Conversation between a boy, approximately 11, and a museum guard:
BOY: Excuse me. Is that boat model real?
GUARD: Yes, they actually made that to put in a tomb.
BOY: So it’s two thousand….?
I relate to the boy’s amazement. When the Greeks Ruled Egypt, a temporary exhibit at the Art Institute, is full of breathtaking artifacts created during the years from 330 BC to 30 BC. I actually do forget to breathe at times. Not because I’m stunned by the aesthetics, but because I am looking at rare evidence that that era really did exist.
The concept of “30 BC” alone is fairly astonishing (imagine being a mere 30 years away from something so momentous that it would later come to mark the virtual restarting of time), but it’s still just a concept. In contrast, the exhibit’s carvings and drawings, the boat model, and the permanent Greek and Roman collections are real, and evoke (in me, at least) a response more powerful and haunting than anything in a frame. Many are 3,000 years old; if the conditions are right, you can look at them and shed the present for an instant. I look at them and think of who else has looked at them. To believe it requires something like the opposite of a suspension of disbelief: I have to force belief, and it—the acute realization that ancient Greek people, who surely didn’t think of themselves as ancient, created these objects, lived among them, poured wine from them, and buried each other with them—remains one of the cheapest thrills I’ve ever found.