Ancient Greeks were washing their hands over 300 years earlier than thought, says new research

By examining the use of 130 examples of ceramic lekanes (a type of low bowl), Dr Bartłomiej Lis of the Institute of Archeology and Ethnology at the Polish Academy of Sciences found that the lekanes were used as handwashing basins – rather than as tableware to eat food from. CC BY-SA 4.0

Researchers in Poland and Canada have shown that the Ancient Greeks started washing their hands over 3,000 years ago, much earlier than previously thought.

Until now, the oldest record of the Greeks washing their hands came from the Homeric epics, which probably date from the 8th century BC (in the case of certain other ancient cultures, such as the Egyptians, the practice of hand-washing was already well documented).

According to Lis, many elements – such as the decorations on the inside of some of the bowls, which would be invisible if objects were placed inside them – indicate that the bowls only held water.CC BY-SA 4.0

To find evidence of earlier handwashing, Dr Bartłomiej Lis of the Institute of Archeology and Ethnology at the Polish Academy of Sciences and Dr Trevor Van Damme from the University of Victoria in Canada turned their attention to Mycenaean Greece, the last phase of the Bronze Age in Ancient Greece, spanning the period from around 1600 to 1100 bc.

By examining the use of 130 examples of ceramic lekanes (a type of low bowl) to determine what people used them for, and combining this with other analyses, they found that the lekanes were used as handwashing basins – rather than as tableware to eat food from.

Until now, the oldest record of the Greeks washing their hands came from the Homeric epics, which probably date from the 8th century BC.Public domain

According to Lis, many elements – such as the decorations on the inside of some of the bowls, which would be invisible if objects were placed inside them – indicate that the bowls only held water.

“However, the most important argument were the traces of actual use of these vessels - or rather ... their lack. The only traces were found on the outside of the bottom and were related to the vessel moving,” he said.

Dr. Lis said: “The most important argument were the traces of actual use of these vessels - or rather ... their lack. The only traces were found on the outside of the bottom and were related to the vessel moving.”iaepan.edu.pl

Following this analysis, the researchers traced how the custom developed, spreading from elite groups to new social classes and venues, from the home and communal feasting to funeral rites.

“The widespread distribution of handwashing equipment after 1200 BC closely mirrors the situation in our earliest surviving Greek Iron Age texts and joins a growing body of evidence pointing to strong continuity in social practices between the Postpalatial period and the early Iron Age in Greece,” they note in their article.

Following this analysis, the researchers traced how the custom developed, spreading from elite groups to new social classes and venues, from the home and communal feasting to funeral rites.CC BY-SA 4.0

Their research was published in the Journal of Mediterranean Archeology in an article entitled “From Texts and Iconography to Use-Wear Analysis of Ceramic Vessel. Investigating a Mycenaean Handwashing Custom and Its Changing Social Significance”.