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Masterworks from the National Archaeological Museum of Athens, pt.1

I had a few extra hours in Athens recently so decided to visit the fascinating National Archaeological Museum. I had already been but it hit me hard this time and I spent FOUR HOURS wandering around its ~5,000 years of history.

The first thing you encounter is this intriguing figure, who stole my heart with his puzzled expression: he's from the Late Neolithic (~4,500-3,300 BCE and has been dubbed "the thinker."

What was he thinking about? What puzzled him most as he gazed towards the heavens? That's basically the face I'm making NOW as I think about my future... 😄

During this period human settlements were small and tucked inside protective walls. Here below, the Stone Age settlement of Dimini, in northern Greece. They were much more sophisticated than what we think of as "cave men"!

Ladies, we would have spent a lot of time around the loom, weaving clothing for our families.

By ~ 3,000 BCE we arrive at the Cycladic civilization (so called because it developed in the Cyclades Island chain, which includes Santorini, Naxos and Mykonos among others). Thousands of small marble statuettes have been found in grave sites, probably devotional images to a female deity or Mother Earth Goddess. They are usually flattened figures with only minimal facial features and sexual characteristics. A few male figures have been found, as well as an occasional larger figure, some up to almost life size! (If you're viewing this from a computer, click on the images below to see them in full format)

Tombs also included elements for feasting in the afterlife: jars, vessels, platters, oil lamps, and often some whimsical animals.

They've also found some extraordinary carved objects that have been dubbed "frying pans" but whose purpose is still not clear:

************* Just when you're done marveling at the Cycladic civilization you turn the corner and enter...

The Bronze Age! Here are findings from 16th c. BCE tombs from the city of Mycenae.

The flattened votive figures have given way to elaborate gold, silver, and bronze designs:

Decanter in the shape of a bull's head

Powerful men were buried with heavy bronze swords:

One even had a helmet made of boar's tusks!

Amazing gold objects were found, like a full suit of "armor coating" for a young child; jewelry and broaches for a noble woman's tomb; and shining golden goblets.

But the real stunner is the series of gold funeral masks, usually depicting the deceased with eyes closed but one (below, middle) amazingly has wide open eyes and an enigmatic smile! The one on the left is called the "mask of Agamemnon," though the actual identity of this Mycenean king is not known.

The pottery has also improved so you can have an even bigger feast!

As advanced as the Bronze Age Civilizations were, they almost all collapsed sometime around the 12th c. BCE, leaving the Eastern Mediterranean in a kind of "dark ages" until they emerged again around the 8th c. BCE, known as the Archaic Period. We see the emergence of massive kouros statues, like this one below carved from marble from Naxos Island. This one dates to ~600 BCE and was found at the temple dedicated to Poseidon at Sounian, near Athens.

His rigid stance with one foot forward was heavily influenced by Egyptian art and statuary. He has stylized hair and facial features, and lightly etched ribs are visible from the back. He represents an ideal male form but the exact origins and purpose of these statues is still not entirely clear.

Then there's this extraordinary female figure from the 6th c. BCE. She marked the tomb of a young woman who died unmarried, and she holds an unopened lotus flower in her left hand. Her dress would have been painted bright red and you can see an ancient motif of rosettes and swastikas, which in ancient times was a sign of good luck or prosperity. They believe that her face would also have been covered with a kind of resin to give it a lifelike appearance:

She would have looked something like this (thanks, Wikipedia!):

In the next room is another massive kouros with a powerful, athletic build. Was he the god Apollo? or a celebrated athlete? or warrior? (or both? sporting events were often training for future battles)

I love the stylized depiction of musculature:


After about two hours of swooning over the ancient world I took a break in the museum's cafe and had an iced coffee and a bite to eat, then I went through the Classical World up through Roman Greece, but I'll get to that in another post. Too much to do at one sitting!

I'll just finish here back in the Bronze Age with findings from the Minoan city of Akrotiri, on Santorini Island. It was one of the most advanced cities in the world around 3,000 BCE but was eventually buried in ash and destroyed by the massive eruption of the Thira volcano around 1,600 BCE. If you go to Santorini you can visit the archaeological site of Akrotiri or see an interesting collection at the small museum in the town of Fira.

One of the most stunning discoveries from the Minoan palaces in Crete and here in Greece were the large-scale, colorful frescoes:

They weren't going for delicate floral patterns but for floor-to-ceiling jungles of foliage, human figures (here, two boys boxing) and exotic animals. They also had fabulous pottery, some more realistic:

... and some more abstract:

I love the whimsical, bold, and sometimes cartoonish lines of this developing pottery style! These below were 13th-12th c. BCE from Mycenae:

I hope you enjoyed your tour! I'll be back soon with Part 2 (Classical Greece, the Hellenistic Period, and Roman Greece). If you want to see more from this period now you can check out my post from the amazing collection at New York City's Metropolitan Museum. Or if you want a deeper dive into one sculpture, see my post about "The Dying Gaul."

I'm busy these days with various projects and lots of travel (I just returned from Venice!) so I'll have plenty to post about in the coming months as the temps drop (it's already COLD here in Florence!). I wish you all happy trails and hope to see you out there in the world again some day. If you'd like to help furnish my tomb, toss a few pieces of gold leaf into the tip jar (click here or see link in menu bar). Or just come by to say Hi via email or in the comments (you have to log in first, which just takes a second!). Subscribe (below) to get notified whenever I post. It's not often and no salesmen will visit your home. 😉

ευχαριστώ και τα λέμε σύντομα! (thanks and see you soon 🙂)

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Bobbie White
Bobbie White
Oct 17, 2021

What a great Part 1 of this amazing museum tour. Looking forward to Part 2.

Claire Duiker
Claire Duiker
Oct 18, 2021
Replying to

Glad you enjoyed it! And thank you SO MUCH for taking the time to make a comment. 😍

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