LUCAS: χαίρετε τοῖς παλαιοίς Ἕλλησι!
SOPHIA: And that’s Ancient Greek for, ‘Check out all this cool old stuff!’
LUCAS: (Sighs) Is not, Sophia.
SOPHIA: (Laughs) Kidding, Lucas! It means… (impressive voice) Welcome to the world of the Ancient Greeks, (normal voice) a civilisation from around 3000 years ago that still shapes the way we live our lives today.
LUCAS: I knew that.
SOPHIA: Well, I said it first.
LUCAS: Maybe, but just saying, I know, like, SO much about Ancient Greeks.
SOPHIA: It’s not a competition, Lucas.
LUCAS: Actually, Sophia, if it’s about the Ancient Greeks it is definitely a competition. They were super competitive. All they wanted to do was win, win, win, win, win.
SOPHIA: Bags the audio stop about armour.
LUCAS: Hey! I wanted that.
SOPHIA: (Smirking noise)
LUCAS: Then I bags Nike!
SOPHIA: But she’s a goddess, so I should get her.
LUCAS: But I’m her number one fan. Too late.
SOPHIA: OK, fine. It doesn’t really matter – I want to see everything anyway.
LUCAS: I am so excited. I have my Big Book of Gods, my Heroes of Athens collector cards, I’m wearing my Hermes socks and my Nike sneakers, I am SO set.
SOPHIA: You are SO over prepared, Lucas. I’m just going to wander around and let all the cool stuff surprise me.
LUCAS: But you’re supposed to be doing the audio tour with me! You can’t just let the ‘cool stuff surprise you’.
SOPHIA: Relax, Lucas. I’m ready with my audio stops. But I want to get more out of this than just whatever you or I say about the objects. I’m keeping my eyeballs peeled at all times.
LUCAS: That sounds ... disgusting. But that’s actually the way I feel about it too. There’s always something new to know. Shall we get started?
SOPHIA: Great! Let’s do it.
LUCAS: Young friends, as you walk through the exhibition with us, you’re going to see ... astounding sporting heroes!
SOPHIA: Gods and goddesses!
LUCAS: Weapons and armour!
SOPHIA: Toys and games!
LUCAS: Incredible art!
SOPHIA: And definitely no bananas.
LUCAS: What? That’s not in my notes ... (rustles papers)
SOPHIA: You’ll see. All will be explained.
LUCAS: Okaaay! The important thing is, so much of what you see around you is still important today. We’ll talk you through 10 super interesting items in this exhibition, but keep your eyes … erm, peeled … as you go through the rest, because there is so much to see.
SOPHIA: Like the gods who pop up over and over again on objects of all shapes and sizes.
LUCAS: Or the amazing way the Ancient Greeks made their art.
SOPHIA: Or what sort of food and drink they liked.
LUCAS: Hint. You will not believe what they did with grated cheese.
SOPHIA: And don’t forget the competition. The Ancient Greeks loved competing against each other.
LUCAS: Yup – sport, war, love, art … they always wanted to be the best.
SOPHIA: Ready? Let’s enter the world of … (impressive voice) the Ancient Greeks!
LUCAS: Seriously, where’s the bit about bananas?
LUCAS: Look at this statue of Nike, the goddess of victory. It’s more than 2000 years old but it’s still soooo beautiful ... even if it is a teensy weensy bit damaged.
Okay, fine! It’s quite a lot damaged. Dings and scratches everywhere ... and maybe you’ve noticed something missing. Up top there. Yep, she was definitely supposed to have a head. If you look closely, though, you’ll see there’s actually a socket for the head.
You’ll see the hands are missing too. That’s because the sculptors wanted to use better stone for the face and hands so they could put more detail in. They carved those bits separately, then attached them to the body. But somewhere along the way, poor Nike’s head and hands have gone missing. If you happen to know where they are, please let the Museum staff know.
Now, look closely at her shoulders. Those are some pretty cool feathers there. What on earth do you think they’re for? Well, these feathers are actually all that’s left of a set of wings. And that’s one reason we know this statue is of Nike, because Nike was the most famous goddess with wings.
But what did Nike need wings for? Obviously, if you have wings, you’ll do loop-the-loops, even if nobody is looking. At least, I would. We can only guess if Nike did. But we do know one thing she used her wings for.
The Ancient Greeks believed the gods could appear amongst them and talk with them at any time, a bit like modern movie superheroes. So imagine you’re running a race. You win! Wait, what’s that in the sky? No way! It’s Nike descending on her wings to the finish line to reward you for your victory! Awesome!
When you think of Nike moving in the wind like that, the flowy bits of her robe make sense. Look how they seem to be rippling. And they would have been even more stunning thousands of years ago because they would have been super colourful. I know we always think of ancient statues as being all plain and grey and stoney, but most of the time they were actually painted in fabulous colours. Try to imagine this statue in full colour, robes billowing in the wind!
Oh, one more thing. You may have heard the word Nike before – it’s a well-known sports brand, after all. And who better to name your sports brand after than the goddess of victory! Isn’t it amazing that thousands of years later, her name is splashed across millions of sporting products all around the world and worn by athletes competing at the highest level?
Now that’s some victory!
Nike was extremely popular, so keep a sharp eye out. You might see her on other objects in this exhibition.
LUCAS: Okay. Imagine you’ve done something awesome at school and the principal calls you up to give you a prize. You hold out your hand for the prize and the principal gives you …
A bag of sheep bones? Ummmm … WHAT?!
This may sound just a little bit lame, but if you were in Ancient Greece you’d be like, YES! You’d grab those bones, grab your friends and start playing a game of knucklebones. That’s exactly what the women in this statue are doing.
Knucklebones were made from all sorts of stuff, like metal, glass, wood, ivory or even terracotta, which is what this statue is made from.
Knucklebones were a prized possession. They could also be valuable, and the Ancient Greeks would even offer them to the gods.
So they’d take the knucklebones to a temple and be like, ‘Oh, Mighty Demeter, please take these knucklebones and give me a good harvest.’
And Demeter would be like, ‘What awesome knucklebones! I’ll see how I feel in the spring.’
Unfortunately, the gods didn’t always keep their promises. Still, the Ancient Greeks always tried. In one cave archaeologists discovered over 16,000 knucklebones that had been left as offerings for some nymphs, a type of water spirit. Can you imagine Pokémon cards or other collectables being offered to the gods today?
There were heaps of ways to play knucklebones. First, you threw them into the air. In some games you’d try to catch them. Other times you’d let them land and score them depending on how they landed, like dice. Some people thought you could even use them to predict the future. And if you wanted some extra luck, you could throw the knuckles then call out the name of a god, or maybe the person you loved.
Whose name would you call on for luck?
Games of knucklebones have been found all over the world. You can even buy plastic knucklebones in some game shops today. It’s also known as just Knuckles or Jacks. Have you ever played it? Maybe your parents or grandparents played it when they were kids. Why not ask to play a game with them? You could always call on the gods for help.
SOPHIA: What is this statue holding? If you said ‘frisbee’, you’re super close. If you said ‘discus’, you’re even closer because you’re right!
Have you ever thrown a discus? Maybe at your school athletics carnival? Maybe you’ve seen one at the Olympics. This here is a statue of a young athlete from Ancient Greece, getting ready to throw his discus.
Now, I’m guessing at your athletics carnival you probably wore clothes, right? Well this competitor is definitely totally absolutely starkers. His bottom is bare. He’s nikky nakky nekkid! No fig leaves here, people! You get the idea.
Why do you think that is? Did athletes really compete naked? Or is this another way of showing all of the athlete’s muscles for the statue? Guess what! The answer is both!
This statue is actually a Roman copy of an Ancient Greek statue. The original would have been made of bronze, but this one is made of marble. Romans loved Greek culture and often made copies of their art. Lots of the originals have been lost or destroyed and only the Roman marble copies have survived.
If you’ve ever broken one of your parents’ vases and tried to fix it without them knowing (it’s okay, I won’t tell) you’ll probably notice that this statue has been repaired. A lot.
Look at the different types of marble they’ve used to fix it. Almost every bit of it has been replaced or mended, except for the main body and a little bit of the discus. But there were so many copies made of this statue, it was easy to repair it and make it look just like the original.
There’s another really cool statue of an athlete in this exhibition. It’s called the Vaison Diadoumenus statue. See if you can find it. Hint – it’s another nudey rudey. Look at them both and see what’s similar – and what’s different.
This statue shows the athlete before the discus event. The Vaison Diadoumenos statue shows the athlete after he won the competition, so they look a bit different. The Ancient Greeks loved sports and celebrating their sporting heroes. That’s why there are so many statues of them.
Sometimes we idolise our athletes too. But, today, they definitely wear clothes. Much less awkward.
LUCAS: Have you ever been to a party with punch? No, not like a punch in the nose. That would be a terrible party! Punch, as in the special drink made from soft drink or fruit juice, maybe with pieces of fruit all mixed up in it. It’s served in a big bowl and you use a ladle to serve it into smaller cups.
This krater is a type of punchbowl. In Ancient Greece the krater would have had a mixture of wine in it, not soft drink or juice, but it would still have been shared out like our punch.
This krater tells us two things about the Ancient Greeks.
One. They really liked parties.
And two. They loved sports.
What sport is being shown here? It’s one we don’t play today, and for a really good reason. It is extremely dangerous!
The man shown is competing in a dismounting horse race known as the anabates. Competitors had to ride their horse as fast as they could. As they approached the end of the race, they had to leap off their horse while it was still running. And then race their horse on foot to the finish line. Sounds like a good way to get trampled.
But it was also excellent practice for being a soldier, which is why the anabates was such a popular sport. You had to be fast, strong, brave and agile and not too worried about horses and men thundering around you.
The man on this krater was certainly fast and strong. And I think he’s going to win the race. Do you know how I know that? Can you see any clues on the krater?
Look at the figure with wings. She’s holding out a wreath made from laurel leaves. The laurel wreath is the trophy for winning the race. The winner wears it on his head. I hope he’s not allergic to laurel!
By the way, I bet you can figure out who the figure holding the wreath is. You may have already seen her somewhere else in this exhibition. If you don’t know, keep looking for a goddess with wings, who’s all about winning. You’ll find her!
There’s one other cool thing about this krater. Like so many words from Ancient Greek, 'krater' is still used today. But we’re more likely to find boiling lava in our craters, not drinks for a party. That’s right, the crater of a volcano is named after kraters like this.
Why do you think that is?
LUCAS: Okay, everyone, here we have a teeny tiny vase with a special name. Look at the label for it. This is a ... choose. A choss. A chows? A chowus. Oh, man, I knew how to pronounce this like five seconds ago. Wait a second.
Hey Sophia! How do you pronounce this vasey cup thing? Is it a ‘choose’?
SOPHIA: Bless you! It’s pronounced ‘koos’!
Koos. Koos, koos, koos. Okay, I’ll remember now.
It’s tricky, though, isn’t it? How do we normally pronounce ‘ch’ in English now? That’s right, ch. As in children chasing chickens chewing cheese.
But there are a few words in English where the ‘ch’ is pronounced ‘ck’, and usually that means we got the word from Ancient Greece. Can you think of any?
What about 'character'? The Ancient Greeks used that the same way we do, to describe a person.
Or 'chemical'? That’s from the Ancient Greek word to describe fluid or juice.
Or 'chaos'! When things are crazy and out of control. That’s from the Greek word kaos, which means a vast, empty space. Maybe if things are chaotic you feel like you’re about to fall into a vast, empty space.
So even though Ancient Greek hasn’t been spoken much for over 1500 years, some of the words are still used all the time. Some things never change!
Like kids, actually. Look at the boy on this chous. I bet some of what he’s doing is pretty familiar. What can you see?
The boy has a pet dog and a crow is hopping along behind him. We know the Ancient Greeks loved their pet dogs just as much as we do, but they didn’t have as many types of dogs. Their pet dogs would have probably looked like today’s Maltese terriers – you know, those cute, white, fluffy yappers.
The boy is also holding a musical instrument. Do you know the name of this instrument?
It’s a lyre, which is a stringed instrument, a bit like a harp. The harps we know are usually made from wood. But a lyre like this one was often made from the shell of a tortoise.
Maybe this boy is on his way to his lesson. Do you think he loves playing? Or does he think it’s soooo boring and his parents have to make him practice? Being able to play the lyre was a sign that you were well-educated and from a wealthy family. So maybe the boy was proud of his lyre. Or maybe his parents just wanted to show off. What do you think?
SOPHIA: Remember at the start when Lucas and I said Ancient Greece was all about competition? Nothing says competition like soldiers in armour! Back then, wars were fought face-to-face and hand-to-hand, so good armour was a must if you wanted to win.
The helmet protects the head. The greaves protect the legs, like shin guards in cricket. And the cuirass protects the chest and back.
Oh, wow! Look at the dent in the cuirass. Halfway up the front of the ribs? Imagine a soldier wearing this right in the heat of battle and THUNK! he’s stabbed in the chest with a spear. This armour might have saved his life.
Do you reckon this armour would fit you? Or your parents? It’s not really that big, is it? That’s because the Ancient Greeks were much shorter than most people today – except Lucas, who would probably fit this armour perfectly.
SOPHIA: Right. Sorry! The soldier who wore these would have been the height of a 13-year-old boy today. Yet a suit of armour could weigh over 22 kilograms. That’s like 11 two-litre bottles of milk. Imagine that in your backpack on the way to school!
Why was the armour so heavy?
It was made of bronze because it was the best material the Ancient Greeks had to make strong armour with. But bronze is super heavy and seriously hard to move in – and really expensive too.
Check out the helmet. It might save you from a sword to the head, but it would have been very hard to see out of. And I bet it was really hard to dodge and run if you were wearing a cuirass and greaves like these.
So, what do you do if you’re an Ancient Greek army who want the very best armour to protect themselves, but still want to be able to move in it and crush their opponents under their heels?
You work out a way to have the best armour and fight effectively. They invented a battle formation where all the soldiers would stand side by side with other soldiers and move in a solid group, with their shields overlapping. This was called a phalanx and it was very hard to fight.
Even then, war was messy and terrifying. You couldn’t see or hear well through your helmet. Metal clashed against metal. Men were shouting and screaming.
Being a soldier in Ancient Greece was not for the faint-hearted!
SOPHIA: Time for a guessing game. Is this ...
- a fancy soup bowl
- a wine goblet, or
- a dog dish?
The Ancient Greeks must have been thirsty, because this enormous vessel is actually a wine goblet! The Greeks called it a kylix.
So what did Ancient Greeks do with their wine? Did they ...
- dilute it with lots of water
- mix it with grated cheese, or
- fling it at targets to entertain themselves?
The answer is ... all of the above! Eeyeew.
At parties they used to lie down on the floor and fling their wine at a target in the corner. And what’s worse, the wine was mixed with all sorts of things when it was served, including herbs and cheese. Imagine your parents and their friends lying on the lounge-room floor and throwing chunky wine at the wall.
Chunky wine is also hard to see through, so kylixes like these were made to have a surprise picture on the bottom that was only revealed once the wine had been drunk – or thrown across the room!
Sometimes the pictures on the bottom of the kylix were funny. Sometimes they were a warning.
This kylix shows a scene from the story of Achilles. Basically, Achilles is having a big sulk because he didn’t get his way. The picture warns of the danger of getting angry and saying or doing things you regret afterwards.
But that’s not what Achilles is best known for. Have you heard of him before?
The story goes, when Achilles was born, his mother took him to the River Styx which was the river that separated the world of the living from the world of the dead and was known to have protective powers.
Achilles’ mother held her baby by his heel and dipped him into the river water. From then on, Achilles could not be harmed anywhere … except the tiny patch of heel where his mother had held him.
Achilles became a famous hero and warrior. He could not be beaten until one day an arrow hit him in the tiny, unprotected patch on the back of his heel, killing him instantly.
Anyway, if you hear someone talk about their Achilles' heel, they mean it’s their weakness.
As in … giant chocolate-covered marshmallows are my Achilles' heel! I cannot resist those gooey brown bites of bliss!
Do you have an Achilles' heel?
LUCAS: OMG, this is one of my favourite objects. I’m so excited to see it because … wait, wait, I promised I would let you all try and guess first.
So … what on earth do you think this strange thing was used for? Any ideas? Let’s have a look.
It’s made from silver, so it was probably owned by somebody who was rich.
It’s hollow. Look at the hole at the front – you can see right inside.
There are four holes on top that connect to the hollow space inside.
Oh, yeah. And there’s a baby strangling a snake. Totally normal.
Well, strangling snakes is all in a day’s work if your name is Herakles, even if you are just a baby.
That’s right, Herakles! He is my all-time favourite god and is completely awesome! He practically invented competition and nobody could beat Herakles at anything.
Herakles, who was also known as Hercules, was a famous demi-god. This means one of his parents was human, and the other parent was a god. In Herakles’ case, his dad was the head god, Zeus. His mother was a human princess called Alkmene.
Herakles was super strong and performed many astounding feats of strength over his life, including fighting mythical creatures like the Hydra, a swamp monster with many heads. Much harder to strangle than just one snake!
The most famous stories are captured in a legend called The Twelve Labours of Herakles. You can even see some of them at other displays in this exhibition. Here are some clues – look for an enormous lion, a giant pig and a man with three bodies!
So that’s who Herakles was, but have you worked out what the item in front of you is? It’s a lamp! Ancient Greeks didn’t have gas or electricity for lighting so it could get very dark at night.
To solve this problem, they used lamps like this one, although if you didn’t have much money, your lamp would have been made from pottery and it wouldn’t be as fancy. Remember the hole at the front? That’s where you fill it with olive oil. Then wicks, which were strings made of linen or reeds, were inserted into the holes at the top and into the oil below. The oil slowly soaked up along the wicks, which were lit on top, just like a birthday candle today.
I wish I could have this to go with my Herakles-themed bedroom. I have a Herakles quilt-cover, Herakles poster, Herakles slippers, Herakles ruler …
SOPHIA: What will you do after you finish visiting this exhibition? Do some grocery shopping with your parents on the way home? Have a snack outside? Maybe you have a banana in your bag right now for after you leave the exhibition.
These three terracotta figurines show us that the Ancient Greeks thought about food just as much as we do, but they couldn’t just pop down to the shops. In fact, they couldn’t even have a banana!
Today, we eat food from all over the world. But the Ancient Greeks didn’t have access to foods from very distant continents, which you know today – like lemons, bananas, potatoes and even tomatoes – which all first grew in the areas we now know as India, Asia and South America. Wait! Can you imagine a life without hot chips and tomato sauce? OMG! Deep breaths, Sophia!
But if the Ancient Greeks didn’t have supermarkets, where did they get their food? Look at these figures and have a guess.
What’s the toy figure with the movable arms and waist doing? If you said rolling dough, you’re probably right. Ancient Greeks had to make a lot of their own food from the grains, fruits, nuts and vegetables they bought from the markets.
What about the other two figures? What are they doing? There’s a figure on a donkey with big, round things strapped to its sides. What are they? Have you seen big, round things in a deli? Maybe … wheels of cheese? This cheesemaker is taking his cheese to the market. Cheese was very expensive and a treat for most people.
The other figure is a bit trickier. There’s a boy with a bird on his shoulder. Guess what he’s doing!
If you guessed ‘preparing a pig to be sacrificed to the gods’, then a billion points for you.
Meat, like cheese, was also really expensive. Most Ancient Greeks only got to eat it on a feast day, when animals like the one shown here were killed and offered to the gods for good harvests, or good luck.
But here’s the thing most people don’t know … when they sacrificed food to the gods, they sacrificed the dodgy bits and kept the good stuff for themselves – like they’d give the guts and skin to the gods and keep the steak themselves. It’s a bit like buying a chocolate bar, eating it and giving the gods the wrapper! I wonder if the gods noticed?
SOPHIA: What you’re looking at is called a frieze – which is basically a flat panel that’s had a scene carved into it.
Now, look at the figure at the far left of the frieze. I want you to think of three words to describe it. Ready? Go.
First word. You can do it.
And second word.
And third word. Great!
Now, obviously I don’t know what you said – let’s face it, I’m a recorded voice in your ear – but there’s a chance you might have thought of words like ‘warrior’, ‘strong’, ‘fighting’ and ‘fierce’. You may have also thought of ‘woman’, which is a key thing about this object.
If you thought ‘octopus sandwich’, you’re just being silly. That’s two words!
This scene shows two mortal enemies locked in combat!
It’s the Greeks (the men) versus a legendary race of warrior women known as the Amazons. Who do you think is going to win? I’d bet a million bucks those hardcore Amazons would totally kick butt!
This is only one panel out of a bunch that were carved onto the Mausoleum at Halikarnassos. This was a huge building built by Queen Artemisia as a tomb for her husband, King Mausolus in the area we now know as Turkey. It was so immense and astounding that it’s been named one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
The Mausoleum itself no longer exists, but its foundations, columns, lots of pieces of sculpture and frieze panels like this one have survived.
Take a look at the Amazon’s hands. We think they were holding something – maybe something metal, maybe something painted. What do you think they could have been holding?
And, if you say ‘octopus sandwich’, you’re still just being silly.
Have you heard of the word ‘Amazon’ before? Maybe you’ve heard of the Amazon River, or bought something online from Amazon.
But a very popular superhero is also based on the Amazons. Can you think of a fierce warrior woman? A really famous superhero?
No, it is not an octopus sandwich! How could that be a superhero? Seriously! Sigh.
There are lots of great female superheroes now, but one of the very first was Wonder Woman! Her creator imagined what might happen if an Amazon came to live in the world of regular humans, just like the Ancient Greeks believed the Amazons really existed in their world.
These legendary superwomen have been inspiring people for thousands of years.
SOPHIA: Lucas! Your Herakles lamp was fantastic! I am totally looking for all the other Herakles items in the exhibition as soon as we finish.
LUCAS: I am definitely playing the ‘chuck the chunky drink’ game at my next party. And I love your explanation of the krater.
SOPHIA: But my biggest question for you, Lucas, is … did you find the banana?
LUCAS: Yes! I hadn’t thought about bananas like that. Makes me appreciate mine even more!
SOPHIA: Wait – you actually have a banana?
LUCAS: I always keep a snack for after an audio tour.
SOPHIA: Do you have … two bananas?
LUCAS: I might. Do you want me to help you find the Labours of Herakles first?
SOPHIA: That would be awesome! And then bananas in the Garden of Australian Dreams?
LUCAS: Definitely. Although I might go past the Museum Shop. Maybe they’ll have some Herakles underpants?
SOPHIA: Maybe …
LUCAS: Or a pencil case. Or a necktie. Or suspenders!
LUCAS: Or a lunchbox. Herakles fake tattoos. Herakles Power Protein Bars!
SOPHIA: Let’s just see what’s there, okay.
LUCAS: Hatch-your-own Herakles! A Herakles mobile. Maybe a lion-skin cloak. That would be so awesome!
SOPHIA: Oh, LUCAS ...
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This is an edited transcript typed from an audio recording.
The National Museum of Australia cannot guarantee its complete accuracy.
© National Museum of Australia 2007–22. This transcript is copyright and is intended for your general use and information. You may download, display, print and reproduce it in unaltered form only for your personal, non-commercial use or for use within your organisation. Apart from any use as permitted under the Copyright Act 1968 (Cth) all other rights are reserved.
Date published: 17 December 2021