Academic journal article American Journal of Play

Archaeology and Developmental Psychology: A Brief Survey of Ancient Athenian Toys

Academic journal article American Journal of Play

Archaeology and Developmental Psychology: A Brief Survey of Ancient Athenian Toys

Article excerpt

TOYS JOIN A SHORT LIST of the earliest human artifacts, and play-with or without toys-seems to be universal among ancient humans. Consequently, in general, Homo sapiens are also Homo ludens; "man the thinker" is also "man the player."1 Play has become increasingly integral to our impression of childhood in particular, and students of play have long recognized its developmental function. Because children seem innately driven to play, because they are anatomically equipped to handle objects, because they have the intelligence to recognize that most objects and actions have uses and are capable of mastering these uses, and because children appear to endow some objects and actions with special significance, play and toys dominate our impression of childhood. Of course, cultural conditions and historical circumstances are just two of many variables that determine the extent of play, the tools and toys of play, and the patterns of preference related to play. So far as we can tell, for the ancient Athenians, as for us, this triad of children, play, and toys was a commonplace.

Athenian Toys: Limitations of Evidence and Interpretive Challenges

Archaeological excavation of sites in and around Athens that date from the geometric period through the classical period-roughly from the mid-tenth century BCE to the fourth century BCE-has yielded many toys of clearly different types and designs and plainly of various functions. We know from these digs that most of these playthings seem to be connected to wealthier families in Athenian society, in part, of course, because they who could afford toys could also meet the expense of the elaborate burials that have preserved such objects. Conversely, it is very difficult to identify the simple graves of children of the lower classes, the larger portion of Athenian society. And in those instances archaeologists do recognize and investigate the unadorned graves of slave children, for example, they seldom find any artifacts, toys or otherwise.2 And further, scholars have often lost information about the places of discovery-"find spots"-that detail spatial relationships of multiple objects, the kind of information that helps establish context. Without such spots, dating objects often becomes difficult, and orphaned objects lose their social and historical context. Besides archaeological obstacles, a sparse scholarship also limits our appreciation of ancient toys. Unfortunately, nothing close to a complete bibliography of publications on Greek toys, let alone Athenian toys, exists. Much material appears scattered in the professional literature of excavations, museum publications, and various, little-known data bases. To minimize these obstacles, we have chosen to concentrate on objects predominately from collections in Greece. Given these limits, the resulting assemblage of objects is still impressive and complex-and sufficient to provide evidence for a provisional typology of Athenian toys.3

Archaeologists and historians rely on an evidentiary triad-artifacts, written sources, and iconographic evidence-as they wrestle with basic questions. Ancient objects that look like toys may, in fact, have been symbolic religious objects. A doll found in a child's grave may have been a plaything. But if it were unearthed at a sanctuary dedicated to a specific deity, it may more likely have been associated with religious devotion. Iconographic evidence on vases and grave steles sometimes shows how artifacts were used and by whom. And artistic representations of children also yield important information.4 Likewise, ancient literary sources, including texts from such philosophers as Plato and Aristotle, help reveal adult views of children and children's play. Greek plays show children in action and sometimes reveal complex interactions between children, adults, and deities.

This triad of artifacts, written sources, and iconographic evidence supplements archaeological data. Complicating the picture, however, is that artifacts may have multiple functions, and these functions can change over a child's lifetime or across generations. …

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