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Exhibition gives women shunned in ancient Greece a voice

Published on: 8 November 2022

Women shunned by society in ancient Greece will take centre stage in a new exhibition at the Great North Museum: Hancock.

You echo through time” will bring back the voices of the semi-mythical Maenads, or ‘wild’ women who worshipped Dionysus, the god of wine, through new research on images of women depicted on Greek pottery and workshops with modern women.

The word maenad means mad or irrational, and through dance and drink the women entered a state of ecstatic frenzy, singing raucously and running wild in the countryside, rejecting the advances of satyrs (men) who pursued them. Their flowing hair, bare feet and wearing of animal skins were seen as further symbols of their wildness.

The depiction of Maenads on Athenian painted pots – produced by men, often to be used by men at drinking parties – aimed to reinforce the idea that women in ancient Greek society could only be tamed through marriage and motherhood and needed to kept under control at all times or else they would return to the wild.

The exhibition, which runs in the Shefton Gallery at the Great North Museum: Hancock until the end of December 2022, is the result of new research by experts at Newcastle University on key artefacts relating to women and children from the Shefton Collection, the most important British collection of Greek and Etruscan archaeology outside London and the South East. 

Only a handful of items in the collection have ever been researched, and academics used the Newcastle Material Culture Analytical Suite (NeMCAS) at Newcastle University to shine new light on the ‘lives’ of these ten objects and those who interacted with them. This close investigation has provided a much better understanding of the methods of manufacture, decorative techniques, iconography and even the conservation history of the objects, enhancing the interpretation of their meaning and cultural significance.

Following this analysis and to help them create the exhibition, the research team held four workshops with women from a range of backgrounds to understand the ways in which they expressed themselves, what they felt about the key items in the exhibition and the connections they were able to make to them. Led by academics, museum professionals and creative practitioners, each workshop aimed to bring the Shefton Collection into contact with science and contemporary art for the first time.

A fragment of pottery depicting a Maenad, featured in the exhibition. Credit: Shefton Collection.

During the workshops, participants also created fragments of writing which are used throughout the exhibition and have been combined with the poetry of Sappho (630-570 BC), one of the few female voices from antiquity whose work is still available to us.

Dr Olivia Turner, Co-Curator of the You echo through time exhibition, said: "In ancient Greece and throughout history, the bodies of women have been silenced and controlled through legislation, medicine and religion so we want this exhibition to finally give them a voice." 

Dr Sally Waite, Senior Lecturer in Greek Art and Archaeology, added: “The women who took part in the workshops told us how, by looking at an old object in a new way, they could relate the stories of women in antiquity to their own lived experience and we hope visitors to the exhibition will be able to do the same.”

To coincide with the exhibition and taking place as part of the Being Human festival, the UK's national festival of the humanities, a sonic healing event will take place in the GNM’s Planetarium on Thursday 10 November, alongside live performances inspired by and exploring the re-imagined sounds of maenadic defiance by the Noize choir. The events are free but places for the sonic healing workshop are limited and must be booked on arrival. For more information visit

One of the amphora featured in the exhibition showing a Maenad being pursued. Credit: Shefton Collection.

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