I went to the Acropolis, the Agora, and the Acropolis Museum. Was I done with the ancient world? If I had answered, “Yes!”, I would have missed out on a 5 Compass institution, the National Archaeological Museum at 28 Oktovriou-Patision 44 in the Exarhia neighborhood. Lonely Planet Pocket Athens truthfully calls it, “One of the world’s most important museums.” Founded at the end of 19th century to protect antiquities, it’s also the largest archaeological museum in Greece. The building itself, a typically grand neoclassical space, has become a protected historical monument.
Unlike the others mentioned above that focus exclusively on Athens, NAM tells the entire story of Greek civilization from 6,800 BCE until Roman times through over 11,000 found objects. And what objects!
The earliest traceable human civilization in this part of the world was Neolithic from 6,880 to 3,000 BCE. Neoliths were farmers, stock raisers, and artisans who made ceramics, baskets, and mastered stone tools. Thanks to archaeologists, curators, etc., we know an incredible amount about how they lived.
The Aegean Sea’s Cyclades Islands were a cultural force from 3,200 to 2,000 BCE. Its people were sea traders who crafted with bronze and silver and are now fairly well-known through their cemeteries that have yielded marble figurines and beakers, etc.
The Mycenaean Era, 1,600 to 1,100 BCE, developed a ruling class of warriors in the Peloponnese, the large peninsula of mainland Greece southwest of Athens. At its height in the 13th century BCE, military muscle created palaces and kings. The sophisticated gold death mask of Agamemnon, one of the greatest artifacts ever found, is both above and in this museum. Among the startling number of gold objects of this Era on display in NAM that brought me to a complete stop were a number of clever octopus shaped, gold cutouts that were sewn on luxury clothes items. Tiffany’s ancient forebears.
The Golden Age of Greece then occurred over centuries and rose to Hellenistic greatness in the 6th century BCE when social upheaval put most cities on a path to democracy, monumental temples, and the foundations of modern science. While there are a host of objects of this era to examine in NAM, my favorite was the bronze statue probably of Zeus holding what appears to be a thunderbolt. Almost completely intact, it thrillingly represents the talent of a masterful artist of what is now called the Severe Style about 460 BCE. It surely survived without a scratch because it went down with a ship to be found much later.
Then Alex the Great conquered the world followed by the Romans. Among the Roman Era artifacts in the National Archaeological Museum is a marble portrait bust of Antinoos found at Patras. Antinoos was the favorite of Emperor Hadrian who built the wall across England. After Antinoos drowned in the Nile in 130 AD, Hadrian had him deified, erected numerous statues of him in cities all over the Roman Empire, and more than likely inspired some lively, tabloid-like conversations during orgies.