My flight out of Athens on my day of departure was not until 7 pm, thanks to my budget-conscious travel planning. This meant that I had pretty much a whole morning and afternoon to further explore the city, and there was one obvious place to go: the National Archaeological Museum, which contains some of the most famous and magnificent artifacts of Greek history.
The museum itself has a pretty significant history. The first national archaeological museum was opened in 1829, though apparently the collection traveled between exhibition locations until the current building was planned in 1858 and constructed in 1889. During World War II, the museum was closed and the collection was boxed and buried to prevent it from being looted; it reopened in 1945. The museum was closed for a complete refurbishment around 2002 and remained so for 1.5 years; it opened in time for the 2004 Athens Olympics.
I took soooooooo many photos while at the museum. For all of our sakes, I’ll try and restrict this post to some of the coolest and most interesting things that I saw, though that will be hard!
The first thing one encounters on entering the museum are the spectacular treasures of Grave Circle A, Mycenae, a 16th centure BCE royal cemetery near the citadel of Mycenae. It was excavated by the German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann in 1876, uncovering a magnificent and beautiful golden hoard. You may not think you’ve heard of it before, but look at the image below and you’ll change your mind.
The magnificent funeral mask is popularly known as the Mask of Agamemnon, after the mistaken impression of Schliemann that he had found the ancient king’s grave site. Remarkably, there was a long-lasting argument at the end of the 20th century that the mask is a fake, planted by Schliemann to boost his own reputation. As I understand it, its authenticity is now largely accepted.
And it is not the only funeral mask that was found; there were five discovered. Aw, heck, let’s show them all.
There was soooo much gold found! A gold lion head and silver bull head with golden horns were other highlights.
There was also an interesting chemistry lesson to be found in some of the decorated weapons found in the tomb. The following photos are a concise illustration of the differences in chemical properties of bronze and gold.
There is so much more to see in the museum besides Grave Circle A, however. One of the major pieces is known as the Jockey of Artemision.
This magnificent statue was found in a shipwreck in 1926 in Cape Artemision, Greece. The exact age of the statue isn’t known, but it is thought that it might have been looted from the city of Corinth by the Romans in 146 BC and lost being brought to Pergamon. Tragically, part of the reason that the history of the statue is unknown is that a diver died during the recovery and efforts were abandoned and never resumed.
Being a museum of Greek antiquities, of course there were countless magnificent marble statues. I was particularly fond of those of the Greek god Pan, such as this 1st century CE replica of a 4th century BCE original.
There are a LOT of sculptures in this museum. The following panorama, of just a single room, illustrates this point.
The massive urn in the center of the photo is a funerary lekythos, apparently a grave monument. It is quite large, and beautiful.
The grave steles were some of my favorite sculptures, quite expressive and detailed. The following one actually came from Omonia Square, only a few blocks from the museum (and where I got off the Metro), and dates from about 325 BCE.
Funerary monuments came in a lot of varieties. I was quite partial to the lion I saw not long afterwards.
Okay, one more photo of funerary monuments to show how beautiful they can be.
My policy in walking through museums like this, with so many exhibits, is to photograph the signs so that I can read in detail about their significance later. I didn’t realize where this next statue came from until I started this blog post!
This figure, which was once thought to be Perseus holding the (missing) head of Medusa, is more likely Paris, holding the “Apple of Strife,” which would result in him stealing away Helen of Troy and launching the Trojan War — at least according to legend.
In addition to being a magnificent statue, it was found in the Antikythera shipwreck, discovered by sponge divers off the island of Antikythera in the year 1900. The wreck itself dates from the 1st century BCE.
What the wreck is most famous for, however, is a mind-boggling device that rewrote our understanding of ancient technology, known as the Antikythera mechanism. To my surprise, it is actually in the National Archaeological Museum, though it is in a side corridor and I practically missed it.
This incredible device is often referred to as the world’s oldest known analogue computer, and probably dates from between 100 and 150 BCE. It was used to predict astronomical positions and eclipses and could do so decades in advance. Modern day X-ray tomography has revealed that it probably had some 37 gear wheels to track the motion of the Sun and Moon.
Really, read through the Wikipedia description of this device to appreciate how amazing it is, especially considering how ancient it is. Though it appears in the museum in a beautiful display case, it is presented without much fanfare, and it looked like most of the visitors walked by it without paying it much attention. I ended up staring at it from various angles for quite some time.
It’s easy to understand missing it, though, because there is so much beauty to distract you in the museum! The next statue is a magnificent marble image of Poseidon, dating from about 100 BCE.
Some rooms require more work to appreciate their significance, such as the creepy head gallery pictured below.
Nestled among the forest of heads are some of great philosophical significance. We have Aristotle…
… and Plato.
Let me just share a few more highlights from this incredible museum. Another centerpiece is the Artemision Bronze, which came from the same shipwreck as the jockey I showed earlier.
Just as the date of origin of the statue is unclear, the subject is also unknown. It could be either Poseidon or Zeus, but either way it is an impressive statue.
The following trio of photos of a sleeping Maenad gives a clear picture of how magnificent this marble must have been while intact.
The Maenads were the female priestesses of Dionysus (Bacchus), both in reality and Amythology. They were reputed to have mad, drunken revels, sometimes willingly, sometimes after having been driven mad by the god as punishment. This particular sculpture came from the time of the Emperor Hadrian (117-138 CE).
As always with marble, it is amazing how the sculptors are able to make the folds of clothing look so soft and real, as the following statue of a young woman demonstrates.
I learned a lot of interesting things while at the museum. Before my visit, I was unaware of the kouros, a style of statues of muscular standing young men that appeared in the archaic period of Greece’s history, from roughly the 8th century BCE to 480 BCE.
The female version are known as kore, and they were equally impressive.
It wouldn’t be a visit to a Greek archaeological museum without a sight of a sphinx; the one below served as a funereal monument.
It should be noted that the National Archaeological Museum has pieces from other cultures, as well. I will share just a couple of pieces of Egyptian art, which were quite unique.
Once I was done looking at exhibits, I ate lunch at the museum restaurant, which is quite charming and has nice sandwiches. It opens up onto a ground floor garden, a nice place to contemplate what one has seen.
I made a new feathered friend while eating. Only one pigeon was bold enough to sneak into the interior of the restaurant and hunt around for food. I usually don’t encourage pigeons, but this one seemed to have earned its lunch. Once I started sharing some morsels, it got more friendly and hopped up on the chair.
And after that, it was time to prep for my long journey home. I first headed back to the hotel, and along the way took a photograph of what appeared to be an empty architectural school.
Having familiarized myself with the metro on the way to and from the museum, I opted to take a taxi to the metro and take it to the airport, saving myself about 30 Euros compared to the 50 I would’ve paid for a taxi.
Arriving back at the airport, I felt like a bit of a conquering hero returning from a long campaign. I took a photograph of the bench where I had slept at 3 am almost a week before while waiting for my train to port.
My journey wasn’t quite over, though. My flight from Athens arrived at 9 pm at Heathrow, at which point I had a 13 hour layover. Being the middle of the night, I opted to stay at a Japanese-style Yotel at Terminal 4. Being that it’s Heathrow, it was non-trivial to get to the Yotel from Terminal 5.
If you ever have a ridiculously long layover at an airport with a Yotel, I highly recommend it. They have comfy beds, a toilet and a shower. With a change of clothes, I was completely well-rested and ready to tackle my final 9-hour flight directly back to Charlotte.
And with that, my two week trip to Finland and Greece came to an end! Sarah picked me up at the airport and I took a well-needed rest at home with my kitties.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this tour of cool sights in Finland and Greece!