Story Behind the Artifacts: National History Museum in Athens, Greece

Antikythera Ephebe

Several series of strange and unlucky events eventually led to the discovery of the most important ancient shipwreck of the classical world.

A ship transporting many high value goods and incredibly crafted original bronze statues made its way across the rough Aegean seas. It was loaded with unusually valuable things as opposed to most ships making this type of journey. Something went wrong. The seas churned. The ship creaked and moaned. The sailors tried their best but the waves dashed their wooden ship against the rocks. Maybe they were trying to reach shelter but were unable to do so. The valuable and priceless original works of art and imagination sunk to the bottom of the ocean, settling in for thousands of years, covered literally by the sands of time.

In 1900 fishermen in the Aegean Sea were facing similar conditions in this notoriously angry ocean. They found a spot perfect for their fishing boat and anchored. This delay might set them back in how much profit they could bring in, stormy seas being no good for fishing or sailing. Waiting for Poseidon to pass, they decided to dive for sponges in their sheltered cove. What they found was beyond their wildest imaginations.

Tucked under the waves, beneath the raging waters above, was a shipwreck finally revealing its ancient secrets. The Antikythera Wreck would yield discoveries for decades.

When the storm subsided they reported their finds to local authorities who then mounted an archaeological expedition hitherto unknown: recovering an underwater treasure trove. Jaw-dropping pieces were pulled from the seas, bronze statues of massive proportions, troves of coins, and a rusted box of metal parts that would baffle researches for years.

Tragedy struck again when one of the divers working on the wreck ran into trouble. It was one of the first ever underwater expeditions, launching an entire new branch of archaeology, but it was a brand new field and no one had this exact experience before. It proved deadly when the diver perished. Operations were halted to figure out safer and more effective ways of recovering the artifacts. The unforgiving Aegean claimed another victim.

These events led to the discovery of one of the most important surviving bronze statues from antiquity. Most of the original bronze works have been lost to time, melted into weapons or coins as regimes changed and war ravaged regions. Much of what we know about original bronze statues come from later Roman marble copies but the Antikythera Youth was found mostly in-tact, in several large pieces that were then re-assembled. You can still see an obvious crack along the torso, the upper portion which was discovered as one piece. I can only imagine the life changing moment when the piece was first spotted underwater.

What makes this statue all the more striking are its piercing glass eyes. There are also no known examples of this piece making it likely this is an original. It is dated to 330-340 BCE just as the world was experiencing the cultural and artistic revolutions that Alexander the Great’s conquests would usher in.

The Youth reaches out with his hand, likely grasping something lost to time. Is it a gorgon head, making him Perseus? Is it an apple being offered to someone making him Paris, maybe Heracles? It is so lifelike this may even be a statue of a specific person. Either way it is incredibly realistic, in a stride of movement and grace, holding some sort of spherical object as an offering.

So what was the original ship doing, why was it carrying such invaluable cargo? Many have long speculated that this was a shipment of Roman loot from Sulla’s sack of Athens in 86 BCE. These would have been some of the most prized artifacts, sunk on their journey to Rome as spoils for the victors of war.

More mystery surrounds the wreck and this statue. Who is it of? Who made it? Where was it going? We may never know, yet luckily we have this piece to examine and wonder. It may have easily been lost to time under the mercurial waters of the ancient Aegean.  

Thermopylea Arrowheads

One of the most legendary battles in history occurred in 480 BC between Xerxes of Persia and Leonidas of Sparta during the 2nd Persian Invasion of Greece. The Greek forces blocked one of the only mountain passes and dared the Persians to break through. Although vastly outnumbered, the Spartans and Allies held on for a week defying the superpower of the time it’s planned advances. 

These are the actual Persian arrowheads that fell thick enough to “Block out the sun” encouraging the infamous reply, “Then we will fight in the shade”. The line is famous from the movie, but was supposedly said by a Spartan, at least according to one ancient source.

Nearly everyone knows of the Battle of Thermopylae, immortalized in the movie 300, but not as well known was the naval battle taking place simultaneously in the straits of Artemisium. The Greek general Themistocles decided to block the key passes on land and water to stop the Persian advance. Both groups of Greek fought the Persians to a standstill, but the overwhelming numbers of Persians eventually forced a retreat at sea and a defeat on land. 

Although Xerxes won both battles, his army was defeated the next year by a combined Greek hoplite force larger than had never been seen before. 

For striking accounts written by a contemporaneous author, I highly suggest reading Herodotus’ Histories, free online. Herodotus is considered by many to be the “Father of History” as he attempts to explain the origins, peoples and politics involved in the Greco-Persian Wars. He gets a lot wrong, but it is interesting as an insight into the time.

Artemesion Bronze

This striking statue was recovered from underwater off the coast of Euboea, Greece in 1928. It is called the Artemesion Bronze and is one of the most iconic images used today to represent ancient Greece.

Quite a bit of mystery surrounds this legendary piece. We do not know where it comes from, or where it was going. The shipwreck that the artifacts were being recovered from proved deadly for the archaeologists. One diver perished and the operation was abandoned.

The ship transporting the Artemsion Bronze sank in the 2nd Century BCE so it may be Roman loot or it may have simply been on its way towards it’s destination. Either way, a sunk ship and a dead explorer haunt the past of this piece.

His empty eyes are striking. They likely contained inserts that have long since fallen out. The magnificent find in a shipwreck helped spur the development of underwater archaeology in an attempt to discover more about our collective past.

There is even some debate over who is represented here, Poseidon or Zeus? Many scholars believe it to be Zeus. With the eye inserts lost to the sea his face is haunting, strong and intimidating.

The athletic pose shows the god is about to launch something, a trident if you think this is Poseidon and a thunderbolt if you lean towards Zeus.

Mask of Agamemnon

Referred to incorrectly as the Mask of Agamemnon, this artifact was discovered in a Mycenaean grave shaft near the ancient city of Mycenae. This culture pre-dates the Greeks and may have been an inspiration for some of the epic tales that inspired later Greek cultures such as the Iliad. The impact of these myths and ancient stories reverberate today. Even this artifact is incorrectly named after one of the Iliad’s main characters, King Agamemnon. 

This mask was excavated by the infamous “archaeologist” Heinrich Schleimann. More of a business man with a trinket obsession than an archaeologist, he butchered the site where Troy was supposedly located. Using dynamite and other expedient yet provenience-destroying methods he accidentally dug right through the actual site he was looking for. This forever tainted much of the real evidence from the actual time period he was investigating. His “Troy” was actually a city from much, much earlier.

Schleimann thought he had found the burial for the mythical King Agamemnon of Trojan War fame. He sent a message to the King of Greece stating “I have gazed upon the face of Agamemnon”. The name stuck even when real archaeological dating placed the mask hundreds of years before the Trojan War.

In fact Heinrich is so unscrupulous that some have even come to doubt the authenticity of the Mask of Agamemnon itself. The argument is that the styles do not match what is known from other Mycenaean grave sites and Heinrich was known to fraudulently place “artifacts” in his sites to bolster his reputation and funding. 

In defense of the mask’s authenticity, it had been reliably dated to well before modern times. Most archaeologists place it sometime between 1600 and 2500 BCE. This would also mean the mask pre-dates the generally accepted time frame for the Trojan War and could not have been Agamemnon’s funeral mask.

Not wanting to repeat the sloppy mistakes at the Troy site, the excavation at the Mycenaean burial site was under supervision from Greek authorities when the mask was uncovered, making its authenticity more likely than not.  

In the end it may be that this piece is so much more intricate, made in 3D not a flat surface, and features unique artistic stylings compared to other Mycenaean masks that its craftsmanship at such an early time is simply unbelievable to some.

Amazon Vase

Women have been much more involved in history then you may know.

Simply put, there is rampant sexism in ancient texts and from most historians up until relatively recently.   Women have been conquerors, rulers of empires, builders of lasting monuments and stuff of legends. Some are seen as myths, some have their characteristics all smooshed into one figure which makes it hard to see through the haze of the past.

Often times women are simply portrayed as passive actors who have things happen to them. They are sexualized, minimized and excluded from warfare. However there are nuances to all of these conceptions. 

One dramatic re-conception is that women Amazon Warriors were real. 

There likely were female armies who sparred equally with their male counterparts. They were some of the only tribes on record to directly beat the Greeks in combat. Shockingly, nearly 40%  of Warrior style burials in some Eurasian steppe regions are females. 

For the longest time, even by most people today, Amazons were considered myths. It was simply unbelievable that gender roles could be filled this way.

However Amazons are not referred to as myths by Greeks. They were instead seen as very real neighboring tribe who often times kicked Greek ass. They seemed to have shared some attributes or possibly inspiration from the nomadic horse riding cultures found on the Eurasian steppes.

Unfortunately like many artifacts this red attic pottery has no date or location where it is from. This is why it is so important to let artifacts and finds remain in situ, where they were found

Sounion Kouros

The Sounion Kouros is a naked youth dedicated to Poseidon. He was likely defaced in 480 BCE by King Xerxes invading Persian Army.

This was an idealized form of male beauty. It was thought that physical perfection indicated the god’s favor. Things like athleticism and having a small penis were considered signs of a good and virtuous person. 

It is one of the earliest known Kouros statues from Greece and was created in 600 BCE. This style of statue emerged barely one hundred years before making this one of the earliest examples. Statues became more life like in this period along with having some movement carved into them. The placement of his foot slightly forward gives the impression the marble is walking. 

This style was heavily influenced by Egyptian statues across the Mediterranean Sea and shows how dominant Egyptian culture, symbolism and art was across the entire region. Archaic Greece clearly took inspiration from them in developing Kouros style statues. 

The Sounion Kouros was dedicated to Poseidon and was found in poor condition in 1906. It is thought that the Kouros and the temple it was dedicated to were destroyed by the Second Persian Invasion of Greece in 480 BCE. That may explain the vandalized face. I find it unbelievable to be able to see an actual statue that was destroyed as part of such a legendary conflict.

This Kouros was originally painted red, there are still some traces of the original color although like most statues from this era the paint has faded. We are left with the incorrect impression that art was blank marble when actually many pieces were vibrantly colored. 

The anatomy of this 10 foot tall piece is interesting. It is not quite as realistic as later examples would become but still shows a clear understanding of how the human body works in an idealized way.

Future Artifact write-ups about the National History Museum:

Greek Stele

Boar Hunt Sarcophagus

Roman Table Holder

Sacrificed Helmet

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