Home Improvement: Issues with Interpreting Greek Domestic Archaeology

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Archaeological evidence is subject to many problems and difficulties when it comes to its interpretation.  Not only are the interpretations limited by physical features such as the lack of material, sites and samples; but are limited by the way people go about interpreting evidence, through bias, assumption and the overuse of sources such as the literary material.  One of the most prominent areas where this is illustrated is the Classical Greek household.

Pompeii - House of the Tragic Poet, Pompeii.
Pompeii – House of the Tragic Poet, Pompeii. (Photo credit: Brooklyn Museum)

One of the most prominent difficulties in interpreting the archaeological evidence is that scholars and archaeologists are vulnerable to assumption, especially in relation to the information provided by written sources.  Interpretations are known to have a tendency to attempt to correspond with the literary sources and this creates issues when assessing the archaeology as we have a case of ideology versus the behavioural realities of the society under question.  With reference to Greece households for instance, we have the debate concerning the division of male and female within the household.

The majority of texts on this subject are dominated by the use of the words ανδρωνιτις and γυναικωνιτις.  In both Xenophon and Lysias these words describe two divided areas in the house.[1]  In Lysias the house  is described as such.[2]  Lysias (i.9-10) and Xenophon (Oec.9.5) tell us that parts of fourth-century Athenian houses were set aside as women’s quarters inaccessible to outsiders.[3] Vitruvius also refers to a γυναικωνιτις as consisting of a variety of rooms.[4]   In addition to this Demosthenes (37.45-46) speaks of inner private areas of the house.[5]  Hesiod also alludes to space and gender and the link between femininity and the inner rooms of a household.[6]  Such sources have strongly influenced the interpretation of archaeology in Greek houses.

Susan Walker in her work, in order to illustrate these principles set out in the written sources, divides the plans of several Greek houses into ανδρωνιτις and γυναικωνιτις.  More recent interpretations of the archaeology by scholars such as Jameson and Nevett assess that Walker’s attempts to attribute gender have little support in published archaeological record, with the exception of the ανδρον.[7]  Jameson asserts that archaeology might make us question the reliability of written sources in relation to attributing gender to space, ‘distinguishing between ideology and behavioural realities.’[8] Antonaccio explains that ‘texts cannot serve as a simple handbook to reading the archaeological record.’[9]  For instance, despite the literary evidence outlining separate areas for males and females it is not possible to truly identify areas in excavated Greek houses that correspond to this.  One can see though why making assumptions based on literary evidence could be appealing, the textual evidence often appears more persuasive that the archaeological record, for instance, literary sources for the γυναικωνιτις.[10]

Classical Greek households are a prime example of how archaeological evidence is difficult to interpret due to limited material as we have only remains.  The limited evidence for superstructures, for instance, means rooms and their archaeology cannot be interpreted fully.  This is seen at Halieis in House 7,[11] where the house was built with stone foundations supporting a mud brick superstructure.[12]  House 7 is exemplar of the vast majority of houses in Classical Greece with its mud brick superstructure which would not have survived.

Olythos provides us with an example of houses and their associated materials as seventy houses have been fully excavated. All of these materials, except the stone, are not very durable and such buildings are frequently poorly preserved.[13]  At Olythos again the walls were of mud brick and as a result little is known of their superstructures.[14]  This means that the organisation of these households and the functions of spaces are generally open to debate and the archaeological evidence cannot be properly interpreted.

Ancient Greek MosaicMosaic floor, House of Dio...
Ancient Greek MosaicMosaic floor, House of Dionysos (Photo credit: davesandford)

The lack of durability includes the difficulty in identifying upper levels of buildings.  We know from literary evidence that upper floors were known and some houses show evidence of stone stair bases.  But owing to a significant lack of stratigraphic or artifactual evidence it is not possible to distinguish debris in the archaeology that may have come from a second storey.[15]  This also presents a problem in interpreting the archaeological evidence as upper storey debris cannot be distinguished from floor level deposits.[16]  Nevett asserts that even when the buildings are well preserved they contain few fixtures and fittings allowing for a more acceptable interpretation.[17]

Who interprets the archaeology in itself creates issues.  Nationalist aims, sectarian objectives, and political agendas often act as a basis for the interpretation of archaeological evidence whether the interpreter realises that they are incorporating it or not.[18]  Two of the most prevalent of these is the concepts of feminist archaeology and androcentric views brought by male bias.[19]  These views of the interpreter coincide with the issues of assumption discussed earlier, as individuals make assumptions on the evidence based on their particular viewpoints or ideas which have sunk into their minds.

In relation to gender in the Classical Greek household Antonaccio explains it thus, that ‘pessimists’ see evidence as proof that women have always been oppressed while ‘optimists’ concentrate on valuing women, making their contributions visible and uncovering subversive power.[20]  This asserts that the mindset of an individual can have a significant impact on the interpretation of evidence as they attempt to find proof that coincides with their theories or ideologies.  One cannot provide the truly objective view that is thought necessary to interpret the bare evidence, even if they tried.  This in itself is a problem in regards to domestic archaeology.

It is difficult to interpret archaeological evidence when one has a certain mindset.  This is illustrated in debate over gender and space in reference to Classical Greek households.  The ideas surrounding the archaeological evidence are varied and widely open to debate.  Walker, for instance, assumes that space was rigidly divided into male and female areas; Nevett on the other hand identifies that it is public areas that are male space and the rest of the house hold was an appropriate area for women, that space could be conceived as having varying amounts of maleness rather than there being two distinct categories.[21]  Walker seems to be trying to place an idea onto the archaeological evidence when the evidence does not necessarily conform to that idea.

Ancient Halieis
Ancient Halieis (Photo credit: diffendale)

Portability of artefacts also makes it very difficult to interpret the material as artefacts are often out of context and cannot be interpreted properly. In the case of Greek households and the domestic utensils that would have been used in them; these utensils could be used to explore the activities within the household and to answer questions of function and gender relations as well as social and economic questions.[27]  The interpretation of evidence is very difficult in light of a large fragment of it being portable and possibly not in context; it also means that we cannot tell what spaces had specialised functions. This also makes it difficult to assess the flexibility of space, implicit in Lysias with Euphiletos’ description of the relegation of his wife and child.[28] It is also difficult to interpret the archaeology as many tasks had little equipment and left little trace.

Comparative evidence in the form of cross-cultural and ethnographic examples has provided models for a number of interpretations throughout archaeology, for instance, strict architectural configurations of space along gender lines.[29]  This helps to correlate patterns and matching social structures which have been outlined in Greek literature in relation to households.  Nevett explores the use of comparative evidence in interpretation by comparing evidence from Nichoria, Lefkandi and Eretria to identify certain trends and distinctions.[30]  But, comparative studies in the interpretation of archaeology are not always helpful as they create a degree of difficulty as they may also be misleading. Morris asserts that comparative evidence can never prove a specific argument right or wrong.[31]  In interpreting archaeological evidence it is necessary to use comparisons but conclusions are in danger of being made that may correspond to the comparison but not to the evidence being interpreted itself.

Archaeological material also sees a large amount of variability over areas and time.  The interpretation of evidence is difficult in relation to these things as one must distinguish between different phases of use and types of material.  For instance, at Delos in the House of the Dolphins there is indication of not only different phases of use but influences from non-Greek patterns of domestic life.[32]  These introduce different priorities and social patterns over time and cultures which are difficult to distinguish and interpret in the archaeological record.

J.I 2012


[1] Nevett, L.C., Gender Relations in the Classical Greek Household: The Archaeological Evidence, in The Annual of the British School at Athens, Vol.90, Centenary Volume (1995), p.363 – , in Xenophon they are positioned side by side and in Lysias positioned upper and lower

[2] Lysias ‘Against Eratosthenes’ with an English translation by W.R.M. Lamb, M.A. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. (1930), Lysias I.9-10 – Now in the first place I must tell you, sirs (for I am obliged to give you these particulars)… πρῶτον μὲν οὖν, ἄνδρες,(δεῖ γὰρ καὶ ταῦθ᾽ ὑμῖν διηγήσασθαιοἰκίδιον ἔστι μοι διπλοῦν,  ἴσα ἔχον τὰ ἄνω τοῖς κάτω κατὰ τὴν γυναικωνῖτινκαὶ κατὰ τὴν ἀνδρωνῖτιν

[3] Morris, I., Archaeology and Gender Ideologies in Early Archaic Greece, in Transactions of the American Philological Association (1974-), Vol.129 (1999), p.306

[4] Vitruvius vi.7, in Nevett, L.C., Gender Relations in the Classical Greek Household: The Archaeological Evidence, in The Annual of the British School at Athens, Vol.90, Centenary Volume (1995), p.336 – the γυναικωνιτις consisting of cubicula, triclinia cotidiana and sollae – Vitruvius though is well-known to have too many unknown factors, such as whether the date being referred to is contemporary to Vitruvius or to a date in the past, the geographical area in question and what were Vitruvius’ sources of information.

[5] Demosthenes 37.45-46, in Demosthenis.Orationes. ed. W. Rennie. Oxonii. E Typographeo Clarendoniano (1921) – the plaintiff charged that Evergus came to his home in the country, and made his way into the apartments of his daughters, who were heiresses, and of his mother; and he brought with him into court the laws concerning heiresses. οὗτος γὰρ ᾐτιάσατ᾽ ἐκεῖνον πρὸς ἅπασιτοῖς ἄλλοις ἐλθόντ᾽ εἰς ἀγρὸν ὡς αὑτὸν ἐπὶ τὰς ἐπικλήρους εἰσελθεῖν καὶτὴν μητέρα τὴν αὑτοῦ, καὶ τοὺς νόμους ἧκεν ἔχων τοὺς τῶν ἐπικλήρων πρὸςτὸ δικαστήριον

[6] Hesiod, 519-25 in Morris, I., Archaeology and Gender Ideologies in Early Archaic Greece, in Transactions of the American Philological Association (1974-), Vol.129 (1999), p.308 – Hesiod states that ‘Boreas does not pierce the soft-skinned girl who stays indoors at home with her mother

[7] Morris, op.cit., p.306, ανδρον – men’s dining room

[8] Ibid., p.306

[9] Antonaccio, C.M., Architecture and Behaviour: Building Gender into Greek Houses, in The Classical World, vol.93, No.5 (May-Jun, 2000), p.525

[10] Gould, J., Law, Custom, and Myth: Aspects of the Social Position of Women in Classical Athens (1980), p.38-59

[11] One of only two houses at the site for which the full horizontal extent has been recovered through excavation

[12] Ault, p.485

[13] Nevett, L., Housing and Households: The Greek World, in Classical Archaeology, p.206

[14] Nevett, Gender Relations, op.cit., p.367 – despite fifty-five buildings being well-preserved enough to yield complete plans

[15] Ault, B.A., Living in the Classical Polis: The Greek House as Microcosm, in The Classical World, Vol.93, No.5 (May-Jun, 2000), p.487

[16] Antonaccio, op.cit., p.529 – Antonaccio explains that some scholars have taken this issue and assumed that the γυναικωνιτιν was located in the upper storey and this is why such an area is not apparent.[16]

[17] Nevett, Houses and Households, op.cit., p.206 – Unit IV.5 at Nichoria in Messenia has been interpreted in two different ways.  Coulson believes that Unit IV.5 had a small roofed area and adjoining enclosure, whereas Mazarakis Ainian believes that it was larger and fully roofed.  This shows that the same evidence can be interpreted differently.

[18] Renfrew, C., and Bahn, P., Archaeology: Theories, Methods and Practice (London, 2008), p.571

[19] As so much of archaeological writing is written my males even in the present day, despite the growing number of female scholars and archaeologists

[20] Antonaccio, op.cit., p.518

[21] Morris, op.cit., p.309

[22] Nevett, Gender Relations, op.cit., p.380

[23] Ibid., p.380

[24] Morris, op.cit., p.309

[25] Nevett, Gender Relations, op.cit., p.376

[26] Ault, op.cit., p.485

[27] Antonaccio, op.cit., p.528

[28] Lysias ‘Against Eratosthenes’ with an English translation by W.R.M. Lamb, M.A. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. (1930), Lysias I.9  – When the child was born to us, its mother suckled it; and in order that, each time that it had to be washed, she might avoid the risk of descending by the stairs, I used to live above, and the women below. ἐπειδὴ δὲ τὸ παιδίον ἐγένετο ἡμῖν, μήτηρ αὐτὸἐθήλαζεν: ἵνα δὲ μή, ὁπότε λοῦσθαι δέοι, κινδυνεύῃ κατὰ τῆς κλίμακοςκαταβαίνουσα, ἐγὼ μὲν ἄνω διῃτώμην, αἱ δὲ γυναῖκες κάτω.

[29] Antonaccio, op.cit., p.519

[30] Nevett, Houses and Households, op.cit., p.208

[31] Morris, op.cit., p.310

[32] Nevett, Houses and Households, op.cit., p.221

One thought on “Home Improvement: Issues with Interpreting Greek Domestic Archaeology

    dianabuja said:
    November 27, 2012 at 8:48 pm

    Good blog. Similar problems in the Nile Valley, with which I’m most familiar – and elsewhere, of course.

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