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Exhibit Looks at Lives of Ancient Greek Children - 2004-09-16

Sports, schoolwork, play, and other activities of childhood were as important in the ancient world as they are today. An exhibit called Coming of Age in Ancient Greece at the J. Paul Getty Museum looks the world of children more than 2,000 years ago.

Dolls with movable arms and legs, a miniature horse on wheels, a rattle and spinning top are toys that any modern child would be happy to play with. But they are ancient artifacts, among 160 in the exhibit at the Getty Museum.

Janet Grossman is the museum's associate curator of antiquities. "The show really traces the life of ancient children from birth on through the time at which they had reached adulthood," she says.

For girls, adulthood came at about 15, when they might marry. For boys, it arrived at 18, when compulsory military training began.

Until then, children lived in a world of parents and grandparents, siblings and friends. Later, tutors would teach them the alphabet. A volunteer docent explains to a modern child how a Greek student used a stylus to inscribe letters on a wax tablet. "Do you think paper is better? Paper is probably easier," he explains.

This story of childhood in ancient Greece is told through terracotta figures, illustrations on pottery, and carvings and inscriptions on object like gravestones. They come from across the classical world, from the Greek settlements on the coast of modern Turkey to the Greek colonies of southern Italy.

While much in the exhibition is familiar, some things are not. The curator says elaborate rituals were intended to safeguard the health of children, or commemorate those who had died. "It's been estimated that one in three children did not reach maturity, and so there were a lot of rituals having to do with magic and the protection of children," he says.

This exhibition began at the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, and made stops in New York and Cincinnati before coming to California.

It has been expanded on the West Coast to include objects from the Getty Museum's antiquities collections. A so-called "Family Zone" was added, featuring reproductions of ancient games, and musical instruments like the lyre.

Viviane Meerbergen designed this part of the exhibit, which also has reproductions of draped period clothing, which children and their parents can try on. And there is a game that children can play called "knucklebones." "Yeah, knucklebones. That's a game that's similar to our jacks or dice today. And knucklebones are actually bones from sheep that kids used to play these games," she says.

Each side of the bones has a numerical value and the children keep score as they throw the bones on the ground to determine the winner.

Museum curator Janet Grossman says the exhibit offers a snapshot of the lives of ancient children, and is aimed at modern children and their parents.

The exhibit Coming of Age in Ancient Greece can be seen at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles through December 5.