Death and Memory: Kerameikos Museum

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Kerameikos Archaeological Museum, Αρχαιολογικό Μουσείο Κεραμεικού, Athens, Greece

If you have spent any time looking at the funerary stele at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, you will have noticed that many were found in Kerameikos – the ancient cemetery of the city.  Over the years, my interest in stele has dipped in and out, but when I visited Greece I felt a real connection with the sensitivity and beauty of these ones in Athens, and I finally understood why they were so admired and copied by others around the ancient world.  As well as being striking works of art, they offer an interesting perspective on daily life – on the attitudes, beliefs and preoccupations of the citizens of Athens.

First of all, you can walk around the site of Kerameikos.  Once you’re done there, you can pop into the small attached museum.  But don’t let the size deceive you – there is more in there than you’d think, and the quality of what they have is remarkable.  The museum was built in 1937 and expanded in the 1960s.  The most recent improvements were made in 2002, after the discovery of some important archaic statues, the Kouros and the sphinx being two awesome examples.  They don’t have a huge amount – as I say, a lot of the stele are now in the National Archaeological Museum – but what they have is great quality and there are some interesting finds.  And it’s very well displayed.

Just outside the museum is a covered area which protects a few stele and a very interesting 4th century BC mosaic from the Pompeion.  You don’t get to see mosaics this old usually, so even though it’s not complete, it’s quite exciting to see!

The very moving stele of the woman with her baby, which is the main picture of this post, is perhaps one of the loveliest memorials I’ve seen.  The baby has been realistically and sensitively rendered, and the mother has a genuinely affectionate expression.  There is a wonderful balance between emotion and restraint, of sadness and joy.  Technically, too, the monuments are almost perfect – simple, striking, and beautiful.  The stele of Eupheros is also worth mentioning, because he is depicting holding a strigil and in the last room you can actually see the strigil he was buried with.

The dynamic bull sculpture in the centre of the next room is impressive, but I found the bases here more interesting.  If you have time to look at them, you’ll see that there are lots of fascinating details in terms of text and imagery.

Following a chronological trail next, we get to see the evolution of the art and burial traditions in the area from about the 12th century onwards.  Even if you’ve already been to other archaeological museums in Athens, what makes this experience unique is the fact that you get a very clear understanding of what was actually buried in the graves in specific periods.  From a social point of view, this was fascinating.

And can we just have a moment to appreciate those face powder discs?  I’d never seen one before (and then went on to see one in the Museum at the Agora and at the National Archaeological Museum!)

So In Summary

Having spent a pleasant while meandering around the site, I didn’t really have high expectations from the modest little museum.  But I was delighted to see what amazing stele, statues and burial goods they’ve been allowed to keep on site, not least because it really helps to reinforce your impressions when you see the real thing after having seen a copy.  And one distinct advantage of a small collection is that you can explore it in more detail than when it’s submerged in a bigger museum, where you inevitably have to be selective in your viewing due to the quantities on display.  Here, you can simply focus on the Athenians’ attitudes towards death and commemoration – a much more positive experience than you might think!

Further Information & How To Get There

Please check out my blog post on the Kerameikos Archaeology site for this information.

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