At home with the reality of death – reflections on Teece exhibition

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Curator, Teece Museum / Logie Collection, Terri Elder offers a personal perspective on the very popular exhibition Beyond the Grave: death in ancient times. 

It’s a somewhat strange situation to find that an exhibition all about death has turned into a celebration of life. The current exhibition at the Teece Museum  Beyond the Grave: death in ancient times, explores Greek and Roman attitudes to death and rituals around dying. It would be easy to imagine the topic being a little sad, but for me personally, I found the resulting exhibition is far from being gloomy or ghoulish.

 There are of course some very poignant details, such as the archaeological evidence of numerous infant graves, made necessary by the staggeringly high infant mortality rate in ancient Greece of 50%. The grief on the faces of the mourners depicted on the Canosan askos (JLMC 186.00) rings true in the face of such statistics.  There are also the bizarre stories of misadventure, like the ancient ‘urban legend’ which contends that the famous Greek playwright Aeschyllus met his end when a passing eagle dropped a turtle on the writer’s head! An unusual death for a soldier that had already survived the Battle of Marathon in 490 BCE.

However, the strongest message I get from the ancient artefacts included in this exhibition is that the ancient Greeks and Romans were perhaps a little more at home with the reality of death as a normal part of life than many of us seem to be today. 

Death was obviously a part of their everyday experience, and the ritual artefacts they left behind show an appreciation of celebrating and remembering their loved ones actively and regularly, not just at a funeral.

The Logie Collection’s array of white-ground lekythoi, which depict scenes of Greek mourners paying ritual visits to the graves of their ancestors, capture this very well.

The artefacts in ‘Beyond the Grave’ also have in common a sense of having been created with a real commitment to communicating both beauty and purpose. The lavish grave-marking vases and sculptures of the wealthy are exquisitely crafted and decorated, but even humble grave goods, (such as the miniature terracotta horse ca.740-720 BCE, of a type often found in the graves of children, JLMC 161.75), resonate with a sense of affection and thoughtfulness.  

The exhibition runs until February 2019 at the Teece Museum, so there is plenty of time to visit and explore for yourselves whether the ancient Greek and Roman experience of death is so very different from that of our own.”

WHERE: Teece Museum, 3 Hereford St, Christchurch

WHEN: Wed-Sun, 11am-3pm, to Sunday, 24 February 2019

Entry by donation

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