The Ancient Greek period is somehow treated as a rich continuum where ancient art flourished and believed to have a profound influence on the foundations of Western civilization. The period reflected aristocratic culture that saw changes in technical style of sculptures depicting a more natural human form in art. Further, decorative friezes filled the city as proof of its prestige and wealth during the period. The ancient gravestones of the 5th century BC period in Greece relayed to the world the prosperity of the Greek community that shows in its entirety the social structure and the importance of religion in the Greek lives.
Further it relates the strong adherence to rituals and beliefs pertaining to life and death in the Greek lifestyle that is their cultural frame of mind. Unfortunately these works survived only in fragments as its rich culture and art lay in ruins after several wars. The disappearance of the Greek tombstones in the 5th and its reappearance a few decades later is not a manifestation of magic or the occult, but man’s avarice for power that has greatly affected the evolution and progress of ancient art among its many ill-effects.
Greek Art was predominantly connected with funerary rituals, decorations and utilities in the classical period (Adkins, 2005). Kerameikos, prior to the Peloponnesian War was a prosperous city full of ceramic potters who occupied the banks of the River Eridanos (Knigge, 1991). Just outside the city walls lay its public cemetery which was used from the 9th century B.C. until the late Roman period in (Marconi, 2005). Pottery during the period were used to store their essentials such as grain, water, wine and oil which is why ceramic art never lost its essence and continuity due to its importance (Hutchinson, 2006). Although forms of art disappear in a certain period, yet reappear in another form and style in the next period (Knigge, 1991). However, pottery in its evolution was traced without interruption until the end of the Ancient Greek World (Oakley, 2005). Greek art was also heavily associated with customs and beliefs that included elaborate funeral customs as a rite of passage into the underworld which includes lavish preparations like funeral speeches and elaborate tomb markers (Adkins, 2005). Even fallen soldiers in the battlefield are taken back home and buried at cemeteries located at the outskirts of their city states instead of being buried in the battlefields (Hutchinson, 2005) Funeral statuaries started depicting family groups that is in contrast to the highly impersonal and rigid design of the previous archaic period (Marconi, 2004). Grave markers depict human forms showing the departed family member preparing to leave in a dignified manner away from his family (Knigge, 1991).
During the Persian Wars and the Peloponnesian War in 431-404 BC, the Ancient Greek World particularly Athens was reduced to a state of poverty and devastation (Hutchinson, 2006). Athens had heavily spent for a fleet of warships to engage in battle after battle that proved futile against the massive and warring Spartans (Hutchinson, 2006). Internal conflicts formed into struggles between city-states thereby shattering their age-old customs and traditions. To a large extent, Classical art of the Athenian Empire was destroyed, looted and carried out to neighboring Sparta and its regional allies. Facing starvation, the city state of Athens was then hit with a devastating epidemic during the second year of the Peloponnesian War. The virulent ailment spread and people died in large numbers without proper prevention and medications. As the people from the countryside were flocking to the protected area of the populated city, it became a breeding ground for disease and Athens lost 1/3 of its population (Hutchinson, 2006). Although the Spartans refused to destroy Athens after their victory, the cultures and traditions of the Ancient World was lost to poverty and human basic need for survival.
Over the years, scholastic studies and archaeological digs discovered mass graves in Kerameikos that revealed hasty burial sites that contained 90-250 people placed in helter-skelter without any soil in between them. Few ceramic offerings were found and the graves were without monuments in stark contrast with the earlier traditions. This was associated with the possibility of the plague that occurred during the period as detailed in Thucydides corresponding to the scientific calculations in Baziotopoulou who has conveniently dated the gravesite to between 430 and 426 BC (Knigge, 1991). Such findings correspond also to the disappearance of the white lekythoi or oil flasks with black-figure which died out during the period after the Persian Wars (Oakley, 2005).
The disappearance of gravestones heavily marked the period of the catastrophic wars. In Thucidydes’ account, the social mores of the period disappeared as a consequence of the plague (Knigge, 1991). Social and religious behavior greatly changed and people refused to behave honorably. Women were no longer bound by the Athenian custom and refused to take care of the sick due in part to their overwhelming numbers. Sick people were left to simply rot or carried away to dumping sites that led to the mass graves at the Kerameikos cemetery (Hutchinson, 2005). Greek people even refused to worship the gods after feeling abandoned.
Given the occurrence that has happened in classical Greece, we begin to think about the ill-effects of wars and conflicts even between states. The reappearance of the tombstones in the later part of the 4rth century denotes the gradual return to normal of cultures and traditions in the Greek essence. The devastation brought by wars had left us with bits and pieces of the Classical age to relate to out present time. However it also relates to us that the Ancient Greeks do not fear death which is why battles are fought fearlessly. Their art form reflects that death is only a transition from the physical world. The gravestone sculptures may have served as their direct confrontation with an afterlife that is used to explain the hierarchy of their Greek gods (Feldman, 1991: 206).
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Oakley, John. (2005) Picturing Death in Classical Athens: The Evidence of the White Lekythoi. Virginia: Cambridge.
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Feldman, F., (1991). Some Puzzles about the Evil of Death. The Philosophical Review 100, no. 205-27.
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