The National Archeological Museum is an essential stop on any visit to Athens. However high your expectations, this unrivalled treasure trove of ancient Greek art and sculpture seems to surpass them. The interior is surprisingly plain – there’s nothing flashy at all about the displays – but clear and well labelled. You could easily spend an entire morning or afternoon here, but it’s equally possible to scoot round the highlights in an hour or two; arriving early in the morning or late in the afternoon should mean you won’t be competing with the tour groups for space.
Mycenaean and Cycladic art
Directly ahead of you as you enter, the Mycenaean halls have always been the biggest crowd pullers. The gold Mask of Agamemnon, arguably the museum’s most famous piece, is almost the first thing you see. Modern dating techniques offer convincing proof that the funerary mask actually belonged to some more ancient king, but crowds are still drawn by its correspondence with the Homeric myth and compelling expression.
Among the other highlights are a golden-horned Bull’s Head displayed alongside a gold Lion’s Head; gold jewellery including a diadem and a gold-foil cover for the body of an infant from Grave III (the “Grave of the Women”); the Acropolis Treasure of gold goblets, signet rings and jewellery; the gold Vafio cups, with their scenes of wild bulls and long-tressed, narrow-waisted men; and dozens of examples of the Mycenaeans’ consummate art – intricate, small-scale decoration of rings, cups, seals and inlaid daggers. There’s work in silver, ivory, bronze and boars’ tusks as well; there are baked tablets of Linear B, the earliest Greek writing (mainly accounting records) and Cretan-style frescoes depicting chariot-borne women watching spotted hounds in pursuit of boar and bull-vaulting. It’s a truly exceptional display, the gold shining as if it were in the window of a jeweller’s shop.
Still earlier Greece is represented in the adjoining rooms. Room 5 covers Neolithic pottery and stone tools from Attica and elsewhere and runs through to the early Bronze Age. The pottery shows sophisticated decoration from as early as 5000 BC, and there are many figurines, probably fertility symbols judging by their phallic or pregnant nature, as well as simple gold ornaments. Room 6 is home to a large collection of Cycladic art from the Aegean islands. Many of these idols suggest the abstract forms of modern Cubist art – most strikingly in the much-reproduced Man Playing a Lyre.
Sculpture makes up a large part of the museum’s most important exhibits, following a broadly chronological arrangement around the main halls of the museum. Early highlights include a statue of a kore (maiden) from Merenda (Myrrhinous) in Attica, in room 11. Her elegantly pleated, belted chiton (dress) bears traces of the original paint and decoration of swastikas, flowers and geometric patterns. Nearby is a wonderful grave stele of a young doryphoros (spear-bearer) standing against a red background. Room 13 has the Stele of a Young Warrior, with delicately carved beard, hair and tunic-folds, and the Kroisus kouros (statue of an idealized youth), who looks as if he’s been working out; both are from the late sixth century BC.
Just a few highlights of the massive Classical art collection can be mentioned. Room 15 boasts a mid-fifth-century BC bronze Statue of Poseidon, dredged from the sea off Évvia in the 1920s. The god stands poised to throw his trident – weight on the front foot, athlete’s body perfectly balanced, the model of idealized male beauty. A less dramatic, though no less important, piece in the same room is the Eleusinian Relief, showing the goddess of fertility, accompanied by her daughter Persephone, giving to mankind an ear of corn – symbol of the knowledge of agriculture and associated with the Mysteries of Eleusis. In Room 20 is a small marble statue of Athena, a copy of the great cult statue that once stood in the Parthenon: it’s a scary figure; the vast original, covered in gold and ivory, must have been extraordinary. The Little Jockey of Artemission, a delicate bronze figure seeming too small for his galloping horse, was found in the same shipwreck as the Poseidon. Room 28 has some fine, fourth-century BC bronzes including the Antikythira Youth, thought to depict either Perseus or Paris, from yet another shipwreck, off Andikýthira, and the bronze head of a Boxer, burly and battered. Still more naturalistic, in room 29, is the third-century BC bronze head of a Philosopher, with furrowed brow and unkempt hair.
The most reproduced of the later sculptures is a first-century AD statue of a naked and indulgent Aphrodite (room 30) about to rap Pan’s knuckles for getting too fresh – a far cry (a long fall, some would say) from the reverent, idealizing portrayals of the gods in Classical times. There is also an extraordinary bronze equestrian portrait statue (without the horse) of the Emperor Augustus.
Less visited, but still extremely worthwhile, are the collections hidden away at the rear of the museum and upstairs. These include, downstairs the Stathatos collection, with some truly exquisite jewellery; a wonderful Egyptian room; and the bronze collection. This is an exceptional display of thousands of items: weapons, figurines, axes, cauldrons, jewellery, mirrors, kitchen implements; even bronze sandals. Perhaps the highlight is the Antikythira Mechanism, at the far end. Dating from around 150–100 BC, it was discovered in a shipwreck off the island of Andikýthira in 1900, but modern scanning techniques have only recently revealed its full complexity. It is believed to be an astronomical computer capable of predicting the movements of stars and planets, and its sophisticated use of differential gears is unique – technologically, it was at least 1500 years ahead of its time.
Upstairs is a collection of hundreds of vases, if anything still more spectacular, with a full explanation of manufacturing techniques, changing styles of decoration and the uses of the different types of vessel. As ever, the highlights are from the Classical era. Up here, too, is a display on the excavations of Akrotíri on Thíra, including some of the famous Minoan frescoes discovered there.