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A vase with a broad opening, small base and an illustration of a row of women carrying vessels on their heads, with animals below. - click to view larger image
Hydria (water jar)

PATRICIA KARVELAS: In ancient Athens, houses did not have access to running water and the collection of water was a daily activity. It was also one of the few opportunities for women to get out of the house. Fountain houses, fed by either pipes or springs, were an important gathering point for women to socialise away from the presence of fathers and husbands. It also provided an opportunity for women to be independent of their male guardians. Greek literature makes reference to a number of illicit affairs initiated by women that began at wells and springs, where young women would go to collect water and secretly meet young men who had caught their eye.

This vase shows a large number of well-dressed women gathered at a fountain house. One woman collects water from a lion’s head spout. Others balance their water jars on their heads. Their pale skin reflects Athenian notions of propriety and beauty. Appropriately, the scene is painted on a hydria, a vessel designed to carry water.

This vase brilliantly captures the sense of conviviality which attended this task. In Greek vase painting, there is a convention that when a character is speaking, words come out of their mouths into the open space between characters. Here there is so much conversation that the voids are full of practically nothing but letters.

Most of the words are nonsense, just random letters designed to evoke the hubbub of animated conversation. Against this background, one set of letters stands out. This is the sentence found between the second and third pairs from the left which reads, ‘Sime is a beautiful girl’. Such sentences are relatively common on Greek vases. There is one on the vase showing the battle between Achilles and Penthesilea. However, in the vast majority of cases, the object of praise is a boy. Only in extremely rare cases is it a girl. How should we read this sentence? Whose voice are we hearing here? Are we to imagine that this expression of desire is coming from one of the women? Or the painter of the vase? In its deliberate ambiguity, the vase plays with our expectations.

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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 2007–21. 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

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