Old World Antiquity



Why study objects from ancient cultures?

Studying objects from ancient cultures helps us to learn more about early civilizations. Look for some of these items in the museum’s antiquities exhibit area.

Mesopotamia, the area of modern southwest Iraq and eastern Syria, was known by ancient Greeks as the land between two rivers--the Tigris and the Euphrates. This geographical point is one of the earliest centers of urban trade centers. Merchants in these urban centers needed ways to guarantee authenticity, protect goods from theft, and administrate businesses. This need to keep records stimulated the invention of writing. Cylinder seals were one of the first writing systems. These small, bead-like stone cylinders were engraved with a design or scene. When rolled across a pliable surface, the impression distinguished ownership. Often these symbols were very complex and took a lot of time to create. The symbols evolved into abstract, wedge-shaped patterns of lines that represented pictures and sounds cuneiform writing. Originally, each of the more than 600 signs stood for a different word!

Compared to the stocky, flat spaced figures form of Mesopotamia, Greek figurines from the Hellenistic period, late 4th century to 200 BC were highly developed. The Greek figures have elaborately detailed faces and bodies, portrayed in a variety of shapes and poses. The use of molds enabled the Greeks to mass-produce terra cotta figures of elegantly draped women—an advancement in the arts. In addition to figurines, Greek art also produced pottery with intricately painted figures.

The Roman conquest of the second century B. C. again changed the culture along with the art of the area. Many Greek works of art were stolen and taken back to Rome. The Romans were greatly influenced when the latest Greek technology was brought in. This caused the terra cotta industry to develop further along with bringing in bronze artifacts and blown glass. These bronzed artifacts became common in domestic uses and in the making of shapes of animals. The glass, also very important, shared many different uses. It was used as containers for expensive oils or powders, served as tableware, lamps, cremation urns, and jewelry. As you are able to see, the sizes and types of these pieces of glass vary from piece to piece based on their form of usage.

Large Greek amphorae were originally made as shipping containers to hold olive oil or wine. These pottery containers, which were mostly two-handled with a rounded spiked foot, had various uses. Most large amphorae were produced without intricate designs since they were used to ship large quantities of goods like olive oil and wine, rather than for day-to-day household purposes. With the spiked foot, they were easily stood upright in the sandy environment of the Mediterranean. Large amphorae were also used to carry water for a defense against fire during wars or to store water during times of severe drought. The many amphorae have been reclaimed from ancient cargoes that remained under the Mediterranean Sea for centuries. Over time, the items became incrusted with marine life.

The small village of Ban Chiang, Thailand is the site of world’s first Bronze Age (3000 BC), predating the Bronze Ages in the Middle East and china by 500 years. Terra cotta rollers are among some of the most interesting items discovered at the ancient Ban Chiang village site. These terra cotta objects were found in gravesites of children ages one to six years. What they were actually used for or why they were found in the graves is unknown, but many experts believe that the rollers had many different uses. Beautiful pottery was also discovered at the site, made without a potter’s wheel. The potter formed the body of the pot by beating it externally with a wooden paddle while supporting the inside with a terra cotta anvil. He would then decorate the outside with a red ochre paint. This pottery is known to be the earliest painted pottery found in Southeast Asia.

Tomb sculpture was first found in China during the Han Dynasty (202 BC- 220 AD). Sculptures representing either people or animals would be placed either inside or outside of a tomb. Figures used outside a tomb lined the entry to the tomb. Terracotta horse heads are often found at these burial sites. The bodies of the horse figures were often made from wood, which deteriorated much more quickly over time than the terra cotta items.
This burial trend continued throughout the Tang Dynasty (618- 907 AD), accounting for a large portion of the ceramics produced during that dynasty. Similar to the ancient Egyptians, the upper classes of the Tang society sought to surround themselves with replicas of the riches they had enjoyed during their lives. These objects were placed in the tombs to provide for the needs of the dead in the afterlife. Literally hundreds of pottery items were prepared for one’s burial during their lifetime. Figures such as servants, musicians, and professional attendants were placed in the tomb along with models of animals, guardian spirits, and vessels from everyday life.

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