National Archaeological Museum
The National Archaeological Museum is one of the best things to see in Athens, and the best museum in the world for seeing Greece's archaeological treasures.
The Museum's Inner Garden
This collection of the best treasures from Greek civilisations down the centuries forms the core of one of the world's great museums. If you do only two things in Athens you should visit the Acropolis and also visit this remarkable collection of artifacts.
The Inner Garden
To see everything properly you would probably need to visit the museum twice, as there is too much to take in on one long visit when museum-fatigue might set in. If your time is limited then take a guided tour which will show you the unmissable highlights, and these tours are available in several languages. Ask in the ticket office. You should at the very least buy a museum guide, or take an audio tour, also available in different languages.
National Archaeological Museum Map
You will also do better if you have a map. The museum's website has one, in both Greek and English, and there's a link to a copy of it here.
If you're visiting by yourself then head first for the
Mycenean collection, one of the jewels in the crown whether you have plans to
visit Mycenae or not. These treasures from the royal tombs at Mycenae date from
1500 BC. They include gleaming gold masks, cups, dishes, and jewellery
discovered by archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann in 1874.
Some of the Mycenean Golden Treasures
Don't miss the exquisite golden burial mask which Schliemann
believed (partly because he wanted to) to be the face of King Agamemnon. Later
dating, however, showed that it predated King Agamemnon (if he even existed) and
the Trojan Wars by 200-300 years. Other finds include a silver wine vase (a rhyton) in the form of a bull's head
with horns of pure gold.
Thira (Santorini) Frescoes
Up the stairs is a stunning collection of frescoes from the island of Santorini (Thira). These were immaculately preserved in the huge volcanic eruption that happened in the 16th century BC, and must not be missed. The beautiful colour and detail is breathtaking, bringing the world, the people and the artists alive before your eyes. There have been discussions about moving these back to Santorini for display there, but they look set to stay in Athens for the moment.
Fresco from Thira: The Boxers
You will also find a stunning collection of Cycladic
figurines found, naturally, in the Cycladic Islands. Despite dating from about
2000 BC they are uncannily modern-looking.
The museum's sculptures are equally impressive. Seek out the
rudely exuberant statue depicting the gods Pan and Aphrodite, dating from the
1st century AD. He clearly has lascivious designs on the naked goddess, while
she preserves her modesty with one hand and wields a shoe in defence in the
other. Also lovely are the remnants of a colossal cult statue of Zeus, found in
1916, and some delicate plaques of dancing girls from the Theatre of Dionysos
below the Acropolis.
Bronzes at the National Archaeological Museum
The bronzes, which include some of the museum's largest
works, possess an overpowering majesty, none more so than the huge figure of
the sea god Poseidon. Arm stretched back in muscular grace, he is about to
throw a trident, though some believe the figure is actually Zeus preparing to
throw a thunderbolt. Experts have been able to use his facial expression to
date the statue to about 460-450 BC.
Poseidon or Zeus?
The more delicate 'Jockey Boy' is one of the museum's most
famous bronzes. The powerful horse and its tiny rider may or may not have been
intended as one work - it was found in pieces - but the result is dramatic and
full of movement. The figures were discovered, like Poseidon, in the sea off
Cape Artemision, off the coast near Evia, and date from the 2nd century BC.
The Little Jockey
Another brilliant piece is 'The Youth of Antikythira', a
6.5-feet (2m) high bronze statue of a nude young man that combines delicacy and
power. Some believe it's the work of the famous sculptor and painter, Euphranor of Corinth. The
youth once held a spherical object in his right hand, perhaps an apple, which
would make him Paris, the son of King Priam and Queen Hecuba of Troy. The
statue gets its name because it was found in the waters off the small island of
Antikythira in 1900 and dates from the Hellenistic period (323-31 BC).
From the Egyptian Collection
The collection of Egyptian art reminds us of the way the
ancient Greeks had close trading relationships with the Egyptians. Among the
works to admire are an alabaster statue of a pharaoh dating from 2575-2155 BC, a
granite statuette of Ramses II dating from 1290-1244 BC, and a stone stela from
664-525 BC with hieratic text, the ancient Egyptian writing system.
From the Egyptian Collection
The museum also boasts two private collections: the Eleni
Stathatou Jewellery Collection and the Karpanos Collection. The latter includes
many artifacts from the ancient site of Dodoni, near Ioannina in Epirus,
including lead tablets containing questions for the oracle at Dodoni.
The jewellery collection includes beautiful works in
turquoise, silver, bronze, and glass, ranging in time from the Bronze Age to
the Byzantine era.
From the Jewellery Collection
Temporary Exhibits at the National Archaeological Museum
Also worth checking out are the museum's temporary exhibits, as there have been some really impressive shows put on there over the years.
Don't Miss the Museum Shop in the Basement
Coin enthusiasts will definitely want to see the Numismatic Museum, which has one of the
greatest collections of coins in the world. It contains over 600,000 items and
coins range from the ancient Greeks through the Roman and Byzantine period
right through to the present day.
It's also interesting for the building in which it is housed, the 1878 mansion which was once the home of archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann and known as the House of Troy. It's a 20-minute walk from the National Archaeological Museum, a few minutes from Syntagma Square, but it is part of the main museum collection.
There are 3-D Coin Displays on the Numismatic Museum's Website
The old Greek currency, the drachma, had been in existence
since at least 1100 BC before it was replaced by the euro in January 2002. It
wasn't a universally popular move, partly because of the drachma's longevity
and partly because there were price rises caused by 'rounding up' amounts due
to the new exchange rates.
The drachma lived on, though, on the new 1 euro
coins which cleverly depict on one side an old 4 drachmae coin from the 5th
century BC. The 2 euro coin also has an ingenious design from Greek mythology
showing Zeus as a bull abducting Europa, after whom Europe and ultimately the
euro were named. Other coins depict Greek ships, from old triremes to a modern
tanker, and famous Greek politicians including Venizelos and Kapodistrias.
Where to Stay in Athens
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