Toy horse on wheels, ca. 950-900 B.C., Terracotta
The Kerameikos Archaeological Museum in Athens, Greece
There are several sectors of society – marginal in ancient Greece – whose marginality makes it particularly difficult for us to recover their experiences. Slaves are perhaps the most prominent; women are another (and form the focus of my own research); and children are a third. Rarely – very rarely – we're able to catch a glimpse of their lives through some of the objects accidentally left behind: whether it's a graffito scratched by a child into the walls of Pompeii, or a beloved toy.
This terracotta horse on wheels was discovered in the Kerameikos, the potters' quarter of the ancient city of Athens to the north of the city – and also the site of an important cemetery from around 1200 BCE on. It was found in a grave, dating to around 900 BCE. Made of a simple lump of terracotta painted with black slip – you can see the mane and tail have been left unpainted – and decorated on the neck with geometric triangles, the horse balances by means of (now reconstructed) wooden axles on a set of four terracotta wheels. A hole in the horse's nose suggests that there may have also been an attachment for a bridle, now lost.
There's something very suggestive about a toy horse like this one – something you might easily be able to see a modern child playing with, without too much of a stretch of the imagination. But although it may well have been used as a toy, it is important not to jump to conclusions about its function – just because, to us today, it looks so obviously like a sort of miniature rocking horse. In fact, many small clay figurines discovered in graves like this one – often depicting animals like hares, dogs, or deer; or small human figures – are in fact thought to have been votive, that is, offerings to the gods; for all that they look to us like toys. Was this little horse originally a toy? I think so. But my sense is that, for the ancient Greeks who placed it in the grave, it took on a dual function: as both a well-loved toy accompanying the deceased beyond death, and as a ritual votive offering for the gods. It's an important reminder to us to be flexible in our interpretation of the objects of the ancient world – which, often, can move between registers we would not connect at all today.