ancient greece - national archaeological museum
ancient greece - national archaeological museum - Heinrich Schliemann

National Archaeological Museum of Athens

The Prehistoric Collection grew out of the discoveries of the great pioneering excavations of the late 19th century, which gave form and title to the civilizations of Greek prehistory. Two passionate men laid the foundations for the development of Greek prehistoric archaeology: It was Heinrich Schliemann (1822-1890) that excavated legendary places like Troy, Mycenae and Tiryns, and Christos Tsountas (18571934) who carried on the Mycenae excavations, dug the famous Vapheio tholos tomb and delved even deeper in time with his explorations in the Cycladic islands and Thessaly, which revealed the first civilizations in Greece.

As Ephor of the Mycenaean and Egyptian Collections of the Museum, from 1896 to 1904, he was responsible for the first inventory of the Prehistoric Collection, which was moved to the then newly established National Archaeological Museum in 1892. In that same year Sophia Schliemann, wife of Heinrich Schliemann, donated his personal collection of Trojan antiquities to the new museum.

The finds of Greek and foreign archaeologists during the 20th century enriched the Prehistoric Collection with priceless works from all over Greece. Exhibits from the Peloponnese, Attica, Thessaly and The Cyclades make up the body of the Collection, while important works also come from

Lemnos, Leukas, Kythera and Skopelos. With the growth of local museums after the World War II, the input of new finds to the Prehistoric Collection gradually dwindled and in the 1970s, after the transport of the famous wall-paintings from Akrotiri in Thera in 1971, practically stopped. New exhibits have enriched the Collection in recent years thanks to the crack down by Greek authorities on the illicit antiquities trade and their confiscation of unexpected finds such as the gold jewelry of the "Neolithic Treasure" in 1997.

The Prehistoric Collection remains the richest and most important of its kind in the world.

Thousands of visitors converge each day to wonder at the treasures from Mycenae "rich in gold", the tablets inscribed with the Linear B script, the enigmatic Cycladic marble idols, and the Theran wall-paintings. The wealth and the variety of the exhibits offer both a comprehensive lesson in Greek prehistory as well as a fascinating journey through time.

ancient greece - national archaeological museum
ancient greece - national archaeological museum - Heinrich Schliemann

National Archaeological Museum - Akrotiri of Thera Department Thera (Santorini)

The southernmost island of the Cyclades, situated relatively close to Crete, is one of the most important sites in the world for the study of geological phenomena and formations. In the sixteenth century BC the centre of the island disappeared in a terrific explosion leaving a huge depression, or caldera, which was filled by the sea.

Few fragmentary evidence exists for the human presence in Akrotiri during the Late Neolithic period (fifth millennium BC). In the Early Bronze Age (third millennium BC) this first settlement developed into a flourishing Early Cycladic town. Akrotiri continued to develop during the Middle Cycladic period (early second millennium) and by 1600 BC was a bustling town, densely occupied and with sophisticated many-storeyed buildings. Several of these were decorated with exquisite wall-paintings representing religious ceremonies or naturalistic land and seascapes. The pottery at Akrotiri is distinguished by the variety of its shapes and decorative themes. Buried in volcanic ash and beautifully preserved these pottery vessels together with other household items allow us to reconstruct a great deal of the life at Akrotiri before its dramatic end by providing ample information on their use - practical or ceremonial - and the organization of life inside the buildings.

The Minoan civilization of nearby Crete, then at its peak, greatly influenced all aspects of life at Akrotiri - architecture, pottery, art and religion. Akrotiri also had close ties with the Achaeans/ Mycenaeans of the Greek mainland, particularly during the period of the royal tombs at Mycenae, which marks the birth of the Mycenaean civilization.

Volcanic ash covered the buildings and their contents, perfectly preserving them for the amazement of the modern visitor, together with the memories of a civilization destroyed by the eruption. Akrotiri has rightly been dubbed the "Pompeii of the Aegean".

National Archaeological Museum - Theran Room

The Theran Room attracts the visitor mainly for its famous wall-paintings - the wall-painting of Spring with the swallows and lilies, the Boxing children and the Antelopes. Large-scale painting inspired vase painting as seen on the exquisite jugs with representations of lions, dolphins and birds. Volcanic ash preserved unique testimonies of life at Akrotiri, such as the imprint of a wooden bed with traces of the rope still visible on it. Amphorae inscribed in the Minoan Linear A script and lead weights of the Minoan metric system provide information on the settlement's commercial contacts and administrative organization, while the tripod cooking pots and the base of a clay jar filled with snails allow us a glimpse inside the Theran kitchen.

A selection of artifacts from Mycenaean Greece, the Knossos palace and Phylakopi at Melos illustrate the greater context of the Aegean within which Thera had a prominent place before the volcanic eruption.

ancient greece - national archaeological museum
ancient greece - national archaeological museum - Heinrich Schliemann
ancient greece - national archaeological museum - Heinrich Schliemann

National Archaeological Museum - The Cycladic Civilization The Early Cycladic period (3200-2000 BC)

This period is characterized by the development of metallurgy, seafaring and of communication. A great number and variety of bronze tools and weapons, and a series of images of swift ships with oars engraved on clay vessels (frying pans) or reproduced in metal (lead models), indicate the floruit of the Cyclades, which from their central position in the Aegean commanded the exchange of raw materials, finished goods and new ideas. Metal, obsidian and marble, these unique Cycladic products, spread throughout the Aegean. The marble vessels and figurines become synonymous of the Cycladic civilization at its peak: first the so-called "kandeles", or kraters, and the violin-shaped figurines; then the kylikes, the "palets", and the widespread folded-arm figurines. At the same time life-size statues and three-dimensional figurines, such as those representing musicians, illustrate the progress and vanguard of Cycladic art.

The Middle Cycladic period (2000-1600 BC)

This is also a period of development for the Cyclades. Important harbour settlements develop at Phylakopi, Agia Irini and Akrotiri and commercial exchange with Crete and the Greek mainland is established, as shown by the abundant imported Minoan and Minyan pottery un earthed in the above mentioned sites. Marblework appears to decline but pottery workshops introduce new impressive designs, such as the beak-spouted jug, and elaborate polychrome decoration with animal, bird and, most important, human representations.

The Late Cycladic period (1600-1100 BC)

During the early phase (1600-1400 BC) of this period the important Middle Cycladic harbours develop further, regarding spatial architecture, organization and administration. They are given sturdy fortification walls, dense urban construction, public buildings and shrines, and a system for listing goods and keeping archives in Linear A. The influence of Minoan Crete is now especially strong, it is filtered through the unique Cycladic spirit to create unique works of art such as the reknown wall-paintings of Thera and Phylakopi, with their unique representations of prehistoric Aegean nature.

During the last phase of this period (1400-1100 BC) the Cycladic centres, now under Mycenaean control and with a pronounced Mycenaean character, play an important part in the communications and commercial network of the Mycenaeans in the Aegean and the Middle East.

Archaeological Museum - Room 6

Room 6 houses the Cycladic Collection of the National Archaeological Museum, which includes unique finds from all the periods of the Cycladic civilization.

The display begins with the Early Cycladic period and the finds from the cemeteries at Paros, Antiparos, Despotiko, Melos (Early Cycladic I period) which include characteristic marble vessels ("kandeles", palets), violin-shaped figurines and engraved pottery. These are followed by the finds from the cemeteries at Naxos, Syros, Amorgos, Siphnos, which include the characteristic folded-arm figurines and pottery with impressed spirals and triangles or painted decoration.

At the beginning of the room stand the masterpieces of the Early Cycladic civilization: the largest known female figurine, the two figurines from Keros representing a harpist and a flute player, and some of the most characteristic figurines.

Stone-carving is also represented by a series of vessels not only of white marble, but also of other colourful stones and rock crystal. Metalwork is represented by several types of tools and weapons. These are followed by finds from the settlements and by a display of pottery which illustrates its development through time.

The Middle Cycladic and the Late Cycladic periods are represented by the abundant and important finds from Phylakopi at Melos and by the four successive cities discovered there by archaeologists. The display includes important examples of pottery with representations of humans, animals, birds and monsters, or with polychrome decoration of flowers (crocuses, lilies), spirals and network. The display ends with the famous wall-paintings of Phylakopi representing flying fish and lilies, and female figures participating in a ceremony of the rebirth of life and nature.

ancient greece - national archaeological museum
ancient greece - national archaeological museum
ancient greece - national archaeological museum
ancient greece - national archaeological museum

National Archaeological Museum - The Mycenaean Civilization

The Mycenaean civilization (1600-1100 BC) developed in Greece which then like now was a bridge between the East and the West. Its radiance reached from Asia Minor, the Near East and Egypt, to the western Mediterranean and north-west Europe. The birth of the Mycenaean civilization, named after Mycenae in the Peloponnese, its largest centre, is marked by the rising of a ruling class of warriors, who have contacts with the already advanced civilization of Minoan Crete. An impressive picture of the wealth of the early Mycenaean period is provided by the sixteenth-century BC royal graves at Mycenae (Grave Circles A and B) and their opulent grave gifts, symbols of social status and high office, which confirm the legend of Homer's Mycenae "rich in gold".

The large fortified palaces at Mycenae, Tiryns and Pylos in the Peloponnese, and of Thebes in Boeotia, were the administrative, economic, military and religious centres of a larger area. This central authority, organized hierarchically with the king at the top, maintained archives written on clay tablets in the Linear B script, the first Greek writing, which was adapted to the Greek language from the Minoan Linear A script. Organised settlements and chamber tomb cemeteries, whose rich contents indicate social stratification and a prosperous society, grew up around these citadels. The magnificent tholos tombs, such as the Tomb of Atreus at Mycenae, the Vapheio tholos in Laconia and the tholos of the mythical Iolkos in Thessaly, belonged to the ruling class.

This centralized palatial administrative system collapsed at the end of the thirteenth century BC, traditionally soon after the Trojan war, which was a common undertaking by the Achaean lords. Possible causes for this breakdown are the social upheaval, weakening economies and popular migrations "by land and by sea" in the Mediterranean, which destroyed the centers of Asia Minor and the Middle East, and severe earthquakes, as documented by archaeological excavations. These changes mark the last years of the Mycenaean civilization and the beginning of a new period in Greece in the twelfth century BC. Life continued at the well known citadels - this is especially evident at Mycenae and Tiryns -, but there was also the free development of other local centers on the Greek mainland, the Cyclades and Crete. The end of the Mycenaean civilization, in the eleventh century BC, brought about an inevitable cultural retreat. However it was during the succeeding Geometric period up to the eighth century BC that the foundations for the development of the Greek city were laid. That was when Mycenaean civilization entered the realm of myth.

National Archaeological Museum - Room 4

Room 4 introduces the visitor to the glow of Mycenaean gold. Here the Mycenaean civilization is presented in three units preceded by a collection of funerary stelai, standing at the entrance as guards and forerunners of the exhibition. The precious tableware or ceremonial vessels, remarkable signet-rings, daggers with inlaid decoration, exotic objects and numerous bronze weapons of the Mycenaean lords constitute the first unit of the exhibition. At the centre stand the gold death masks, emblems of the first great civilization of the Greek mainland.

The second unit of the exhibition reveals the secrets of the Mycenaean palaces. Here the visitor is introduced to the religious life of the great centres, the palatial art of wall-painting, the production of palatial workshops, the Linear B state archives, the commercial exchange and relations between the Peloponnesian centres and distant lands. The stele and the Warrior Krater, in the centre, symbolize the military readiness of the Mycenaean citadels, while the exquisite ivory triad reveals the grace of a peaceful religion.

The last exhibition unit concerns the world of the dead. The half-columns from the entrance to the Tomb of Atreus provide the backdrop for a selection of gold, silver, stone and terracotta vessels, and gold, glass-paste and faience jewelry, which once furnished the graves of the citizens of Mycenae and of the lords of Dendra. The exquisite gold cups and other objects from the tholos tombs of Vapheio in Lakonia, Myrsinochori and Pylos, occupy a central position in the display.

National Archaeological Museum - Room 3

The Small Mycenaean Room presents the life and accomplishments of the Mycenaean centres outside the Peloponnese. A selection of fine ivory and glass artefacts from the tombs at Menidi and Spata, unusual terracotta ritual vessels from various Attic sites, finds from the Athenian Acropolis, grave gifts from inland Attica or the coast, characteristic assemblages of the end of the Mycenaean period from Perati and Salamis, give a complete picture of Mycenaean Attica. Indicative of the wealth of the region are the gold grave gifts from the tholos tombs of Nea Ionia (Kapakli) and Dimini near Volos, and the assemblages from Kythera and Skopelos.

The development of Mycenaean pottery is presented at the far end of the room through a selection of characteristic vases, the shapes and decoration of which express the aesthetics of everyday life and date the periods of the Mycenaean era.

ancient greece - national archaeological museum
ancient greece - national archaeological museum
ancient greece - national archaeological museum
ancient greece - national archaeological museum

National Archaeological Museum - The Neolithic Civilization and the Early Bronze Age

The Neolithic Civilization (6800-3300 B.C.)

Neolithic civilization is the long era, the main characteristics of which are farming, stock-breeding, permanent installation and the extensive use of stone. From the stage of the nomadic hunter-gatherer (Paleolithic Era) man entered the stage of farmer-husbandman and dominated his natural environment.

This Neolithic "revolution" is affected in ancient Greece at the beginning of the 7th millennium BC. The Neolithic civilization lasted more than three thousand years and is divided into five main phases:

  • the Aceramic (6800-6500 B.C.)
  • the Early Neolithic (6500-5800 B.C.)
  • the Middle Neolithic (5800-5300 B.C.)
  • the Late Neolithic (5300-4500 BC)
  • the Final Neolithic or Chalcolithic(4500-3300 BC)

The Neolithic settlements extended all over Greece, with the greatest concentration in the plain of Thessaly, where the two most important settlements are located, Sesklo and Dimini. The arrangement of the dwellings of the settlement, with their streets and squares, constitute the first architectural and town-planning forms on European ground.

The find of obsidian from Melos and other imports in the mainland give clear evidence of the wide development of seafaring in the Aegean Sea from the very beginning of the Neolithic period. One of the most significant achievements of that period was the craft specialization. The necessity of house equipment with tools, pottery, weaving and matting products led to the first craftsmen, who transmitted their craft from generation to generation.

The Early Bronze Age (3300-1600 B.C.)

The Early Bronze Age (3300-2000 BC) is characterized by the generalized use of metals which were introduced in the Final Neolithic, or Chalcolithic, period. The north-east Aegean, the Cyclades and the Greek mainland were separate cultural units. This period saw the development of seafaring, the creation of organized settlements and the establishment of controlled economies through the accumulation of goods and use of seals. A series of destructions towards the end of the period have been attributed to population movements.

The Middle Bronze Age (2000-1600 BC) began with a period of economic and cultural decline. Soon however new settlements appeared at major sites. The most important of these settlements had copper workshops and their dead were given bronze weapons and jewelry of gold, bronze and semi-precious stones as grave gifts. The influence of the advanced civilization of Minoan Crete, the spreading of new ideas and techniques, brought radical changes in the lifestyle and art, and laid the foundations for the development of the Mycenaean civilization.

National Archaeological Museum - Room 5

The "Thinker", the earliest symbol of male nature and thought, welcomes the visitors in Room 5.

The journey through time begins in the Neolithic period, with the household equipment of a typical house of this period. A storage jar, carbonized seeds and a remarkable variety of clay vessels and tools, recreate images of daily life. In the middle is a cooking pot atop the hearth of the house. The journey continues with a display of pottery organized in small units. Vessels from the fertile lands of Thessaly and Central Greece, some of them true masterpieces, others simple objects of daily use, illustrate the development of pottery production over a period of three millennia.

Next come the figurines. A complex yet easy to follow display presents the development and basic types of these small human and animal-like objects, which impress the modern viewer by their variety and introduce him to the mystery of human inspiration and symbolism. The journey continues with the remarkably abstract gold Neolithic Treasure, the wellsharpened bronze tools, the weapons and the elaborate jewelry.

The visitor is then introduced to the Age of metals (early third - mid-second millennia) by the impressive diadems and other jewels from Poliochni on Lemnos and Troy, and by the luxurious gold and silver jewelry from Leukas. The storage jar, movable hearth and varied pottery assemblages from houses and graves of Attica, coexist with the much-travelled Cycladic vessels, proving that pottery is a bridge between civilizations. The journey continues with the Middle Helladic grave assemblages from Sesklo and Dimini with their last and ever-lasting gifts to the deceased, and ends with the vases from Orchomenos and Aphidnai from a period that foretells the coming of the royal graves of Mycenae and the dawn of a new era.

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