Recently, we were asked for a contribution to an online article about museums in European cities. The idea was that we should present an individual “must-see” object of our choice, with a concise explanation as to why we think that one thing in question would be worth an entire trip.
With so many great places on our itineraries, we didn't find it easy to pick just one...
After a little reflection, we decided to settle for Athens. There are at least three good reasons for that choice. First of all, the Greek capital contains an extraordinary wealth of archaeological exhibits and extraordinary artefacts. Secondly, we have recently prepared our first tour exploring Athens, focusing on that great city and its surroundings. Last but not least, the enormous effort made by the Greek state in the last decade-and-a-half in terms of renovating its archaeological museums and reorganising their exhibits has been immensely successful: in our opinion, Greece should be considered among the world standards for modern archaeological exhibition design, and many of the Athens Museums are among the key examples of this wonderful development.
Being resident in Athens and, moreover, being a great admirer of all its museums, I found it impossible to settle for only one object. Instead, I have opted to prepare a “shortlist”, a selection of thirteen (increased to 22 in 2018) pieces from eleven (now sixteen) museums in Athens and Attica, each of which is especially interesting, intriguing, fascinating, revealing - or simply beautiful - and each of which, by itself, exemplifies a good reason to visit Athens.
Here they are, in reverse chronological order, i.e. in the way an archaeological excavation would proceed: from the most recent to the most ancient.
If you are watching this on a desktop or tablet, some of the images may appear quite small. You'll find bigger versions in the expanded gallery at the end of this post.
1. Occasional turbulence
Replica of the Daedalus biplane (1912)
Athens War Museum
Not all the things to see in Athens are from antiquity, and Greek history did not end two millennia ago. The history of modern Greece, from the War of Independence (1821) onwards, has often been rather turbulent. That war itself can be traced in the National Historical Museum, and a broader overview of modern Greece's military history is available in the Athens War Museum. Its displays include this replica of the Daedalus, one of the first four aircraft, French-built Farman MF.7 biplanes, acquired by Greece in 1912. They were used during the First Balkan War (1912-13).
2. Cutting a fine figure
Traditional garments from Cyprus, Karpathos and Astypalaia, 19th century
One of the best places to appreciate the history of Greece during recent centuries is the Benaki Museum, or to be exact the 'main' Benaki Museum of Greek Culture (the Benaki organisation encompasses seven separate museums, exhibits and artists’ studios in an around Athens, with more to come). The main Benaki is a wonderful place, with incredibly diverse collections ranging from antiquity to the present, including samples of splendid craftsmanship. Among them are superb regional costumes (the ones shown here are from Cyprus, Karpathos and Astypalaia), exemplifying the typical social display of traditional communities.
3. Serenity and splendour
Wood-panelled interior from Siatista, late 18th century
Elegant and beautiful, ornate and intricate, atmospheric and serene, this is the first-floor reception room from an affluent trading family's mansion in Siatista, Western Macedonia. Reflecting the rich tradition of craftsmanship and artistry thriving in the Ottoman-occupied Balkans, it is among the most emblematic of the many fascinating and unexpected treasures on display in the Benaki Museum. There are actually two such interiors, placed opposite one another, making the Benaki's Gallery 18 one of the most memorable sights in Athens.
Icon of Saint Christophorus 'Cynocephalus' (the dog-headed), 17th century
Byzantine and Christian Museum
Of course, the Museums of Athens contain many artefacts that are beautiful, historically significant, technologically advanced, and so on. Some, however, are interesting because they are strange or curious, and this is one of them. Dated to about 1685, it comes from Asia Minor and depicts Saint Christophorus as a conventional orthodox saint in terms of his body and posture, but with a dog's head. Why? There appears to have been a confusion of the Latin appellation of the saint as Cananeus (a Cannanite) with canineus (the dog-like). In combination with an ancient tradition or legend of dog-headed humans inhabiting parts of Africa, it echoes throughout the Middle Ages, leading to odd images such as this one. Perhaps not important by itself, it is a great example of the random paths human culture can take...
5. Byzantine dignity
Icon of St. Catherine of Alexandria, 14th century
Byzantine and Christian Museum
The icon, from Verroia (or Veria) in Northern Greece, depicts St. Catherine of Alexandria, one of the major saints in Greek Orthodoxy. She is depicted as a noble lady, clothed in fine garments and bedecked in rich jewellery, as would befit a Byzantine princess at the time of the icon's creation. Along with the Byzantine and Christian Museum's many other icons, frescoes and sculptures, the piece is just a small sample of the incredible and, for most of our guests, unexpected wonders of the Byzantine and Christian Museum. The place is a treasury of wonderful and beautiful objects, and it serves as an access point to the millennium of the Byzantine Empire straddling Europe and Asia, and to its underestimated importance not just for Greek, but for European history, and to the distinctive aesthetics that distinguish the Byzantine tradition.
6. Mind your step
Floor mosaic from a Late Roman / Early Byzantine basilica, 5th-6th century AD
Archaeological Museum of Lavrio
Athens did probably not adopt the Christian faith quite as early as some other Greek cities, but it had certainly become dominant before the 5th century. The new religion eventually led to widespread changes in architecture and art, as it required new architectural forms and new aesthetics for its places of worship. Of course, new things are usually developed from things that already exist, so the chosen type of church, the basilica, was derived from a common Roman secular building and the floor mosaics changed motifs more than technique. The museum at Lavrio (Laurium for British Classical scholars) is near the southern tip of Attica and contains many other interesting finds, especially to do with the ancient silver mines in the area.
7. Incredible texture
Portrait of a Hellenistic ruler, late 2nd century AD
(New) Acropolis Museum
This strikingly personal portrait of a young man (and I have to say: he has great hair) probably depicts the obscure king Sauromates II, who ruled the Bosporan Kingdom, basically the area we now know as Crimea (Ukraine) around 200 AD, as a Roman client state. Drawing on the superb materials available in the area and on the long tradition of marble sculpting in Athens, it represents the highest achievements of Roman-era sculpture, as well as the 2nd century renaissance of Athens as a centre of culture and art. Made of a single block of marble, it is astonishingly successful in representing the different textures of the subject's flesh, beard and hair in what one might call intimate detail. In the superlative Acropolis Museum, he is easily overlooked!
8. Ahead of its time
Antikythera Mechanism, ca. 100 BC(?)
National Archaeological Museum
This extraordinarily complex device of interlocking cogwheels, found among the remains of a shipwreck and apparently used to synchronise various ancient calendar systems, can be described as the earliest known clockwork-like mechanism or even the oldest surviving mechanical computer. It is the sole material witness to a much broader range of Hellenistic technological achievement, otherwise virtually unknown to us. Even in the National Archaeological Museum, which houses the world's largest collections of ancient Greek art and artefacts, it is an outstanding object.
9. Group shot of an ancient Greek family
Votive relief, ca. 340 BC
Archaeological Museum at Vravrona (Brauron)
Dedicated by one Aristonike, wife of Antiphates, this is an extraordinary relief, a high quality piece of sculpture depicting an act of religious worship. Shown are three generations of Aristonike's family, plus a slave or servant with a basket(?) carried on their head, approaching the goddess Artemis along with the bull they are going to sacrifice to her. It is just one example of the excellent exhibit of finds on display at superb museum next to the beautiful rural sanctuary of Artemis at Brauron, only 20 minutes drive from Athens Airport. The presence of work of this quality in a rural sanctuary underlines the place's importance in Classical Athenian worship and the sophistication of 4th century BC Athens alike. Brauron Museum, virtually ignored by tourists, is among the most exemplary presentations of an ancient religious shrine, in all its aspects, that I have seen.
10. Hive of activity
Late Classical beehive, 4th century BC
Athens International Airport Archaeological Exhibition
Surely we can't claim it's worth travelling to Athens for this? A simple, nondescript and coarsely-made conical pot with no decorative features whatsoever. It's actually a typical ancient Greek beehive, of a type that was in use from the Bronze Age until the 20th century, that is for well over 3,000 years, without any major changes - because it worked. The rough inner surface permitted bees to attach their honeycomb; all that's missing is the lid. It was found during the excavation of a pottery workshop within a rural house of the fourth century BC that stood on the site that now is Athens International Airport. Along with other finds discovered during its construction, it is on display in a small exhibit above the departures level. Do you know another airport that has its own archaeological museum?
11. Meeting a Classical Athenian
Grave goods and marble stele from the grave of Eupheros, ca. 415 BC
Buried in the Kerameikos, the great Classical cemetery of Athens, Eupheros died at an early age, between 9 and 15 years, as indicated by his skeletal remains. His fine gravestone, or stele, depicts him in idealised form as a young man and athlete, at an age and status he probably never achieved in life. Fascinatingly, the assemblage of grave offerings that accompanied him is also on display, including funerary vessels, but also personal effects such as a little monkey figurine and a bronze strigil, the tool used by athletes to scrape their bodies clean after exercise. The image of a boy or young man holding a strigil is a shorthand for their status or aspiration as an athlete, athleticism being an important factor in male Athenian social life and status. You can see the stele in larger format in the gallery at the end of this post, along with a picture of the many grave offerings, including the strigil that accompanied the boy in his grave, illustrating not so much his achievements in life, but his parents' sadness and shattered hopes, and inviting us to share their deeply human grief after so many centuries.
12. Politics in action
Ostraka, early 5th century BC
These seemingly harmless objects, simple pottery sherds (ostraka) with the names of important Athenian politicians of the Classical period scratched into them, stand witness to one of the most striking aspects of the extraordinary democratic system developed in Athens in the 5th century BC. Once a year, all citizens were asked to vote on who was the most ambitious, and thus the most dangerous, among them. The 'winner' would be ostracised, i.e. banished from the city, and thus its politics, for ten years, his property kept for him to return to. The Agora Museum, in the rebuilt Stoa of Attalos, contains much fascinating material connected with daily and political life in ancient Athens. Incidentally, the ostrakon in the middle of our image bears the name of Themistokles, the general who achieved the Athenian victory at Salamis and the city's delivery from the Persian attack in 480/479 BC.
13. What makes the world go round
Silver Tetradrachm from Skione, Macedon, ca. 475 BC
Nearly modernist in appearance, this coin, one of thousands in the collection of the Numismatic Museum, depicts the prow of an ancient warship. It was common for cities to commemorate their patron gods or legendary founders on their coins, and the city of Skione thus honoured its mythical founder Protesilaos, who was believed to have been the first of the Greeks to reach the shore at the beginning of the Trojan War. The object is an example of the highly refined micro-sculpture that characterises ancient coins, and also of the rich complexity of the subject matter depicted on them. It must have been unfortunate for ancient Greeks to lose coins, but we benefit from their loss. Like Greek vases, coins were objects in more or less daily circulation and the imagery they bear tells us much about the self-image of the communities that produced them.
14. A fit offering for a hero
Black-figure plate depicting hoplite warriors, ca. 500-490 BC
Marathon Archaeological Museum
Long before 500 BC, Athens created, used and exported black-figure pottery (a technique then over a century old) in large quantities, and of differing qualities. This plate is a mid-quality piece at best, depicting a typical hoplite warrior, the standard citizen soldier of the Greek city-state, in pursuit of another like him. What makes it special is where it was found: in the tumulus covering the remains of the Athenians who fell in the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC, an event that arguably influenced world history, and that certainly dominated Athenian history and that certainly was a key element in the city's view of herself and her role. The finds from the Marathon Tumulus are a key benchmark for dating Athenian pottery, and thus for dating most of Classical Greek archaeology. The museum at Marathon has many other finds from northern Attica. Today, Marathon is a quiet rural outer suburb, but it is worth visiting as the venue of an event of extraordinary historic importance.
15. Mediterranean beauty
Kore with Almond-Shaped Eyes, ca. 500 BC.
(New) Acropolis Museum
This wonderful representation of Mediterranean female beauty was only seen by ancient eyes for two decades, from its creation until the Persian destruction of the Athenian Acropolis in 480 BC, during which she was probably broken and after which she was buried in the fill below the Classical Acropolis. With her expressive face, carefully rendered garments and elaborately braided hair, in places preserving traces of the original paint, she is one of the most beautiful examples of a kore, the typical idealised statues of girls (which is what the term means) that adorned Greek sanctuaries in the 6th century BC. Put simply, she shows an Athenian girl of marriageable age, made up to be as presentable as possible, as such girls probably were in real life, although we have no idea who she is - and we should not assume that she is a portrait of an individual girl (admittedly, the thought suggests itself). In the Acropolis Museum, she shares a gallery with many of her “sisters” and other wonderful samples of Archaic art.
16. Modern infrastructure as a setting for ancient infrastructure
Pipes from the Peisistratid aqueduct, 6th century BC
Syntagma Metro Station, archaeological exhibit
The construction of the Athens Metro, primarily during the 1990s but still ongoing, has led to vast amounts of archaeological discoveries, especially in areas of the centre that had hitherto been inaccessible for conventional excavation (similar things are happening in Greece's second city, Thessaloniki, at the moment). As a result, a number of the metro stations contain archaeological exhibits, usually of artefacts, but in some cases even including walls and foundations. Syntagma is the central square and main hub of modern Athens, but was on the edge of the ancient city. Amongst many other things, the metro works here revealed part of the city walls, graves from a cemetery located outside the city, and a section of the 6th century BC clay-pipe aqueduct, probably the city's first artificial water supply. Where else do you walk among 2,500-year-old artefacts on your way to use modern mass transit?
17. Sole survivor
Piraeus Apollo, ca. 530 BC
Piraeus Archaeological Museum
The male equivalent to the kore is the kouros, the typical Archaic statue of an idealised nude young man, be he a god, a hero or a mortal. The kouros is always depicted in a static and thus non-naturalistic posture, due to the limitations and difficulties of sculpture in stone at the time. While virtually all surviving examples are of stone, this astonishing object is the only complete bronze kouros found so far, thought to depict the god Apollo. It was found as part of a cache, buried alongside no less than three(!) similarly well-preserved bronze statues, all of which are on display in Piraeus Museum. It is a most fascinating object, as it shows the the work of a very fine sculptor in bronze, able to surpass the limitations of stone sculpture by giving the figure a distinctive lightness, but still unable to escape the conventions of the stone-based kouros convention of his era in terms of posture. It took another half-century for Greek sculpture to break out of the kouros stance. The museum in Piraeus, the harbour of Athens, is an amazing place, and a rarely visited one.
18. Art and epic
Detail of a proto-Attic neck amphora, ca. 660 BC
Eleusis Archaeological Museum.
This bold and striking image pinpoints a landmark in the development of Greek culture: it is one of the earliest identifiable scenes from mythology explicitly depicted in Greek art. What is shown is the blinding of the Cyclops Polyphemos by Odysseus and his men, as recounted in Homer's Odyssey, which had been committed to writing only a few generations earlier. It was used as the container for the burial of a small child in the cemetery of Eleusis, a small town outside Athens that was to become a religious centre of enormous significance over the coming centuries. It is certainly remarkable how the painter managed to fit a giant Cyclops and the mortals fighting him in one panel by showing Polyphemus seated, and also how he gave the figure of Odysseus extra impetus by making him leap towards his foe. In Eleusis, this vase shares a museum with a host of other fascinating finds.
Wooden box with gold decoration, from Mycenae, ca. 1550 BC
National Archaeological Museum
The people we now call Mycenaean controlled most of Greece and the Aegean in the Late Bronze Age, between about 1450 and 1170 BC. Their warlike civilisation is the one most people associate with the Homeric heroes. The (modern) term Mycenaeans is derived from the type site, the huge citadel of Mycenae in the Peloponnese. It is there that the extraordinary archaeological assemblage known as Grave Circle A was discovered in 1876: a series of 16th century BC graves containing one of the largest quantities of gold ever found on a prehistoric site in Europe (we've posted about it). Most of that spectacular material, golden masks, decorated weaponry, appliqués for clothing and much more, is on exhibit in Athens, in a display that still takes my breath away every time I visit. It includes this remarkable hexagonal box, decorated with sheet gold panels depicting lions hunting deer.
20. The youth of art and the art of youth
Boxing Boys Fresco from Akrotiri on Santorini/Thera, ca. 1600 BC
National Archaeological Museum
Much has been written about the Akrotiri frescoes, and this is one of the most famous among them. Depicting two young boys boxing and, around the corner from them, two young male gazelles locking horns (see them in the gallery below), this beautiful painting once decorated a wall in what archaeologists know as Building Beta, part of the Bronze Age settlement of Akrotiri on Santorini/Thera in the Cyclades. It is certainly a striking specimen of one of the earliest elaborate art styles in Europe - but it can also be read as a very ancient and very timeless comment on male competitive behaviour. When the entire settlement of Akrotiri was buried in ashes as the result of an enormous volcanic eruption about 3,600 years ago, this fresco was preserved (in small fragments to be put together by conservators), along with many other remarkably beautiful objects. While the bulk of those finds is on display in the local museum on Santorini, the National Archaeological Museum has one extraordinary room devoted to the site.
21. Full circle - where prehistory meets modern art
Cycladic figurine of the Spedos variety, ca. 2700-2200 BC
Museum of Cycladic Art
Mysterious and strangely modern-looking, this highly stylised female figurine stands for a whole group of such objects, produced in the Cycladic islands in the 3rd millennium BC. Perfect in its simplicity of form and in the use of Cycladic marble, a material that is both tactile and visually highly attractive, it is an iconic item. The striking clarity of the sculpture is in stark contrast with the ongoing mystery surrounding the use and purpose of Cycladic figurines: we neither know whom they depict, nor how they were used or displayed, i.e. what they were for. The Museum of Cycladic Art is the key collection of these intriguing objects; some are also on display in the National Archaeological Museum.
22. Seven-thousand-year-old perfection
Late Neolithic vase from Dimini, ca. 5300-4800 BC
National Archaeological Museum
No, we have not returned to the 20th century - this vase is the most ancient object in this post - at about 7,000 years, it was already more than two millennia old when the Cycladic figurine just above was made! The vase comes from Dimini in Thessaly (Central Greece) and belongs to the Late Neolithic, the Neolithic being the era when humans first developed agriculture, animal husbandry, permanent settlement - and pottery. Apart from the modern-seeming abstract decoration (no-one knows what it means or whether it means anything), it is astonishing to see the perfection achieved that early, both in terms of technology - the vase itself - and of aesthetics - the decorative composition. The National Archaeological Museum has a fascinating gallery dedicated to this earliest 'civilisation' in the country.
Interested? All of these things are worth seeing, as I explained above, by yourself or with an expert guide. They are a tiny sample: there is a lot more to see in Athens. You can see many, but not all, of these wonders, and of course much much more, on our Athens tours, the current version being Easter in Athens, a unique tour that combines archaeological and historical exploration with the experience of how the greatest annual festival is celebrated in the Greek capital, from solemn processions to the exuberant joy of Easter Night. Likewise, many of the items shown here make an appearance during our increasingly popular add-on tours in Athens: the Heart of Classical Athens and Athens off the Beaten Track. If you want to see everything listed in this post, we can do that, as a tailor-made tour. We'd love to, so contact us if that interests you. One way or the other, join us in Athens to see all or some of these wonderful things!
For larger images, check out the gallery below.