History is inescapable when visiting Athens. (For me, that’s the major attraction.) On my visit, I made sure to save some time for the National Archaeological Museum. As you might expect, it has one of the best collections of treasures from ancient Greece.
Many of the most famous pieces in the museum are massive imposing marble statues. My favorite piece in the museum was not one of them. In the museum’s prehistoric collection, there is a relatively small gallery with artifacts from the Mycenaean civilization, including some tables with writing in the extremely old Linear B script. Linear B was used over three thousand years ago, and most of the writing that survives is everyday topics. If I recall the signs in the museum correctly, these tablets have livestock inventory and property records. Given the small size and fleeting nature of some of the records, these are probably some of the world’s oldest Post-it notes.
One of the major themes of the museum is the changing nature of funerary markers. Several funerary markers in the shape of lions exist, all of which have detailed, flame-shaped manes.
At a dead end in one of the inner rooms was perhaps the greatest treat of the visit, a small sculpture of Athena Parthenos (Athena the virgin). A massive version graced the interior of Parthenon; contemporary accounts indicate the original in the Parthenon used over a ton of gold. Two replicas believed to be faithful survive to this day, and the only complete one is the statue exhibited in the museum.
Details on the copy are incredible, down to the snakes that serve as a belt and the locks of hair that trail down on to the breastplate. (Reflections from nearby windows are unavoidable; as one of the foremost treasures of the museum, this piece is shown only in a protective case.)
In the center of the museum, a sculpture gallery shows off the height of Hellenistic sculptural achievement. I have always been impressed by the ability of sculpture to show movement. One of my favorite pieces in the Louvre is Diana of Versailles, showing the goddess of the hunt in pursuit of her prey. The original idea would have belonged to Greek sculptors, as shown here.
The gallery also has a striking statue of Aphrodite, holding a richly-detailed drapery.