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Ancient Greece Odyssey: Museums of Athens

The Diadoumenos. (All photos on this page are my own.)

The Diadoumenos. (All photos on this page are my own.)

Part Two and of Ancient Greece Odyssey

Welcome back! In this installment of my odyssey through Greece, I'll share my photos and information about Greek art in the Acropolis Museum and Athens National Museum. Don't worry if you know absolutely nothing about classical art; that's what I'm here for, to tell you why I love it! For students, I'll include extra details they may want to know.

If you've just surfed in, you may wish to start at the beginning: Ancient Greece Odyssey: A Traveler's Journal, a travel blog by a student of classics and comparative mythology. Or read on to take a photo tour of ancient Greek art.

Archaic Athena, Acropolis Museum

Archaic Athena, Acropolis Museum

Introduction to the Acropolis Museum

Travel Diary, 2nd May, Athens

The small Acropolis Museum I visited was half-buried in the hill right next to the Parthenon (It was replaced by a new Acropolis Museum in June '09).

Brace yourself, because I'm going to sneak in a little Art History 101! It will help you get more out of my photographs.

Many of these pictures show Archaic Greek sculpture from the 7th and 6th centuries BCE, a few hundred years older than the classical art that most people associate with ancient Greece. Archaic statues are stiff yet regal figures with enigmatic smiles, almond-shaped eyes and hair like Egyptian wigs. The kouroi, youths with arms at their sides and one foot forward, may have been inspired by Egyptian art -- the ancient world had its tourists, too! In the fifth century BCE, Classical Greek sculpture evolved its own blend of realistic anatomy, idealized beauty and attention to the swing and rhythm of limbs.

The Acropolis Museum's rare stash of Archaic art is the remains of temples razed by the Persians in 480 BC, Athens' version of Pearl Harbor. These relics were too sacred to throw away, too damaged to keep on display. So they were buried on the Acropolis during the same rebuilding program that created the Parthenon.

Flash photography is forbidden in Greek museums, so I had to rely on none-too-steady hands.


Top: Fragments of an Archaic winged Gorgon (Medusa), probably perched atop the pediment -- the gabled end -- of the old Athena temple destroyed by the Persians. Acropolis Mus. 701, c. 575-550 BCE.

Bottom: High Archaic sphinx, c. 560-550 BCE. Acropolis 630.

(Note: These photos are from 2005. Computer screens and digital cameras have improved since then. I need to go find my originals and see if I can eke any more detail out of them.)


Moschophoros, the Calf-bearer. The ancient Greeks set up portraits of themselves near temples as pious offerings and, of course, as a form of self-promotion in a public place. Here a nobleman, Rhonbos, brings a calf as a sacrificial offering. Acropolis 624, c. 560 BCE.


Right: Acropolis 670, c. 520-500 BCE. A beautiful kore -- "maiden" -- holding out an offering. In the Archaic period, girls who died young are often represented as the maiden goddess Persephone, who in Greek mythology was abducted by Hades the god of the underworld. These statues are both an offering to the goddess and a public memorial. According to the Perseus website, this kore may have been made by the sculptor of the Archaic Athena above.

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Left: the "Peplos Kore", named for the kind of gown she wears. According to the Perseus digital library, her sheath-like peplos resembles that worn by Archaic statues of Artemis. She originally held out an offering such as a fruit or flower, but the attached forearm is lost. High Archaic, c. 530 BCE, Acropolis 679.


Right: Kritios Boy, named after the sculptor who signed his name on the statue. It's a famous and surprisingly small statue of a kouros (youth) that demonstrates the transition in art styles from Late Archaic (stiff, stylized) to Early Classical (realistic, although idealized). 480 BCE, Acropolis 698.

Now it's time for the famous Parthenon Frieze--or at least, the few pieces of it still left in Greece! Most of the blocks are in the British Museum, the Elgin Marbles,and debate is still raging about when or if the British should return them (they were purchased from the Greek government, but at the time Greece was ruled by the Turks).

The Parthenon Frieze originally circled the top of the Parthenon temple's outer wall behind the columns. The frieze is carved in shallow relief with bronze added for details (melted down long ago). It shows a city festival in Athena's honor: people bringing offerings, warriors engaging in chariot and horse races to simulate battle maneuvers. The man with the shield is hopping into a chariot.


Next is a small early classical Athena -- I wish she hadn't lost her head! Holes were for bronze (or gold?) snakes, and she probably held a spear. A stylized head of Medusa adorns her breastplate. This symbol, called a "Gorgonian", is supposed to scare off enemies just as a jack-o-lantern scares off evil spirits. Made by the sculpture Euenor, c. 480 BCE, Acropolis 140.


At right, one of the Erechtheion's karyatids. My diary says, "massive and enigmatic, they seem to have a share of Athena's power." The light at the top of her column is a reflection.

On my second quick pass through the museum, I stumbled across a surprisingly small treasure the guide had skipped. Traffic flow through the museum meant that unless one turned around after passing through a doorway, one would never glimpse the famous Mourning Athena relief set into the wall beside the door-frame. It glowed a soft gold in the shadows and was smaller than I had expected: only a foot wide. She gazes sadly at a stele, a grave marker, which probably represents the Greek dead from the Persian Wars.

The National Archaeological Museum, Athens - 2nd May 2005

The National Archaeological Museum is Athens' largest collection of ancient art. The rooms are arranged in chronological order, and contain a hit parade of "must know" artifacts for students of ancient Greece. I kept having (pleasant) flashbacks to archy 101 and the art history class for which I was a TA.

The first room covers the Mycenaean period, remembered centuries later in myths, cults, and Homer's famous epics about the Trojan War. The Mycenaean period for classical Greeks was like the age of King Arthur for us, a time of great kings and legendary warriors.

Many of the objects in this room were discovered by the famous early archaeologist, Heinrich Schliemann (1822-1890), whose exuberant earth-moving habits were more of a treasure hunt than proper excavation. Convinced Homer's Troy was more than just a myth, he was catapulted to fame by his discovery of the legendary city. He went on to locate several other sites mentioned in the Iliad and Odyssey, including Mycenae and Pylos.


From shaft graves in Mycenae, Schliemann dug up fine metalwork including gold and silver chased daggers, beautiful cups, and golden death masks including one he romantically named the "Mask of Agammemnon" (right, Athens National Museum 624). Wishful thinking on Schliemann's part, since the shaft graves date back to the 16th century BCE, about three centuries before the Trojan War.

Nevertheless, these artifacts give us a better idea what those remote times were like. They remind us that later portraits of Achilles and Odysseus wearing classical Greek armor are anachronisms just like medieval portraits of Julius Caesar wearing a doublet and hose.


Here are a small ivory portrait of a warrior (Athens NM 2468), an ivory boar's tusk helmet (left, Athens NM 6568), and a charming vase showing warriors trooping off to battle with a wife waving farewell (Athens NM 1426). Art like this helps us see how the ancient Greeks saw their own world.

We're so used to the ancient world depicted by Hollywood (or Xena's Kiwiwood), on the one hand, and classical art, on the other, that Mycenaean and archaic Greek art sometimes looks very strange to us. This isn't what most of us think of when we read about the heroes and warriors in the Iliad and Odyssey, is it? Is it just me, or do the soldiers look like Olive Oyl clones?


Help! A Quick Guide to the Phases of Early Greek Art

Here's a quick summary of three phases of "Bronze Age" art that came several centuries before archaic and classical Greece. Click links for photos illustrating each phase, hosted by the Tigertail Virtual Museum.

  • Cycladic Art: ca. 2800-2000 BCE
    Simple, elegant abstract figures are some the earliest art found in Greece and the Greek islands.
  • Minoan Art: ca. 2000-1450 BCE
    The great seagoing Minoan civilization arose on the large island of Crete and had settlements or influence all around the Greek isles and Mediterranean. Pottery, frescoes, and goddess figurines often feature animals or nature scenes or palace life.
  • Mycenaean Art: ca. 1500-1200 BCE
    The mainland Mycenaeans conquered, or perhaps simply absorbed the Minoans after the older civilization declined. Mycenaeans were a warrior culture, remembered in the legends of the Trojan War that happened near the end of the period. Their sites are

National Archaeological Museum, Mycenaean and Cycladic Art - Travel Diary, 2nd May 2005, Athens


The distinction between scholar and treasure hunter was blurry in Schliemann's day. He and his crews hacked through walls and tombs looking for gold and spectacular finds. Goblets fit for a king's table (above) emerged from one of Mycenae's shaft graves inside the walls of the citadel.


The twin golden Vapheio cups, found in a royal tomb in a neighboring kingdom of the same period, are especially important, because they show how the art of an older civilization, the Minoans, was adopted by the Mycenaeans who conquered them. Dated to the 16th century BCE, they depict men roping bulls, perhaps for sport. The one on the taller pedestal is Minoan, the other Mycenaean, and you can see here how Mycenaean artists imitated the earlier civilization's art. There are a few differences: slightly cruder work, greater emphasis on the bull's struggles (people make much of warlike Mycenaeans contrasted with international trade-minded Minoans, although that's a gross oversimplification), and less emphasis on wild nature.


So-called "Cycladic art" is another famous style of art from the earliest days of the Mediterranean, predating even the Minoans. The style is named after the Cyclades Islands where many such figures were found.

The discovery of these gracefully simple figures with their smooth and geometric forms inspired artists like Picasso, who marvelled at how different it was from later, classical Greek art.


Cycladic sculptures tend to look small in photos because their stubby shapes resemble clay figures despite being carved of marble. In fact, some sare several feet tall. Replicas stand starkly in the shop windows of Athens and many other cities. It seems that they have become fashionable again about 4000 years after they were last in vogue.

These charming fellows are easy to miss, since the Cycladic art is tucked away in a smaller, darker room off to the right of the large Mycenaean gallery.

Below is one last Mycenaean piece, then several examples of Greek Archaic sculpture from a period about 500 years later.

Guide to Phases of Greek Art, Cont'd

Here's the second half of my crash course on the history of ancient Greece and phases of Greek art. Again, links point to the excellent photo galleries of the Tigertail Virtual Museum.

  • Greek Dark Ages, ca. 1200-900 BCE
    In the century or so after the Trojan War, Mycenaean civilization collapsed -- scholars are still debating the causes. Refugees scattered across the Mediterranean and settled on the coast of Turkey (Ionia). Greece was invaded by Dorians from the nort
  • Archaic Period ca. 900-500 BCE.
    Slowly, overseas trade and a semblance of civilization returned. Homer composed the epic poems Iliad and Odyssey, writing was rediscovered, and the Greeks began their love affair with increasingly realistic marble statues of the human figure. This is
  • Classical Greek Art: ca. 500-350 BCE.
    Classical Greek art encompasses a range of styles from simple, austere, and stiff-posed in the early period, to well-proportioned and idealized beauty in mid-century, to graceful S-curves and more experimentation with space, motion, and billowing fab
  • Hellenistic Period, ca. 350 BCE - 100 CE
    Hellenistic art became increasingly dynamic, with figures twisting, turning, and extending their limbs into the space around them. Artists strove to show faces in the throes of passion, pain, strain, or other emotions.

National Archaeological Museum, Classical and Hellenistic Art

Travel Diary, 2nd May 2005, Athens

Next were the classical and Hellenistic art galleries. I could have spent days here. A few examples (with amusing comparisons between idealized Greek statues and real-world people):


Bronze Zeus of Artemesion

(Taking aim with a thunderbolt)

Classical Period, c. 460 BCE

This imposing statue, like most bronze sculptures, was recovered from a shipwreck in the Mediterranean. Bronzes are very rare, since metal is usually melted down and recycled.


Many sculptures are actually later copies, often by Roman artists. Added treestumps and supports are a clue that a sculpture is probably a marble copy of an earlier metal statue.

At right is another famous bronze, the Marathon Boy c. 340 BCE, fished out of the Bay of Marathon. It bridges the Late Classical and Hellenistic periods when idealized, well-proportioned beauty and more formal poses gave way to sinuous S-curves and full use of three-dimensional space. (Unfortunately my full-figure photo of him was blurred; that "no flash photography" rule was tough on my archaic digital camera!)


At left is a typical Athenian grave stele (gravestone), common marble monuments from the late 5th century BCE. They portray the dead person saying goodbye to the family (sometimes including household slaves). These are touching snapshots of ordinary people, in contrast to imposing statues of gods and goddesses. There's no realistic wrinkles or flab in classical sculpture, however: figures are beautiful and ideally proportioned, as opposed to the greater variety of the Hellenistic Age.


To the right, an exquisite marble monumental head of the goddess Athena. It's definitely classical, but I haven't yet found any information on it. She would have worn a helmet. Perhaps a copy of the massive cult statue of the Parthenon?

Below, the head and shoulders of a marble Roman copy of the Diadoumenos, or "ribbon-binder", an athlete crowning himself after a victory. The original bronze (c. 420 BCE) was by Polykleitos, the classical Greek sculpture who invented the chiasmic pose with weight shifted onto one leg, the other bent and relaxed. Sculptors have been copying that pose ever since, the visual equivalent of a cliché. You've probably seen statues on the front of banks, art museums, or military monuments doing the Polykleitos dance! (For more info on this famous sculpture, see my page on Polykleitos' Diadoumenos).