Text: Claire Lessiau
Photographs: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen
The National Archaeological Museum of Athens showcases a very rich collection of Ancient Greek art that is a perfect introduction to any trip to Greece. The richness of the collections (a thorough visit will take you about four hours) and the extent of interesting written information can be overwhelming so we selected some masterpieces for you in this article.
1. The treasures of Mycenae and the Mask of Agamemnon
When Heinrich Schliemann discovered Mycenae in 1876 after discovering Troy – the back then thought mythical cities of the Iliad by Homer – he uncovered the biggest treasure ever found back then. The Mycenaean civilization is one of the great civilizations that developed in the Aegean. It flourished between 1600 and 1100 BC in Greece while its impact stretched from Asia Minor, the Near East and Egypt to the Western Mediterranean and North-western Europe. The Mask of Agamemnon is one of the gold masterpieces dug out by Schliemann in the royal tombs of Mycenae dating back to the 16th century BC. In total more than 20 kilograms of gold worked as delicate death-masks, cups, jewelry and more was found by the amateur archaeologist.
After you check out the Mask of Agamemnon, make sure to take a look at the bronze daggers with inlaid scenes of lion hunts.
2. Wall paintings
When most of the Ancient Greek art comes to us in monochrome, the colors of wall paintings are still vivid. Originating from Minoan Crete where the murals were reserved for palace architecture, this art form spread to palatial constructions in mainland Greece. If Knossos in Crete is where the murals can be admired in the ancient palaces, the archaeological museum of Athens showcases wall paintings found in the Acropolis of Mycenae dating back to the 13th century BC. The Mycenean lady invites us to attend a solemn moment when she accepts a necklace as a gift. The details of her hairstyle and fineness of her jewelry give her status. Colors were obtained from metal oxides and applied onto a wet plaster surface.
3. Because it is the most ancient form of Greek writing
Why does it matter? Because Linear B is the oldest known Greek dialect dating back to 1450 BC, preceding the Greek alphabet by a few centuries. On top of this the 200 signs comprising Linear B have been deciphered fully! The Linear B tablets found in the archives of the palaces in Mycenae, Pylos, Knossos… It is not another Iliad or Odyssey, still these tablets give us an insider’s view into the Mycenaean civilization by describing the construction of the palace, import of perfumes and oils, religious offerings such as wine and olive oil…
4. Because the oldest artefact of the museum may be the most modern
These millennium-old sculptures look so modern that it is hard to believe they are among the most ancient masterpieces housed in the museum. Dating back to the early Cycladic period (-3200; -2000) these figurines are made of marble, one of the unique raw materials found on the Cyclades Islands along with obsidian (dark volcanic glass) and metal. As another one of the great Prehistoric civilizations that developed in the Aegean the Cycladic civilization played a pivotal role in the trade of materials and goods as well as the exchange of ideas, being in the center of maritime communication routes.
While you are in this gallery, make sure you also check out the hedgehog.
5. Of course, it’s Zeus!
Zeus or Poseidon? No one knows. The artefact he was holding in his hand – trident or a thunderbolt – would have given it away but when this hollow cast bronze statue was found in a shipwreck off the island of Euboea in 1926 it was empty handed and in pieces. Dating back to 460BC, the majestic statue was delicately restored and showcases a perfect anatomy, a real-life rendering of the movement, and the natural stature of a powerful god. His eyebrows were originally made of silver, his lips of copper, and his eyes, which are now completely missing, of some other material.
If you look closely you will notice that the artefact being held has a pretty large diameter and was held at an angle making historians assume we are indeed looking at Zeus.
6. The Jockey of Artemision
Maybe one of the finest bronzes of the museum was found in the same shipwreck as the statue of Zeus off the island of Euboea, the Artemision shipwreck. To start with it is rare to admire Ancient Greek bronzes as most statues were melted down for their raw materials to make weapons or other statues. When the romans took over from the Greeks, they transferred some masterpieces to Italy and it is assumed the Artemision sank in 75BC. Luckily the shipwreck was found in 1926 and the Jockey of Artemision was restored. The 150BC life size statue of the galloping horse and young jockey is extremely realistic with contracted muscles and the horse’s wide nostrils that makes us see him panting and frothing as he pushes through to the end of the race.
7. The Antikythera Youth
As sponge-fishers from the island of Symi were sheltering themselves from a storm in the spring of 1900, one of them dove off the coast of the island of Antikythera and came back to the surface panicked: he had seen corpses at the bottom of the sea. In fact, he had discovered an important group of sculptures in marble and bronze laying at a depth of about 50 meters. About a hundred statutes were brought back up by the same team the following year and it is only in 1976 with SCUBA equipment that Cousteau explored the wreck again uncovering some more treasures. In 2015 a team lead by the US archeologist Foley used state-of-the-art diving technologies and found out that this shipwreck is even more special: not only did it contain precious treasures but it was a massive grain carrier, an antique supertanker none of which had ever been found before despite plenty being described not ancient texts as mammoths of the seas.
One of its most precious cargo was a slightly larger than life bronze statue dating back to 340 BC: The Antikythera Youth. This young man whether he is Perseus or Paris holding a spherical object like the head of Medusa or the apple of discord has a heroic stature and unusually well-preserved inlaid eyes.
The Ancient Greek potteries and vases are remarkable. If they may seem like a minor art, back in the second millennium before Christ it was a high art form. Potteries were manufactured where the wealthy lived, in the centers of power. Most of them describe the lives of gods and heroes in a vivid way. However one of my favorites is the octopus vase with a marinescape of seaweeds and rocks of Minoan style dating back to the 15th century BC.
- Inspired? Click here to be directed to the website of the Archaeological Museum!
- The Greek TravelTellers offer an excellent interactive tour of the Archaeological Museum. This will take your visit to the next level!
- Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area! Here is a short tutorial to download it.
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