Child's play in ancient Greece

Toys and a potty chair are among artifacts suggesting that ancient Greeks valued children and observed their love of play. Jenifer Neils '72, guest curator of "Coming of Age in Ancient Greece," helped select and organize images of childhood from the classical past at Dartmouth's Hood Museum of Art.

Baby feeders, grave monuments, vases and sculptures complete the exhibit of more than 120 objects on loan from American, Canadian, and European collections, chronicling the emotional and familial environment in which children were raised and their transition into adulthood. After its run from August through December 2003, the exhibit travels to the Onassis Public Benefit Foundation in New York, the Cincinnati Art Museum, and the J. Paul Getty Museum.

Neils became interested in childhood in ancient Greece, especially within the realm of religion, in 1999 as she wrote a book on the Parthenon frieze. In the center of the frieze, a child and a priest stand folding a large piece of cloth. Neils feels she has proved once and for all that the child, whose gender has been contested, is male. "This has implications for how we understand Athenian religious rituals," she says. "Boys assisted priests, and girls interacted with priestesses."

The exhibit refutes the theories of the 1962 book, Centuries of Childhood, by Phillipe Aries, who claims that childhood essentially is a construct of the 19th century. "We now know that the Greeks did observe the characteristics and behaviors of children," Neils says. "They had distinct ideas of the developmental stages of childhood and did not consider children amorphous."

Neils, a study leader for Smithsonian tours, has lectured to travelers in Greece, Malta, Sicily, and Turkey regularly since 1996. "Inevitably a Mawrter shows up on these trips," Neils says. "Of course it is always stimulating to have a Bryn Mawr person traveling with you." Neils also guides tours for The Archaeological Institute of America and Case Western Reserve University, where she is Ruth Coulter Heede Professor of Art History.

Hands-on tours offer the best learning environment, Neils says, because works of art can be viewed close-up and in person. "Artifacts are the most powerful learning tools that we have," she says. "Learning only from textbooks is a disadvantage." At Case Western, art history classes are taught in the museum, a practice that Neils upholds. "I am very object oriented," she says. "I believe in field excavations and feel it is very important to learn directly from objects."

Indeed, objects and images provide a vital link to the lives of ancient Greece's girls and boys in the scarcity of written documentation.

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