Wonders: Images of the Ancient World

Collection History

The images were selected from the extensive files of The New York Public Library's Picture Collection specifically to enrich and supplement the study of ancient cultures in social studies, literature and arts classrooms. From almost a century of clipping and classifying images from illustrated publications and from donations into subject categories, the Picture Collection gradually added the images to its files. A wide swathe of sources range from prints resulting from the French Egyptomania unleashed by Napoleon's Expedition in 1798 to representations of masks from ancient Roman comedies in Le maschere sceniche e le figure comiche d'antichi Romani (1736) to illustrations of myths by John Flaxman (1755-1826) to Walter Crane's Arts-and-Crafts illustrations for Nathaniel Hawthorne's Wonder Book to Shell Oil's placard depictions of the Seven Wonders of the World.


Fascination with the achievements of ancient cultures dates back to Classical times. Lists of the Seven Wonders of the World were made by Herodotus (ca. 450 BC), Callimachus of the Library at Alexandria (ca. 270-240 BC), Philo of Byzantium (225 BC), Antipater (140 BC) and Strabo (10-30 CE). The traditional list of the Seven Wonders is confined to the Mediterranean region for this reason. The journeys of travelers visiting ancient monuments in foreign lands and the stories they brought back sparked the imaginations of illustrators, historians and storytellers throughout the ages. Through the pens, brushes and inks of 400 years of artists and illustrators, the images depict the marvels of Egypt, Mesopotamia, Persia, Greece and Rome and demonstrate their enduring impact and influence upon every culture since.

Starting from the wonder of the Pharos (lighthouse) at Alexandria, said to be the first true high-rise building in the history of architecture, topics explored include ancient navigation and fishing, lamps, architecture and architects, building construction, Phoenician culture, and Egyptian rulers such as Ptolemy I. Images diverge from the statue of Zeus by Phidias to represent the Picture Collection's holdings on Greek and Roman mythology as well as such spectator sports as the theatre and the Olympic Games, over which the statue of Zeus presided. The Colossus of Rhodes, which caused a bronze shortage when it was built as a monument of victory over the Macedonians, is supplemented by images of ancient warfare and pictures of sculpture and pottery. The pyramid at Giza expands to include Egyptian archery, chariots, furniture, musical instruments, sphinxes and tombs.

Arrangement by subject is particularly conducive to comparing views of the lifestyles and beliefs of different cultures; a cross-section of customs can be explored in such topics as dining, funerals, houses and religion.

To demonstrate the connections among the images and suggest paths for exploring them, the Picture Collection has prepared a series of presentations on the popular educational tool Voicethread, listed below in Related Resources.

The New York Public Library's digitization project "Wonders: Images of the Ancient World" was supported in part by funds from the Metropolitan New York Library Council (METRO) through the New York State Regional Bibliographic Databases Program.

Related Resources

Wonders: How to find and use images from the Classical World. (YouTube)

A Walk through the Wonders Gallery. (YouTube)

How they Lived. (Voicethread)

What they invented, created and built. (Voicethread)


How They Thought, Fought & Changed. (Voicethread)

Ancient Costume in the Picture Collection.

See also: digital images from the Asian and Middle Eastern Division.

Collection Data

Library locations
Art and Picture Collection
Civilization, Ancient
Universal Unique Identifier (UUID): 918b8b20-c5bd-012f-3635-58d385a7bc34
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