I came across this lovely leg in the Gallery of Greece at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto last summer. It reminds me of the fragile (fra-gee-lee!) leg lamp featured in the movie, A Christmas Story (1983). This Greek leg was sculpted sometime between 650-550 BC on either the island of Rhodes or Ionia. It does not light up but instead was made to hold perfume.
Perfume was big business back in ancient Greece. The Greeks were the first to mix pungent plants with oil and apply it to their skin. Hippocrates (c460 to 375 BC) prescribed aromatherapy and the application of perfume, to prevent sickness and promote good health. Greek perfume was also a valuable export and sturdy containers were needed to transport them along trade routes.
Pottery in ancient Greece varied in size and shape, depending on its use. The sturdy amphorae were used for shipping both wet and dry goods (e.g., olives, nuts, wine, oil, perfume), much like our Amazon.com boxes of today. The messy, arduous task of working clay was considered low and menial work in ancient Greece, but that didn’t stop the potters from taking pride in their work. Around 700 BC, they began to paint their ceramics with scenes of everyday life using a black-figure technique (figures painted in black on top of unpainted reddish clay). In 530 BC, the red-figure technique (background painted in black and images cast in unpainted clay) became popular.
Back then these vases weren’t worth much (think: reusable and decorative shipping containers), but among the potters, there was a wee bit of competition. One salty fellow included this bit of text on his work: Euthymdes, son of Polias, drew this. And I bet Euphronios couldn’t have managed it.
Today these ancient vessels are worth millions of dollars. It’s not clear if our ancient perfume carrying leg was high art or some kitschy piece. It was crafted from a mold, so you can bet there was more than one of these sandal wearing limbs walking around. Who knows, maybe it was the official Red Ryder, carbine action, two-hundred shot range model air rifle of its time.
Fun Leggy Facts: Author, Jean Shepherd based the leg lamp of A Christmas Story fame after a Nehi soda poster. The ad featured a pair of women’s stockinged legs (from knees to feet) standing next to a Nehi soda bottle. Get it? Knee-high.
History Bites will be back in January 2017. Have a fantastic holiday, and remember, DON’T SHOOT YOUR EYE OUT!