[ University Home Page ] [ Ure Museum Home Page ]

The Ure Museum of Greek Archaeology


Babies and toddlers are pictured with their mothers and toys. But ancient people painted children as small adults. From the time they could walk and talk, Greek and Egyptian children were trained for the adult world. Childhood was not a time for play. Girls learned to become mothers, wives and household managers. Boys learned how to be good citizens. For both boys and girls music and athletics were an important part of their education. Literacy was not widespread but restricted to a small group of society.


The Greeks loved music! Marching into battle, joining in a religious festival or relaxing at a party: they had music for every occasion. Even poetry was put to music, so girls and boys alike learned history and myth through music. The heroes and heroines of myth provided excellent role models. Music also taught discipline. Pictures show grown-ups playing big instruments, like the kithara, but children played on the tortoise-shell lyre. This is the instrument on which the music god Apollo practiced.


The Greeks believed that a citizen needed a strong and healthy body to go with his active mind. Boys prepared for farming and warfare through athletics. Pictures of warfare and athletics are sometimes hard to tell apart. Two men punching each other might be boxing or fighting. The man riding a chariot might be competing in a race or fighting in battle. Excellent athletes competed in festivals like the Olympic Games, where they represented their cities and achieved everlasting glory. Athletes would travel all over the Greek world to participate in such events. Prizes at such games included beautiful amphorai filled with large amounts of oil (at Athens' Panathenaic Games) and symbolic victory wreaths. The most famous of these Panhellenic events was the Olympic Games, held every four years at the Sanctuary of Zeus at Olympia, in the Peloponnese. The prestige attained through victory was enormous both for the individual and for their city. Statues commemorating the victorious athletes (or their patrons, in the case of horse races) were found in many cities and sanctuaries.

Athletics and warfare were closely related in the ancient world (in the Roman empire, for example, 'professional' gladiators - often slaves - trained and eventually fought to the death for the purposes of entertainment: see e.g. [ 78.12.22 ]). The attainment of the body beautiful was never meant to be for purely aesthetic purposes. The ideal citizen developed his body as the vessel for a similarly well developed and balanced mind. And a strong, healthy physique was a requirement of war; beyond the safety of the stadium, a man's trained body became a weapon of the citizen army. Mythical stories also tell us of funerary games held in honour of dead warriors. These games may have set precedents for organised athletic festivals, such as those at Olympia.

In ancient Greece free men took part in a wide variety of sports, including running [ 51.4.6 ], jumping, wrestling, throwing and boxing (see Theseus wrestling the bull of Marathon on [ REDMG:1953.25.23 ]). Athletes trained in the nude, although they oiled their bodies (they held oil in small round bottles called aryballoi). They cleaned afterwards using scrapers called strigils (see [ TEMP.2002.9.21 ] and [ TEMP.2002.9.22 ]; see also the image on [ 28.6.3 ]). The Greeks took athletics very seriously: they practiced in gymnasia, under the supervision of trainers (see [ 39.8.1 ]). As with images of warriors, the detailed images of athletes often give us the best evidence we have for their equipment: see, e.g., halteres or jumping weights on [ 42.9.1 ] and [ REDMG:1951.160.1 ].


Most people in the ancient world couldn't read, but special writers, called scribes, wrote a lot of things down. These writings tell us a lot of what we know about Egypt and Greece. The earliest texts are lists of possessions. Eventually mythic tales, history, and laws were written down too. Some texts were illustrated, so that everybody could understand them. In Athens Agora (marketplace) laws were carved onto stone for all to see.

Ancient writing

The Egyptians believed that the bird-headed god, Thoth, gave knowledge to humans and taught them to write. Thoth was therefore the god of scribes. Egyptian writings in this Museum are in a sacred script, called hieroglyphs, which combines many small pictures: hieroglyph is Greek for 'sacred script'. Egyptians also had a simpler writing system, called demotic ('of the people') for everyday needs. Scribes (official writers) kept accounts and wrote letters on sheets of papyrus. These papyri were made by drying and flattening the papyrus reeds that grew in the River Nile. The name papyrus is remembered in the English word paper.

Apollo, Athena and other Greek gods also helped with knowledge. Mnemosyne ('Memory') and her daughters, the Muses, inspired humans to put their thoughts in song and in writing. The Greeks invented plays, histories and biographies to express complex ideas in writing. Pictures and texts tell us that schoolboys learned to write on wax tablets. Few tablets remain but Greek and Egyptian writing have survived on stones, pottery, metal, and papyri buried in the hot, dry sands of Egypt.

© University of Reading
The Ure Museum, The University of Reading, Whiteknights, PO Box 217, Reading, RG6 6AH
File last modified: 20 Sep 2017