Athens’ National Archaeological Museum Part One: Establishing Greece

National Archaeological Museum, Εθνικό Αρχαιολογικό Μουσείο, Athens, Greece

When you’re in a city like Athens, you can’t help but feel spoilt for choice when it comes to museums.  In fact, I found it almost overwhelming trying to decide which were the must-visits of our week in the city.  The National Archaeological Museum was clearly top of the museum list – I knew that some of the finest creations of the ancient Greek world were on display, and clearly the whole place was going to be packed full of incredible objects.

National Archaeological Museum, Athens, Greece

But I underestimated it.  It was even more extraordinary than I’d anticipated.

The first museum concentrating on the the archaeology of Greece was established in 1829 by the governor of Greece, Ioannis Kapodistrias.  It was the first museum created by the newly liberated Greek state, and was originally in Aegina, which was the first capital of Greece. Once Athens took on that title, the collection was moved and its home kept changing until an international architectural competition brought about the current museum.  It was built from 1866 to 1889, funded by the Greek government and many individual benefactors.  Unsurprisingly the neo-classical building has undergone changes over the years, mainly involving building space to accommodate the growing collection.  There is apparently talk again now about further expansion, which would be just awesome.

We didn’t get to finish the museum.  We spent the whole day there and covered a fraction of the galleries.  In fact, we didn’t even finish the ground floor.  We hoped to go back another day, but we couldn’t: so we have to return to beautiful Athens another time.  What a shame that will be!

For convenience, I’ve divided the post up into two sections – this one will look at the Mycenaean and Cycladic periods, and Part Two will concentrate on statues and funeral stele.

The earliest remnants of Greek culture in these galleries present an interesting starting point for a trip through the museum – I would recommend it over starting with the sculptures.  That’s because you get to see the smallest objects created by the various island cultures and it helps to put the larger objects elsewhere into more of a context.  I don’t pretend to be an expert, so for me this was all a real learning experience.  I loved the ‘frying pans’ – mysterious objects, the purpose of which archaeologists have enjoyed speculating about.

I have always been fond of the minimalist Cycladic figures, but I’ve never seen so many in one place before, and it was great to really get an understanding of them, in the context of the rest of their art.  Looking at what was being produced elsewhere in the Greek islands was also interesting – to see those designs and objects that ended up by being more universal and those which were culturally specific to one island.

There is an awesome – and I really mean awe-inspiring – collection of Mycenaean golden objects on show.  The skill and the beautiful aesthetic of the workmen is remarkable – the little worked sheets of gold, along with the striking mask, presented the most fascinating display of gold objects I’ve probably ever looked at.

But it’s not just the dazzling gold objects that deserve to be admired – the small ivory carvings, the golden flying fish, the very modern two piece vase with an octopus pattern… and then those amazing Mycenaean frescoes…

For more information and some nice pictures of statues, please click here to part Two.

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