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Life in Ancient Greece

Grades 4–8

Pyxis with Horse Handles from Athens. Greek, 800–700 BC. Ceramic and pigment, height: 4 1/4 inches (10.8 cm). Collection Buffalo Museum of Science.

Inspired by Beauty, Life, and Spirit: A Celebration of Greek Culture (July 27, 2012–April 21, 2013)

Beauty, Life, and Spirit: A Celebration of Greek Culture features many ancient objects from Greece from the collection of the Buffalo Museum of Science, in combination with more recent creations in the Collection of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery. This lesson plan features these ancient objects.

Table of Contents

Background Information for Educators
A Note about Pronunciation
Optional Additional Activity
New York State Learning Standards and Core Curriculum


  • Learn about many aspects of daily life in ancient Greece
  • Learn about the method for pottery-making in ancient Greece and the parts of a pottery vessel
  • Learn about a variety of objects and pottery vessels from ancient Greece
  • Compare aspects of life in ancient Greece to life today


Beauty, Life, and Spirit: A Celebration of Greek Culture Presentation

Background Information for Educators

Much of what we know about life in ancient Greece comes from the study of beautifully decorated vessels made by Greek artisans, like those in this exhibition. Pottery-making was a skill passed down from generation to generation. The use of a particular pot determined its shape. It will be helpful to review slide #6 from the presentation while reviewing the following material.

Wine Drinking

Wine was the most common beverage in ancient Greece. Wine could be spiced and flavored, and was sometimes heated. Since drinking undiluted wine was considered barbarous, it was mixed with water in vessels called kraters (3a and 3b). Kraters in ancient Greece took several different forms, two of which two of which are bell kraters (3a), shaped like inverted bells, and calyx kraters (3b), resembling the calyxes of flowers. The liquid was then transferred to oinochoai (singular oinoche) (2), or pitchers, to pour into a wide variety of cups. Two-handled kantheroi (singular kantheros) (11) were favorite wine cups and are often seen in the hands of Dionysus, the god of wine. Rhytons (12), special drinking cups shaped like animals, imitated earlier, metal vessels used in ancient Persia. Kylixes (singular kylix) (5) were shallow, bowl-like cups most frequently used at symposia, which were intellectual meetings to discuss predetermined topics. In ancient Greece, wine drinking was an expected and integral part of a symposium, but since the goal was for its effects to provide greater clarity of thought rather than to cause inebriation, wine was intentionally consumed in moderation.

Holding and Pouring Oil

Oil, especially olive oil, continues to be one of Greece’s most exported resources. In ancient Greece, lekythoi (singular lekythos) (6) were vessels used for holding and pouring oil; they were often awarded as prizes to the winners of athletic competitions. The olive oil contained in the vessel would have been very valuable, prized around the Mediterranean and used for cooking and washing, and in oil lamps and beauty products. Lekythoi with white backgrounds were used almost exclusively as funerary vessels. They contained oil used for washing and anointing the body of the deceased, or were presented as an offering at the tomb.

Holding, Carrying, and Drinking Water

While regular-sized hydria (1) were used for carrying water, miniature versions served different functions, including that of funerary gifts. Loutrophoros amphorae (singular amphora) (4) were often used to carry water to the ritual bridal bath. A skyphos (7) was one of the most common water-drinking vessels; another very similar one was a kotyle. It is believed that unguentaria (single unguentarium), which were often found in clusters in tombs, were used to capture the tears of family members mourning the loss of a loved one, and then buried with the deceased as symbols of devotion. Some may also have held scented oil.

Holding and Carrying Perfumed Oils

Aryballoi (singular aryballos) (8) held perfumed oil used by athletes for washing after competitions. They were typically small and round, and were carried from wrists by cords tied around their narrow necks. The wide handles and mouth allowed the owner to shake oil out onto the disk-like top and then apply it to his body with his hands. The alabastron (9)—also used to hold fragrant ointments, perfume, or massage oils—received its name from ancient Egyptian oil containers that were made of alabaster. Alabastra generally have long bodies, narrow necks, round bases, and flat mouths. Cords were tied through a hole near the top or around the narrow neck and attached to the wrist or belt so the vessel could be worn hanging as an accessory. Perfume was usually made of oil scented with various blossoms; leaving the stopper off the vessel would allow the scent to disperse. The contents could also be applied to hair or skin by pouring or using a small applicator.

Holding Jewelry, Toiletries, and Makeup

A pyxis (plural pyxides) (10) was used to hold jewelry, cosmetics, and other toiletry items like brushes and combs, manicure tools, tweezers, and whiteners for teeth.

A Note about Pronunciation

The words used to describe the objects in this lesson plan are English translations from the Greek. The Greek alphabet has twenty-four letters and the pronunciations are sometimes very different from what you may think!

Examples of pronunciation:


oi-nok oh ee 

oi nok oh eye 





















al-uh-bass-tron (“a” as in “cat”)

al uh bass truh  (“a” as in “cat”)

For more pronunciation help, visit:

Or, for more in-depth Greek alphabet information and pronunciation, visit:


Show slides #1–34 of the Beauty, Life, and Spirit: A Celebration of Greek Culture presentation to your students as an introduction to the exhibition at the Albright-Knox, or as a learning opportunity for students who are studying ancient cultures. More information about the pictured objects and answers to questions in the presentation are in slides #35–40.

Optional Additional Activity

Have students choose a type of vessel and, while thinking about the vessel’s usage in ancient Greek time, decorate it with appropriate images from our own culture and era that refer to its ancient function. 

You can trace the images here and enlarge them if you like, or find images online.

New York State Learning StandardS and Core Curriculum

  • New York State Learning Standards for Arts (Visual Arts, including the museum visit) 1, 2, 3, 4
  • New York State Learning Standards for Social Studies 1, 2, 5
  • College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Reading 1, 10
  • College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Speaking and Listening 1, 2