Monthly Archives: March 2018

Death in the … museum

When entering the National Archaeological Museum of Athens, you will stand face to face with one of the most famous objects of the museum: the so-called Mask of Agamemnon. This golden death mask was found in Mycenae and opens the museum exhibitions, leading into the prehistoric collection. Apart from the prehistoric objects, most of the exhibition rooms focus on sculpture and vases. The museum houses archaeological finds from ancient Greece, from prehistory until late antiquity.


An example of the rich grave goods found in a Mycenaean grave.

Even though I did not think that a prehistoric exhibition would be full with golden objects like death masks, drinking cups and jewellery, this is the largest part of the exhibition. The NAM is proud of their Mycenaean collection and puts in the centre of attention. However, will the many many tourist that stare at the large amounts of gold understand the context of the objects? Will they know, fighting for a spot in front of the showcase, where the objects came from? When it is too crowded to read the information signs, when tourists are not able to read Greek or English, or simply do not want to, the simple display of the objects will not tell them were they are looking at: death.


A grave marker – a krater with the depiction of burial rituals on it – starts the sculpture exhibition, kouroi can be seen in the background.

A large part of the objects on display, not only in the Prehistoric collection, but also in the other parts as the sculpture collection, have been found in/by/on top of/surrounding graves. One might even say that the collection of the museum is determined by death. The rich grave goods have often been preserved, together with the architecture of the tomb and the sculptures and reliefs that were placed as grave markers. On the other hand, cities, palaces and settlements have been destroyed, reused or looted and when preserved the objects are often in a lesser state than the ones found in graves. Therefore, it is death that will guide you through the NAM and through the history of ancient Greece. The grave markers will show you the development of ancient Greek art, from static kouroi to the dynamics of the Hellenistic era. While there are many objects on display that have not been found in a grave context, it is death that is most prominent in the objects, but not in the type of museum display and certainly not in the minds of the tourists. Will they realize that they are looking at objects connected to extremely strong emotions, of dramatic changes in peoples in lives? That these objects were made because of the loss of a loved one?


A grave monument for a woman, 350-325 BC, found in Athens.

The multilateral identities of the Argolis

The history of the Argolis is defined by all the different peoples that contributed to her culture. Take, for instance, the coastal city of Nafplio: the temporal capital of Greece after the Greek War of Independence is one of the most beautiful examples of Greece’s culturally diverse history. A short stroll over Nafplio’s gorgeous boulevard is enough to experience this: while the impressive Venetian Palamidi fortress on top of the hill watches over the city, one cannot help but feel like walking in an Italian city, especially when confronted with the Antica Gelateria di Roma on the corner. No visit to Nafplio is complete without Italian ice-cream.

When turning to the bay and taking a look over the water, beyond the Greek flag waving atop the Venetian Bourtzi castle, we can see the ancient acropolis of mythical Argos in the distance. Arriving in Argos, the first thing one notices is the Byzantine fortress, impressively built on the site where once the citadel of the mighty polis of Argos stood.


View from the boulevard of Nafplio, in the distance the Bourtzi castle and the hill of Argos.

One of modern-day Argos’ primed aspects is her Byzantine Museum. The former 19th century cavalry barrack has been transformed to one of the most splendid museums of Greece. The museum not only offers a very satisfying and important amount of information with her objects but also a fascinating experience. The visitor gets indulged in the distinct phases of the Byzantine Empire, starting with the creation of the empire, then the transition it underwent from the world of Late Antiquity to Medieval times, and then focusses on the local hybrid history of the Byzantine Argolis and ends with a presentation of the various and impressive remains of the many different cultural groups that lived (and are still living) in the area. A few examples are the Osman funeral inscriptions, the Slavic jewellery, the Frankish equestrian equipment and fascinating digital audio material on which one can listen to traditional Arvanite songs.


View from the site of Ancient Corinth. Spring has arrived.

An equally impressive site is ancient Corinth and the vast collection of archaic and classical material displayed in her beautiful museum, especially the archaic twin kourai of Klenia are a must-see. Another splendid aspect of the museum is her Roman collection. The funerary stele of the Roman legionary Valerius Valens and its Latin inscription (see photo) is an extraordinary example of the presence of Rome in first-century C.E. Corinth, which is especially interesting since not much later we see Greek inscriptions on Roman funerary steles instead of Latin. A beautiful example of the intermixing and acculturation of cultures, and exemplary for the impressive and rich history of the Argolis.


Funerary stele of Roman legionair Valerius Valens.


Mycenae roars as loud as its lions

The citadel of Mycenae is a hidden gem in the Argive plain. You’ll only notice it perched atop a steep hill if you have driven around the Panagia ridge. This citadel oozes sheer power and claim to the surrounding land, just like Simba sits atop Pride Rock.

The first major cemetery a visitor would come across as one walks towards the citadel from the southern road – nowadays the carpark – is Grave Circle B (GC B). This is surprisingly modest in terms of its architecture, visibility and grave goods in comparison to major features at Mycenae. It was first used in Middle Helladic III (1800-1700BCE) before the great Cyclopean Walls were erected. The wealth of objects found inside the graves is certainly monumental. It contained for example the first product made of amber in the entire Mediterranean, deriving all the way from the Baltic region. However, compared to the elite kingroup (wider family) buried in nearby Grave Circle A (GC A), they are nowhere near as prosperous.

As you’re ascending the ramp towards the citadel you’re overwhelmed by the impressive Cyclopean walls. Their sheer size, not just as a collective but also of the individual blocks you are bound to feel intimidated. Once you arrive at the gate, you are overshadowed by its stature, as the lions of Mycenae are roaring their dominance over the entranceway. Anyone part of the contemporary Bronze Age elite circuit would have understood the symbolism of the lions. They symbolize power and prestige, and their use shows participation in wide elite networks of the Eastern Mediterranean states, like those of Egypt, Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq) and the Hittites (central Turkey).

The Lion GateOnce you have crossed the threshold into the citadel, what captures your eye is GC A, a monumental cemetery with its own clear circular demarcation. As GC A reached its zenith in the Late Helladic I (1700-1600BCE), GC B was slowly forgotten and had fallen into disuse. It is quite likely that kingroup ‘B’ lost a power struggle to the kingroup ‘A’.  The grave goods from GC A – most of which are now on display at the National Archaeological Museum – are especially captivating, both in terms of splendour and craftsmanship. Think of the famous Face of Agamemnon and the countless bronze weapons, gold other precious commodities. The inclusion of the GC A in the citadel by the extension of the fortification walls in Late Helladic III tells us it was important to the ruling family of the time; whether truly descendants or not, ancestral ties were forged.

Grave Circle A

Zigging and zagging your way further up to the king’s seat (the megaron) you can’t help but look across your right shoulder. In ancient times, visitors would be granted this view of the Argive plain only from the courtyard, just before they would enter the throne room. This was a deliberate manipulative act to create a sense of audacity when you enter the most inaccessible and restricted area of the entire Greek mainland. Is this where the power of the ruling family is demonstrated most clearly? What exactly can you see standing high up on this hill? Right in the middle of the Argive plain is the Treasury of Atreus, the largest tholos tomb ever constructed. This royal tomb might have belonged to the grandfather of the king who remodelled the megaron. The king’s seat was hereby visually connected to the family’s massive new resting place and the domain they possess.  You feel like the great lion peached on his rock, looking over his domain, ready to roar.The view from the megaronTreasury of Atreus

The Multifaceted Story of Marathon



The Athenian tumulus on the Marathon plain

The term Marathon can mean many things: it is a famous long distance run, a metaphor for the eternal struggle between the West and the East or the victory of democracy over despotism. All of these definitions eventually lead back to the battle that took place at the plain of Marathon in 490 BC. Where on the 12th of September, the heavily outnumbered Athenians won an unexpected victory over the mighty Persian empire and thereby saved their beloved city.


A partly burned offering given to the Athenian dead, displaying two hoplites.

The first impression of the Marathon plain, after a 42 kilometre drive through the busy streets of Athens and the rough countryside of Attica, is certainly a fascinating one. Being very fertile, the plain appears as a sudden explosion of green with small colourful flowers growing here and there. Standing out is the tumulus built for the fallen Athenian soldiers. The 192 Athenians that were killed in the defence of their city were first cremated and then buried underneath a 10 meter high tumulus with the appropriate  offerings commemorating their bravery.

The story of the Greek victory at Marathon is certainly an epic one. We should, however, always keep in mind that any political connotations inherent to this metaphorical name are deliberate constructs meant to emphasize difference and superiority over others.

Unknown to many, Marathon’s archaeological sites provide more narrative than battle alone. Not far from the Athenian tumulus seven other tumuli are located that are dated to the Middle Bronze Age (2000-1600 BC). These tumuli are filled with multiple tombs and are clearly demarcated from each other, emphasizing continuity and the importance of group identity. Not only are these tumuli used for a long time, they also maintain in use when other groups start using different and more elaborate burial practices, well up into the Mycenaean Period (1600-1100 BC). This showcases that these people made a deliberate choice, in this case of fortitude; to preserve older traditions and to maintain a clear physical connection to their ancestors.


One of the tumuli at Marathon from the Middle Bronze Age. In this case a bigger tumulus is built over and around a smaller earlier tumulus.

Even earlier, Marathon was home to a hybrid culture in the Early Bronze Age (3000-2000 BC). In a time when Greece was mostly divided between Cycladic, Minoan and Mainland societies, the inhabitants of Marathon showed that the only borders in this world are the ones we create ourselves. The contents in the tombs of the spectacular Tsepi cemetery displayed clear influences of different cultural spheres. Other telling elements of this cemetery are its spatial organisation and tomb architecture: almost all tombs are located in neat rows, emphasizing the coherence of the entire community while at the same time all tombs are clearly individually demarcated by a row of stones emphasizing the distinctiveness of the different families. In this way these burials tell us to look after the ones closest to us while at the same remind us that we are always part of a bigger whole. Marathon, therefore, is not only a place that commemorates struggle and difference but also affinity and cohesion.


Several tombs from the Early Bronze Age Tsepi cemetery, the tombs are organised in neat rows and demarcated by a row of stones.

The Creation of a National Memory in the Kerameikos

While walking through Athens, you cannot help but notice the presence of ancient Greece: the remains of the Acropolis, Agora, and of course the Kerameikos are all present. All these sites especially portray the Archaic (7th-6th century BC), Classical (5th-4th century BC) and Hellenistic (4th-1st century BC) periods of Athenian history. The Kerameikos is a great example of this. A conscious choice has been made by the managers of the site to display the extravagant late Classical grave monuments (such as the one of Dexileos, and of Demetria and Pamphile), the Archaic burial mounds (tumuli), the small Hellenistic grave markers (kioniskoi), the ruins of the Pompeion and the Themistocleian wall.

The Dexileos monument, very prominently displayed along the road of tombs in the Kerameikos.

However, a period in the history of Greece that is missing here is the Roman one. Stuffed away in a corner of the Kerameikos, next to the maintenance buildings, are some of the most impressive finds from Roman times, such as elaborate, beautifully decorated sarcophagi. They did not receive a place in the Kerameikos museum; the only Roman finds placed within this museum are two small funerary stelae.

The elaborate Roman sarcophagus and other Roman finds in the utmost corner of the Kerameikos.

Furthermore, the Kerameikos is also presented as a clean, sophisticated area, which only functioned as the Athenian cemetery. The parts of its past that are also forgotten here, are the more messy ones. The Kerameikos actually had a commercial and religious function throughout antiquity: there were workshops, stores, baths, and shrines. It was a busy, noisy and grubby place. All these examples show us a picture of Greece stripped of its non-Greek heritage, in order to create a more desirable national narrative for Greece. In this way, a visitor of the site will get a one-sided view of Athenian history, which is in line with the unblemished, general expectations of the ancient Greek past as known to the general public. Would it not be more interesting to show the full wealth of Athenian history in all its facets? We think it would benefit everyone, for people will be able to see the melting pot of cultures Athens was and still is today.

One of the Roman sarcophagi, surely deserving of a spot in the Kerameikos museum.

By: Renee van de Gein and Manon van der Maas