BMCR 2006.12.16

Women in the Athenian Agora. Picture Book No. 26

, , , Women in the Athenian Agora. Excavations of the Athenian Agora picture books ; no. 26. Athens: American School of Classical Studies at Athens, 2006. 56 pages : illustrations (some color), portraits, plans ; 21 cm.. ISBN 0876616449 $4.95.

This modest little book is a delightful addition to a series of twenty-six “Excavations of the Athenian Agora Picture Books” that popularize the findings of the American excavations in the Agora. Amply illustrated and attractively written, it has as target audience a general readership, for whom any technical language is explained. The book is nevertheless part of the reassessment of women’s roles and presence in what has been traditionally understood as male space, by the process of weighing literary texts against archaeological evidence. The focus is sixth and fifth centuries BCE.

The authors begin by comparing an archaic vase depiction of well-dressed women going and coming from a public fountain with later literary texts like Xenophon’s Oikonomikos that suggest a much more confined role for citizen women, and conclude that citizen women were freer in the earlier period than in the later classical period, where such artistic depictions of women in public are not found. Nevertheless, while elite women could send slaves to shop and fetch water, poorer women could not and did not have substitutes to sell their wares and produce. Thus the presence in public space of female slaves and vendors cannot be doubted and must be presupposed, in spite of a lack of material evidence. A crossroads shrine on the west side of the Agora contains a small enclosure in which, in the late fifth century, hundreds of votive gifts were thrown, many of them items used by women such as perfume jars, jewelry, baby feeders, loom weights, and spindle whorls. Evidence like this continues to demonstrate the presence of some women of indeterminate class in the Agora.

Since this is a short popular book, arguments are not sustained, but simply suggested. There is not much more that can be garnered from the material evidence, so the discussion then moves on to marriage and divorce, women and property, women’s religion, activities in the home including weaving and child care, and the inevitable hetairai, characterized as educated, witty, and often wealthy. Maenads are women who have thrown off the domestic image for religious purposes. Depictions of women dancing, especially girls at the Brauronia, reveal another side of religious devotion that is full of spontaneity. Literary descriptions of the segregated house are placed alongside floor plans of classical period houses from the area of the Agora. The small area of the houses is problematic with regard to the supposed establishment of strictly segregated space, even for male and female slaves, but of course, no excavated house preserves a second story, where women and more likely to have remained while the men were entertaining their male guests and their female “companions.” During the day, however, the authors contend that the typical weaving activity of women was more likely to take place on the ground floor in the courtyard where the light was better. So any sexual segregation that actually happened in the house may have been more temporal than spatial.

The brief survey of these various topics ends with a few short studies on twentieth-century women in the Agora: women who participated in the American excavations there beginning in 1931, but were seldom in leadership. The team of 1933 included an equal number of eight men and eight women. Most of the women were record keepers or in other secretarial jobs but nevertheless often made important contributions. Lucy Talcott, for example, developed the recording system and administered it from 1931 to 1958, leading to the designation of the excavations as a “despinocracy.” Virginia Grace became an expert on stamped amphora handles. Alison Frantz was official photographer of the excavations from 1939 to 1964, and Missy Crosby became a field supervisor.

The nature of this little booklet precludes any sustained arguments of disputed questions, and it does not really stick to its declared topic of women in the Agora, but branches out into other aspects of women’s lives. Nevertheless, it is to be recommended for students and general readers, and if it is typical of the quality of the whole series, here is a rich source of information for the general reader on a variety of topics surrounding domestic aspects of the Athenian Agora excavations.