. Once a year, the Panathenaic Procession would pass down the Panathenaic way from the Dipylon Gate all the way to the Acropolis. Led by the wheeled ship bearing the robe of Athena (the peplos), the procession consisted of members of most walks of Athenian life: old generals, young athletes, women escorting the wheeled ship, metics (foreign residents in Athens) bearing gifts, and representatives from every deme in Attica. In Athens’ later imperial years, representatives from every allied state were also required to be present, bearing offerings. As the parade reached the foot of the Acropolis, the first of the offerings to Athena were made here, in the shadow of the towering Propylaea. Only citizens were permitted to pass beyond this, and escort the wheeled ship to the Erechtheion. Here, the Propylaea marked the boundary between the civil world of the city of Athens and the spiritual world of the Acropolis, in a suitably grand style.

The location of the Propylaea, in conjunction with the context of the historical environment in which it was built, gives us a real sense of what Propylaea was mainly designed to do. Yes, it was in essence a gate. But no gate needs to be so monumental and beautiful to fulfill its function of controlling access. Instead, we should consider it as part of Pericles’s grand construction project, which began soon after the Athenian victory over the Second Persian Invasion. Athens has just risen from its lowest point – the occupation and razing of the city – to its highest, after its singlehanded defeat of the force which brought the rest of the Hellenic world to its knees. Pericles’ building program was therefore symbolic of that bounce back from foreign destruction, stronger than ever. Like a phoenix rising from its own ashes, the Propylaea rose on top of an earlier structure (which served a similar function and was no doubt destroyed by the Persians) to light up the classical skyline. To Athenian citizens, this fortress of white marble and glowing bronze stokes the fires of patriotism in the grandest display of power the city has seen yet. To foreigners, including the “allies” of the Delian League, the same sight asserts the political, economic, and military might of Athens. No matter who stands at the foot of the Propylaea, gazing up in wonder, Mnesikles is sending a clear message: Athens has risen from its ashes stronger than it has ever been.

Categories: Weekly posts