A tourist paying a visit to Athens might be tempted to visit just one museum – the modern and sleek Acropolis Museum.
But that would be a mistake.
The fantastic National Archaeological Museum of Athens can be found outside the main tourist neighborhood of Plaka, situated on a street amidst graffiti-adorned buildings in the gritty Exarcheia neighborhood.
The imposing building feels a bit worn. But that’s quite appropriate for a place that celebrates antiquities from the Greek ancient world.
The best way to appreciate this museum wasn’t taking a traditional guided tour. Rather, my husband and I downloaded the free audio tour from professional traveler Rick Steves to our cell phones.
A warning, however, before beginning your self-guided tour — many Greek museum employees don’t appreciate people playfully posing with museum pieces and sculptures. So pose discretely if you don’t want to end up publicly reprimanded!
Here were some of the highlights of our visit:
Mask of Agamemnon and Assorted Gold Relics
The imposing gold Mask of Agamemnon is clearly this museum’s most famous crowd-drawing attraction. The 16th Century BC “death mask” depicts a solemn-faced bearded man. The openings near his ears were apparently used to secure the mask over the dead man’s face with twine. The funeral mask was discovered in 1876 by German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann at the archaeological site of Mycenae, once a center of ancient Greek civilization.
According to an account by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, it was one of several such funeral masks found in a cemetery. The mask was soon identified as representing King Agamemnon, a king of Mycenae whose victories were recounted in Homer’s poetry. It is so famous that replicas of the piece have been exhibited in museums including The Met in New York. The museum’s account notes that “the original mask was most likely raised from a single sheet of gold, just thick enough to hold its form without any waste of the precious metal.”
Despite its obvious attributes, doubt was later cast on whether the mask was actually King Agamemnon and whether it was a forgery given its stylistic differences from other masks discovered.
Archaeology magazine noted that Schliemann himself was noted for exaggerations and “self-mythologization.” Other research points toward the mask being crated between 1500 and 1550, and therefore predating Agamemnon’s life.
There also were a number of other death masks and dazzling gold items, including the pair of gold cups and assorted ornaments pictured below.
The Vapheio cups are from the first half of the 15th Century B.C. and are considered “masterpieces” of the Mycenaean metal work. The two gold cups depict images of hunters capturing bulls.
Statue of Aphrodite with Pan and Eros
I found this marble statue the most captivating and whimsical piece in the museum. For those not well-schooled in Greek mythology, the nude woman is Aphrodite: the goddess of beauty and love (also known as Venus to the Romans). The winged chubby baby buzzing around her head is Eros: the god of love (also known as Cupid) and supposed son of Aphrodite. Finally, the bearded man Pan is the god of the wild and shepherds, and has the lower body of a goat.
According to the museum, the statue dates to about 100 BC and was discovered on the Greek island of Delos (near Mykonos) in 1904. In the statue, she appears to be trying to evade the grip of Pan, with a sandal raised in her hand as a threat. Meanwhile, her son Eros is also trying to deter Pan by grabbing his horns. I circled this statue several times — it truly made me smile a bit, especially when I noticed Aphrodite wielding her sandal!
Bronze Statue of Zeus (“Artemision Bronze”)
This large and imposing bronze statue of the Greek god Zeus (or possibly Poseidon) commands the room that it stands in. Indeed, he is regarded as the king of gods and the god of sky. He is known for wielding a thunderbolt or a trident as a weapon — which he appears to be preparing to hurl in the statue.
This circa 560 BC piece is also known as the “Artemision Bronze,” and was recovered in 1928 at the bottom of the sea from a shipwreck off Cape Artemision. The cape is north of the Greek island of Euboea. According to the museum, it is one of the few remaining pieces of the “severe style,” notable for depiction of movement and anatomy.
Many tourists were circling this dominating figure, furtively trying to take selfies. I say furtively because, as mentioned previously, the Greeks are not big fans of tourists who “pose” with the gods.
The Jockey of Artemision
This bronze statue of a boy riding horseback commands the room that it is located in. It was apparently discovered in an ancient shipwreck and later restored. Notably, the detail of the horse galloping in motion is very realistically depicted. The young jockey seems small in scale compared to the huge horse that he is riding. The piece is believed to be from the Hellenistic period, around 140 B.C.
The Antikythera Youth is a full nude bronze statue (circa 340-330 BC) that was also discovered in the Antikythera shipwreck. According to the museum, after it was discovered it had to be mended by a Greek sculptor and a French sculptor around 1901. Then again in 1947, it was repaired yet again.
The top right photo is “The Philosopher’s Head.” This one is pretty menacing looking – especially the eyes. The bronze head of a philosopher was found in the Antikythera shipwreck. The piece wad discovered around 1901, but dates back to around 240 BC. Although only the head is displayed in the museum, the piece was apparently discovered alongside the arms and legs from the same piece.
The bottom right face of a woman is an antiquity from the Mycenaean period. According to the museum, it possibly depicts either a goddess or a sphinx. What is most striking is that unlike the many other heads, this piece still has touches of color — including bright red lip color and a red headband. Indeed, although we are accustomed to seeing plain white marble sculptures, many of the original works were actually painted quite colorfully before the color faded away.
The Emperor Augustus
According to the museum, this imposing bronze statue of the emperor Augustus was found in the Aegean Sea. Augustus was born in 63 B.C. and was considered the first emperor of the Roman empire. While I thought his hand gesture looked like he was issuing a command, the museum states that he was greeting someone while sitting atop a horse.
The Museum Courtyard and Cafe
When your visit is complete, take a stroll around the sunny open inner courtyard of the museum, which is also filled with art pieces. Sit down, and enjoy a cup of coffee and a snack from the cafe. After such an intense history lesson, we found this to be a welcome and relaxing end to our visit! Give yourself and your feet some rest, especially if you have a long walk back to your hotel ahead of you, as we did.