The National Archaeological Museum of Athens is in every aspect the most beautiful and largest museum in Greece. Founded in 1866-1889 and expanded with a new wing in 1925-1939, it originally displayed all the masterpieces from all over the country, although nowadays new finds are usually displayed in regional museums across the country. The exhibition is largely arranged chronologically-thematically and is explained by many accessible guides. The objects are arranged chronologically.
The finds from prehistoric times mainly include the unimaginably rich finds from the shaft tombs of Mycenae, including the famous gods deathmasks (including the “mask of Agamemnon”, which is several centuries older than Agamemnon) and the beautiful inlaid daggers from these tombs. We also see some of the tombstones belonging to those same tombs and fragments of the frescoes that once graced the palaces of Mycenae, Tiryns, Pylos and elsewhere.
The rooms dedicated to the Neolithic / Early Bronze Age and the Kykladen mainly contain vases and utensils, in addition to some of the finest marble statuettes from the Kykladen Islands.
Very beautiful are the many jewels and other luxury objects from the Mycenaean tombs throughout Greece. Four gold signet rings (on the pictures) are an example of this, as well as the two Minoan cups from a tholos tomb at Vapheio (near Sparta), with scenes of the trapping of wild bulls, sometimes in nets, sometimes with the help of bait cows.
Interesting are the examples of Linear B clay tablets, once intended as temporary notes for the bureaucrats in the Mycenaean palace centers, which served not only as palaces but also as tax centers, distribution centers and centers for the production of luxury goods. Officials kept accurate inventory on tiny ‘post-it’ tablets, the contents of which were later copied into larger ‘overview’ tablets, which in turn were also temporary in nature. Ultimately, the entire administration was kept on parchment, after which the (unfired) clay tablets were recycled. In the fires that finally destroyed the Mycenaean centers, the temporary tablets were baked, while the official records were lost.
Also interesting is the helmet made of wild boar teeth, which were sewn onto a leather hood. Assuming the wearer had killed the boars himself, he showed his macho side here. Intriguingly, Homer mentions this type of helmet in the poem the ‘Iliad’ that had the Trojan War as its subject, an event dating back to Mycenaean times, as well as the man-sized shields that we see on the dagger above. see.
Archaic statues and vases
After the demise of the Mycenaean civilization (1150 BC) and the subsequent ‘Dark Ages’ in which the population of Greece declined sharply, settlements were abandoned on a large scale, trade came to a halt and new populations migrated to Peloponnese, around the year 900 Greece as a whole recovered. The decline was halted, trade volumes and population grew and the classic system of independent city-states, with its own government, army, domestic and foreign policy, was slowly established. In the 9th and 8th century B.C. we mainly see how the local aristocracy is becoming more and more monumental, especially in terms of funerary monuments. Huge, often man-sized, meticulously painted burial vases were placed on top of the tombs of the deceased, initially with only geometric patterns, or very small figurative scenes, later with increasingly divergent scenes. The burial of the dead is often shown.
In the 8th and 7th centuries B.C. the first man-sized statues emerge, in the beginning strongly influenced by Egyptian art, although in Greece always naked (for men). The oldest images are often endearing, with stylized rather than realistic details, such as the ears, the corkscrew curls and the somewhat dubious ‘archaic’ smile. Over time, the images gradually become more realistic, until around 490 B.C. the perfection is achieved of classical sculpture.
The development of archaic sculpture is well reflected in the images below. Striking at the large kouros found at Sounion (approx. 600 B.C.) are the stylized details and (even more remarkable) the ‘stomach muscles’ that the sculptor has also depicted on the back. It is clear that he was not yet used to really looking closely. The statue next to it, from 530 B.C. is clearly much more realistic, while with the Kritios-kouros (with a much more natural attitude) classic perfection has been achieved. From that moment on, the hair is also kept short. The lady with the poppy bulb dates from around 530 B.C. and still has beautiful remains of the original painting.
The most important image of classical sculpture is probably the extraordinarily beautiful Zeus (or Poseidon) from Artemision, one of the few Greek bronzes that has survived. In addition, some rooms are entirely devoted to classical funerary monuments, which often also show the very high quality of Greek sculpture.
A single example should suffice here, a beautiful bronze example of a young jockey on an immense horse, made in the 2nd century B.C., standing in the same hall as a 2nd century copy of the famous Diadoumenos of Polykleitos, and the finds of the timpanon of the temple of Asklepios in Epidauros.
Vase art department
A separate section of the museum is devoted to the many thousands of vases from different periods of Greek history. Here a small selection.
A special group concerns the dishes from the sanctuary of the Kabirs in Thebes, originally a mystery cult that was intended to support young people in the transition from one phase of life to another. The rituals often had a strong Dionysian character, with music, dance and drink. The vases found often show grotesque images. The main gods are the deity Kabeiros and his son (Pais).