People tend to get possessive with their things. These feelings are human, so it should come as no surprise that ancient people felt possessive about their stuff, too. One way we protect our things is to label them. Ancient Greeks were no different when it came to such practices, including two famous fifth-century B.C.E. Athenians: the artist Phidias and the politician Pericles, who exhibited the same tendency of ownership.
In 1958, German archaeologists excavating near the Temple of Zeus at Olympia, Greece, discovered a small ceramic cup with ribbed walls covered in black, inside and out. Inscribed on the base were the simple words, “I belong to Phidias.” We know this man—Phidias was a famous sculptor who is best known for creating the larger-than-life-size statue of Athena on the Acropolis in Athens and for the two-story-tall gold-and-ivory cult statue of Zeus at Olympia, which was considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
It is unusual to find something so directly tied to a historical individual, but there is little doubt that this cup must have belonged to Phidias. When he scratched his name into the ceramic surface with something like a dental tool, what was on Phidias’s mind?