We woke up with the sunrise on the morning of April 12 near Piraeus, the port for Athens. We wanted to disembark early to maximize our time in Athens, where we would be on our own. We had toured the Acropolis & its new museum and seen other highlights on our last visit here, https://baderjournal.wordpress.com/2013/05/18/athens-greece/, so our objective this time was to see the National Archaeological Museum, one of the world’s greatest museums of antiquities.
We were docked at a terminal about half a mile further from the port exit than the one we were at in 2013. This made for a much longer walk to the subway than we had anticipated, maybe 2 miles. But when we finally got there, it turned out that tickets could be purchased from real people (rather than machines), although ours didn’t speak English. However the signs were in English as well as Greek so it was easy to find our train & get into the city. The train was pretty slow until it got out of Piraeus, but we got to our stop fairly quickly overall. It was less easy finding our way from the Metro stop to the museum but it didn’t take too long. Although the neighborhood seemed a little seedy, with a lot of graffiti on the buildings, the museum is quite impressive, with some colorful flowers in the beds on the grounds.
This is a vast museum, too much to really cover in one day, but it is helpfully arranged largely in chronological order, beginning with the 5,000 year old Cycladic artifacts from the islands around Delos. We will only be able to touch on some of the things that stood out for us as we perused the museum’s collection (or at least a large part of it).
Displayed in one of the early rooms (right through the door in the picture above) were the hoard of gold artifacts from Mycenae first discovered by Heinrich Schliemann (the discoverer of Troy) in the late 19th century. Mycenae was the center of Greek culture in the time of the Trojan War, a period known as the Mycenaean era. These artifacts were recovered from a circular tomb called “Grave Circle A” that held 19 bodies, apparently members of the ruling class of the day. The most famous item is what Schliemann (jumping to desired conclusions, as was his wont) called the “Mask of Agamemnon,” a solid gold mask made to cover the face of a dead man (notice the tiny holes under the ears for tying it around the head).. This could not have been Agamemnon because it dates to about 250 years before the fall of Troy around 1300 BC, but it is still a stunning artifact.
Other items from Mycenae included wall frescoes, an amphora (storage jar) & a bone helmet made of boar tusk, which was strong but also flexible. All were similar in style to items we had seen in Crete in 2013, suggesting a Minoan influence on Mycenaean style. Note that the raised stone pieces in the frescoes are original, while the completion of the painting around them is a speculative modern reconstruction.
The earliest Greek sculpture (from about 700 to 500 BC) are called kouroi: Kouros (male) & Kore (female). They are stiff & straight & stylized, apparently influenced by Egyptian statues. The men are naked & the women are clothed & all of them had slight smiles (or smirks) and were brightly painted, even the skin. The first Kouros below, dating from about 600 BC, once stood at the entrance to the Temple of Poseidon at Cape Sounion. Typically, he is naked with his left foot forward but his hips straight rather than swiveled. The second, a Kore, is from about 550 BC. She holds a flower in her left hand & tugs at her dress with her right (an attempt to show movement). Her dress was once painted red & has flowers & swastikas (good luck symbols to the ancient Greeks) down the front (see closeup). The third is a later funerary Kouros from Attica, dated to the 530’s BC. It is a bit livelier than the earlier one. The fourth is a woman, seemingly in a very early flat style, notable for the traces of red paint still clearly visible on the marble. Nearby was a base for a Kouros from Athens, circa 510 BC, depicting a wrestling match in relief with the bodies in a much more animated light.
The large (6’ 10””) & imposing bronze statue below is called the “Artemision Bronze” because it was found in a shipwreck off Cape Artemision, north of Athens, in 1928. The weapon he is throwing was not found, so it is not clear whether this is Zeus, throwing a thunderbolt, or Poseidon, throwing a trident. It has been dated to 460 BC, the beginning of the Classical period of Greek sculpture (although this is more in what is called the Severe Style that preceded it). His eyes are hollow but were once filled with white bone.
An interesting sculpture that looks like it lined the roof of a building (possibly at Epidauros) includes a row of water spouts in the form of lions’ heads. A funerary urn from Marathon (probably) dating from the 420’s BC, made by a painter called Polygnotos, depicts Helen’s abduction, by Theseus. Then there is the much more dynamic “Artemision Jockey,” circa 140 BC in the Hellenistic period. It was recovered in pieces from the same shipwreck as the Zeus/Poseidon above & pieced back together in 1971. It is a large sculpture that dominates a room otherwise full of Roman copies of Greek sculptures (this was an industry for the Romans). The jockey appears to be a young boy, originally painted black with non-Greek looking features, which may indicate he was at least partly Ethiopian.
A bronze statue of a young athlete was found in the sea off Marathon, dated circa 330’s BC. Notice the white eyes still in this one. The appendage pointing up from his head is a leaf from a victory garland around his head. The bronze Statue of a Youth, circa 330’s BC, was recovered from a shipwreck near Antikythera. Some think this is Perseus, who would have been holding the head of Medusa, and others (more likely correct) think it is Paris, presenting the apple to Aphrodite as the most beautiful goddess. Found in the Aegean sea is a statue of Augustus Caesar,circa 10 BC, which was originally mounted on a horse.
Finally, perhaps the most interesting & unusual artifact in the museum is the Antikythera Mechanism, recovered around the turn of the 20th century from the same shipwreck near Antikythera as the Statue of a Youth, above. It is in many pieces and badly corroded after a couple of millenia under the sea. It is clear from its surface that it is a mechanism operated by gears of various sizes & examination of what is inside with x-ray and other technologies has disclosed its complexity and inscriptions. After a century of study it has been concluded that this was an astronomical calculator, combining several different calendar systems, predicting eclipses, calculating the dates of various Panhellenic games, and perhaps locating the positions of the sun, moon & the 5 planets then known on any future date. It has been called the first computer and mechanisms of comparable complexity did not again appear until the European astronomical clocks of the 15th century. Several modern versions a working model of the mechanism are on display in the same room. After seeing this we left the museum, to be sure we would get back to the ship in time for our fairly early departure.
We returned to the subway & boarded a train headed for Piraeus. The train was not crowded but there were several young men standing around us making it impossible to move into the train from the area in front of the door. As we approached the next stop they circled around us and one of them started pushing Rick aside, as if trying to get to the door even though he was already there. He politely said “excuse me” a couple of times. When the door opened they all got out & Rick felt a hand reaching into his pocket from one of them who had a sweater draped over his arm. Obviously, this was a pickpocket gang. Although the whole experience was rather unnerving, the bottom line is that they got nothing before getting off the train because Rick’s wallet was well secured in his front pocket.
As the ship was preparing to leave the Captain made an announcement pointing out that there were a number of Syrian refugees camped on a dock not too far away. Of course, everyone has heard about the Syrian refugee crisis in Greece this Spring, but this was our first actual exposure to it. We don’t know what the status of these people might be, perhaps they are being vetted before being admitted to Europe. But it seemed clear to us that people, & whole families, would not choose to live like this unless their conditions at home were truly desperate.
It was very sunny & the water was very blue as we sailed away. We did not visit the Acropolis on this visit, but you could see it clearly from the ship leaving the port, probably some 6 miles away. We had beautiful views of Piraeus (a city in itself) & of Athens as we reached the deep water. It seems the light is different here & makes everything sparkle on a nice day.