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Ancient uses, functions and contexts

It is often hard to imagine that the antiquities now displayed in museum galleries were once part of everyday life, and used for everyday purposes. Each object performed a function in the ancient world, sometimes several functions. Sometimes a piece was made for one purpose, and was then used for another. We can find out how objects were used by gathering clues from several sources: the descriptions by ancient authors; scenes painted on vases, or on walls, or carved in relief which show objects being used ... even the place where the objects were found.

Many of the objects in the Fitzwilliam collection were found in or around graves. Coffins, urns and pots held the bodies or ashes of the dead, while marble gravestones marked the position of the graves above ground. Inside some burials were placed objects for the dead - from bronze and ceramic vessels to figurines, lamps, seal-stones and coins.

The same sorts of object that were placed in graves were also found at sanctuaries, left as gifts to the gods. Also from sanctuaries come marble votive reliefs specially made to be dedicated either as offerings of thanks or in the hope of future favours. Other objects formed part of the elaborate architecture of the sanctuary buildings.

Some of the ancient sculptures in museums today once came from sanctuary buildings, but many were actually part of the decoration and furnishing of houses and public buildings. The houses and gardens of wealthy Romans were decorated with coloured stone and frescoes, and with versions of Greek sculpture. The glass and pottery vessels, often found in tombs and sanctuaries, would also have had a domestic use.

These pages give you a flavour of the different functions served by the Greek and Roman objects which survive today.

Greek vases

Greek death


Greek and Roman

Inscriptions and
their uses

The lekythos

Oil bottles

Vase shapes used
at a symposium