26 October 2011


Handprints from when I was 9 and my brother was 4.

A recent post by Kostis Kourelis reminded me of visit to Argos in 1978.  I had taken my daughters over from Nauplion to look at the remains of the Roman baths and theater.  If there was a guard in those days, he paid no attention to us and we were able to go through the tunnels of the baths, crawl into openings, climb over walls, and enjoy the triumph of our own discoveries.

I started looking at the little knee-high columns, the stacks of dried mud-pies in the hypocaust. The hypocaust carried heat under floors supported on these stacks of  sun-dried mudpies, four square plaques on the top and four on the bottom, varying numbers of round plaques between. This square-round-square stacking is apparently unique to Argos.

I sat down on the ground beside a column and began unstacking the mudpies.  On the lower side of each round mud-pie was a handprint, much longer than mine in the fingers, much narrower than my piano-trained palm, and with a greatly enlarged pad at the base of the thumb. The whorls and ridges of each individual fingerprint were quite distinct.  This handprint appeared on most of that stack and I called the daughters to see. They each began unstacking a column and I began another -- we were careful to keep the plaques in order so we could replace them exactly -- and then two other handprints began to appear again and again: smaller hands, both with the same long fingers, narrow palm, and enlarged pad.  There were other handprints, but the majority were these three sizes with this distinctive shape.

We were looking at the production of a specific family, this father and two children making mudpies, hundred of mudpies, for the baths.  Estimating the little columns on a plan of the hypocaust and averaging mudpies in a column gives a rough total of 15,000 mudpies. How many mudpies could they make in a day? How long could this employment last?  If we had unstacked other columns, would we have found other families.

That was all, but for a half hour we were touching the hands of this family of Roman Argos.  

An important discussion of childhood in the Roman Empire, here.


  1. A beautiful post by Diana Wright, a scholar with a poet's sensitivity. http://surprisedbytime.blogspot.com/2011/10/handprints.html …
    (No twitter address that I know of.)


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