Forget what you thought about the Greeks - learn more at Ancient Greeks exhibition at the National Museum of Australia

Terracotta figurine of women playing knucklebones, circa 330-300 BCE, part of the Ancient Greeks exhibition at the National Museum of Australia from December 17.
Terracotta figurine of women playing knucklebones, circa 330-300 BCE, part of the Ancient Greeks exhibition at the National Museum of Australia from December 17.

What is it we find so captivating about gazing upon ancient Greek artefacts?

Is it a sense of connection to the ancient world, or wonder at the vast chasm between our time and theirs?

Do we see ourselves in the spirit of competition that defined the ancient Greek world, and marvel at the continuity of human triumph and endeavour?

Or is it just a form of escape?

Whatever the reason behind the enduring popularity of such shows, the National Museum of Australia's long-delayed, much-anticipated Ancient Greeks exhibition is set to be a winner.

The collection of 170 objects from the British Museum in London has already travelled half-way across the world - most recently from the other side of this country in Perth - and will be one of the only major international shows this summer in Canberra.

And, says museum director Mathew Trinca, it couldn't be coming at a better time.

"If there's ever been a time when we've needed to see the best of what the world can offer, it's now," he says.

He is speaking, it must be said, from a place of exhaustion and relief. Canberra's most recent lockdown has just ended, but this exhibition, originally slated for summer 2020, has been teetering on the edge for weeks. But amid postponements, indefinite rainchecks and outright cancellations left, right and centre in the world of arts, culture and sport, the Greeks - in all their warrior-like glory - have been a kind of beacon of hope in the cultural calendar.

Engraved chalcedony sealstone, 350-300 BCE.

Engraved chalcedony sealstone, 350-300 BCE.

"To be able to bring this suite of objects here, at this time, when you need to remember and recall what it means to be human in the most fundamental way, having just lived through this pandemic, I can't think of a more opportune time to have the show," he says.

"Just coming to the show will be an affirmation of recovering aspects of our lives that we've desired and loved."

If that sounds over-wrought, consider the enduring popularity of such exhibitions. These objects, liberated from the vast rooms and stores of the British Museum, contain centuries of memories, experiences and adulations of generations, ages and epochs.

People made them, held them, used them, and, possibly, discarded them hundreds of years ago. Unearthed and studied in the years since, people have queued up to see them up close.

From exquisite gold jewellery and iconic black and red ceramics featuring depictions of athletes, gods and citizens, to marble and terracotta statues and reliefs, bronze figurines, weapons, armour, toys, games and coins, these objects run the gamut of the ancient world - as we understand it today, that is.

National Museum curator Lily Withycombe says our continued fascination stems from the shock of recognition, followed closely by a sense of proximity to what is ultimately an alien world.

"When you see an object that you recognise, and you think I know exactly what that is, that's a plate, that's a cup, that's a bowl, I use that myself, and there's that immediate connection, you think they're not so different to us," she says.

A classic ceramic hydria (water jar), black figure pottery, circa 510 BCE.

A classic ceramic hydria (water jar), black figure pottery, circa 510 BCE.

"And then you look more closely, and you look into the text, and you look into the images, and you think, that was a totally different world, and it's so fascinating."

On the one hand, echoes of ancient Greece are all around us - architecture, food, democracy and pandemic buzzwords, for example. Delta or omicron, anyone?

But, says Withycombe, begin to interrogate these echoes for even a moment and it's clear that they are faint, if obvious. Democracy, for example, derived from demos (the people) and kratia (the rule of) only ever applied to men in the ancient world.

"And sporting competitions - the Greeks did that, and we do that, so we recognise it," she says. "But then you think about this sense of competition and victory, and actually, victory isn't about how hard you can work. It's not about the individual. It's about whether or not the gods are on your side."

But it's this we contemplate each time we come across one of those classic Athenian hard-fired black and orange vessels, decorated with scenes from Greek legends. Like a particular hydria - or water vessel with three handles, which would have been used by the ancient Greeks to pour water into a cup of wine, because in theory, only barbarians drank straight wine.

It's objects like this - made to last, and used by the wealthy - that link us so strongly to another time.

"They have such vivid insights into the ancient world," she says. "I always think that they're sort of like comic books, and you can read them, but they're just the beginning of a story. And so you're not meant to read it as the beginning, middle and end, it's almost like it's a conversation starter."

She's also taken by a tiny carved gemstone, likely once worn on a ring, in vivid blue, featuring a depiction of Nike, Goddess of Victory.

"What's really fascinating about gemstones, and I always think about this, is that it's almost like the best pieces of ancient Greek art haven't necessarily survived," she says.

Terracotta figure of a cheese seller, circa 390-370 BCE.

Terracotta figure of a cheese seller, circa 390-370 BCE.

"But the carved gemstones are like the virtuoso exemplar of ancient Greek art, and so many of these survived because they were collected in antiquity. And then in the afterlife afterwards, by royal collections, church collections, they've survived. They've been collected and passed on."

But Withycombe, an archaeologist by training, is equally taken by a small terracotta figurine of a cheese seller riding to market on a donkey. We know he's a cheese seller because he is sitting on what is very obviously, a large wheel of cheese.

"I think about the Odyssey, like Polyphemus the Cyclops, the first cheese maker of history, this giant making cheese for the sheep," she says.

We have this strange perception that the ancient Greeks walked around in the marketplace and the agora just talking about philosophy and looking at how beautiful each other were, but most people's lives were pretty awful.

Peter Higgs, acting keeper of Greek collections at the British Museum

This little terracotta man, part of the everyday material culture of people doing ordinary things, contains multitudes.

"You might feel you know the sort of star pieces [in the exhibition] but then you see this and you think, I'm just astonished, and you get this insight into the ancient world that you never expected."

Indeed, Peter Higgs, the acting keeper of Greek collections at the British Museum, says one of the main drivers of his work is to rid the study of the ancient Greeks of elitism - the old trope of public school boys learning Greek and Latin in college, and thus laying claim to the discipline.

"I think nowadays, we've got to show people that the technology, the craftsmanship, but also the stories that [run] through the Greek world are there for everybody," he says. "They are very much about ordinary people going off [on] travels, settling in new areas. And they resonate with us today - stories are about finding yourself, understanding yourself, going off on explorations, being adventurous, being brave, being scared, whatever it might be, all these different human emotions are there in stories about the ancient Greek world."

But he says while the objects that we'll soon be seeing may well have the effect of bringing us closer to the ancient world, to people who had similar needs and desires, most ancient Greeks led miserable lives. The show is subtitled "Athletes, Warriors and Heroes", mostly because these are the depictions that have survived.

"We have this strange perception that the ancient Greeks walked around in the marketplace and the agora just talking about philosophy and looking at how beautiful each other were, but most people's lives were pretty awful," he says.

"It's a shame that we can't represent them more in exhibitions, because you know, the real people, the people that worked in the fields, the people that looked after the children for the wealthy, they all supported the elites so that they had time to go off and train in the gymnasium or write plays or even go off to war.

"They're the unsung heroes, they're the ones we should remember. Most of us probably would have been pretty much like them, and wouldn't have had time to be creative."

But in fact, this is a weirdly amazing time to be viewing such a collection of objects, in the midst of a modern-day pandemic that could well have had the ancient Greeks rolling their eyes with impatience. Their world would have suffered plague after plague, with no vaccines to fight over. But their reactions, and their resulting output, had the same guiding force.

"Despite going off to fight each other all the time, over resources or over stupid arguments, they did come together when they were being creative," Higgs says.

"And whether that be creative in sports, or literature, writers, whatever it might be, and improving and producing things, that's when they kind of shone.

Gold earrings, circa 350-250 BCE.

Gold earrings, circa 350-250 BCE.

"It's the same with us during the pandemic, we've found ways of being creative. Under different pressures, people have managed to kind of do what we're doing, talk online, create music online, they're doing all kinds of things. So it's that human spirit which is there. And it doesn't matter what culture really it is, I think all human cultures have been like that, throughout history and are today."

Withycombe says it's here that reception theory - the notion different audiences experience exhibitions, books or works of art differently - is right at the forefront of an exhibition like this. And Australian audiences, particularly those with a Greek background, bring a particular humour and levity to what is ultimately a seriously history-heavy show.

Terracotta statuette of Nike, Goddess of Victory, circa 300-200 BCE.

Terracotta statuette of Nike, Goddess of Victory, circa 300-200 BCE.

"I think there's a real sort of Antipodean sense of humor, and that's something really important, the way that Australians receive Ancient Greece is different to anyone else," she says.

"We really want to make sure people are bringing this to life. And there's a vibrancy and a colour, and a joy and an excitement."

  • Ancient Greeks: Athletes, Warriors and Heroes opens at the National Museum of Australia on December 17 and runs until May 1.

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This story Forget what you thought about the Greeks. That's ancient history first appeared on The Canberra Times.