28 May 2010

To Athens and the National Archaeological Museum

17 May, 2010

I flew from Chios to Athens in the morning and I reached my hotel in the early afternoon.  The Hotel Aristoteles is a budget hotel in Omonia, one of the roughest parts of the city centre.  A Police bus with about 15-20 police officers deployed in riot gear used to be parked at nights at the bottom of our street!  (Apparently this was normal and not just because I was there.)

But I was very happy with the hotel itself.  The rooms and sheets were clean, the beds were comfortable, there was plenty of hot water and an adequate breakfast included in the relatively very cheap price.  I had booked in for just one night, as I was due to go on a four-day guided tour the next morning.  Then I was planning to come back to Athens.  I was happy enough with the hotel to book to return for three nights after my guided tour.

Once I had settled in I checked out the opening hours of the various museums that I had noted to visit, so that I could go to one that I had time to see (some close at 3pm).  I was fortunate that the National Archaeological Museum was very close to my hotel and closed at 7pm.  So I headed off to see that.

This museum is very large and houses some of the most important ancient sculpture, pottery, jewellery and other artefacts of Greece (with some also from Egypt).  I started with sculptures and some outstanding vases of the archaic (6th century BC) and classical (5th-4th century BC) periods.  I took lots of photos – which you are generally allowed to do in Greek museums (as long as you don’t use a flash).  Here are just a few of the works that stood out for me.

The first is a grave stele from the mid-6th century. I loved the sense of vital presence this relief sculpture has.

Another favourite was the famous bronze statue of Zeus (or possibly Poseidon). See how beautifully the sculpture is balanced, with the weight at the back supported only on the ball of the foot. This sculpture is dated to around 460BC, and is in the Classical style which typically shows more movement in the body than does the archaic style.

A few of the most beautiful pottery pieces were displayed with the statues, such as the following red-figure stamnos ascribed to the painter Polygnotus, and dated around the period 430-420BC.

I then went on to a series of rooms so full of beautiful painted vases and other pottery that it was almost too much to focus on.

In another room were items from Knossos in Crete and Akrotiri in Thera (the island that is also known as Santorini), dating from around 1700-1400BC.  I loved the solidity and decoration of this storage jar from Knossos, and also the simplicity and delicate beauty of the reed decoration on the next vase.

There were also beautiful frescos from palaces in Akrotiri, such as this antelope fresco:

Finally, the highlight was the display of artefacts from Mycenaea.  The poems of Homer (the Iliad and the Odyssey) were thought by most people in the 19th century to be merely legends of the past.  But others, including Heinrich Schliemann, a wealthy German businessman and self-taught archaeologist, were convinced that Homer was telling his stories with a good deal of historical accuracy.  So, as you will have noted from my post of 7-8 May, Schliemann excavated the ‘tell’ of Troy in 1871, looking particularly for ‘Priam’s Treasure’.  After this, in 1876,he excavated the site of Mycenae, which Homer calls ‘rich in gold’.  Homer tells of five royal graves at Mycenae, and they were particularly what Schliemann was wanting to excavate on this site.  Because Homer only mentioned five graves, Schliemann missed a sixth grave, which was excavated later. Unlike the Troy excavation, at Mycenae Schliemann passed on all his finds to the government, and the National Archaeological Museum was built primarily to house these finds.

The following pictures give you an idea of the scale of what he found, although they show only about a quarter of all the golden items from Mycenae displayed at the museum.

The most famous artefact was a golden ‘death mask’ (an imprint of the face of someone who has died). Schliemann named this ‘the mask of Agamemnon’, who was the king of Mycenae and leader of the Greek forces at Troy, although there is no evidence that the mask was made for Agamemnon himself.

There were some examples of Linear B tablets (the earliest form of written Greek, dating back to around 1200BC, when Mycenae was destroyed in a fire). The tablets would normally have been used and reused, but this fire baked hard the clay of the tablets, which were then left buried under dirt and rubble until they were unearthed).  The Linear B writing was only deciphered, and proven to be an early form of Greek, in 1953.  Unfortunately, the linear B tablets only consist of short lists and legal documents.

This tablet is a list of soldiers, their chiefs and stations, for the defence of the Mycenaean city of Pylos.  We know that the Mycenaean cities were being attacked in the thirteenth century BC, but we don’t know by whom.  The cities were overrun around 1200BC.

And finally, a piece of Mycenaean pottery caught my fancy, with its lovely and somehow light-hearted painting of an octopus.

I left the museum stunned by the sheer volume of amazing pieces of ancient and classical art that I had seen.

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