Sunday, December 26, 2010

Kerameikos cemetery and museum

On the Sunday after Easter, I took A to the Kerameikos. I wanted to have another look at the sub-mycenaean and protogeometric pots after my visit to Nauplio archaeological museum a week before and the Easter holidays seemed to give themselves to this, what with the gentle beginnings of spring coming on. It was going to be quite an adventure. I had not yet been left alone in charge of A out of doors for quite so many hours, and we had public transport and dangerous roads to deal with (and a lot more besides).

The metro station called Kerameikos (despite what the name may suggest) is not the closest stop to the site and museum. The closest is actually the Thiseio stop, but this does not have the escalators to help with arriving and leaving with a pram. Do not make the same mistake I made and expect anyone in the vicinity of the metro station to know how to go to the homonymous archaeological site and museum from the metro. Do not even expect them to know that the stop they are standing in is named after the old cemetery which used to stand in the potter's quarter. That's the sort of mistake that idiots with over-idealized images of their own countries make.

Finally getting oriented with the GPS maps on my swanky Nokia 5800 (which them promptly proceded to die on me) we set off up Pireos towards the entrance of the Kerameikos. At some point in between death-defying maneuvers necessitated by the lack of pavement on some parts of the road, I realized that A. was missing a sock. She had been playing with them, and evidently she'd been playing with the sock formerly on her right foot a little too much. We proceeded barefoot for the rest of the journey. It was a Sunday, early afternoon. The fleasiest part of the flea market is set up just outside the entrance to the site and with it a plethora of 'used' goods, prospective buyers and the sort of people who trade in used goods of uncertain provenance. Great.

Once we found the entrance, behind a stack (literally) of used stereos and speaker systems, the museum and surprisingly the site itself are quite pram-friendly.

The museum is essentially a square building with an atrium-like light well in the centre. Gone are the old-school wooden cases from years ago (that you can still see in museums like Thera and Naxos). Everything is new and shiny, including the patches of damp causing the paint to bubble and crumble in some places.

One side of the square houses the sculpture - two kouroi, a number of sphinxes and some grave stele, together with a boundary marker with interesting epigraphy. There are also some classical family grave markers of the overly classical style which is too much for me. The exhibition passes into the Atrium where the large marble bull memorial draws all the attention and smaller low relief works sit around the edges overshadowed by the bull. From there, we start the history of Athenian pottery…

The first leg covers the sub-mycenaean, protogeometric and geometric eras.

Next we have the first representational ceramics, going through to the mature black and red figure eras.

The final leg of the square has more classical and too much hellenistic pottery. Labelling is in the most rudimentary name rank and serial number style which characterises so many Greek museums, which is a pity as there is a lot of potential to explain aspects of the ancient world in this museum.

Pieces I particularly enjoyed are:

Grave marker - bearded boxer
Grave marker - bearded boxer: The piece was found re-incorporated into the Themistoclean walls of Athens as a spolion. It is remarkable for being a quite individualistic portrayal of a presumably recognisable person at a time when portraiture was not really developed.

Boundary marker, Kerameikos cemetery
Boundary marker, showing the boundary of the road for Eleusis (a nearby town with a very important sanctuary, the road for which passes through the cemetery of the Kerameikos): ΗΟΡΟΣ ΤΕΣ ΟΔΟ[Υ] ΤΕΣ ΕΛΕΥΣΙΝΑΔΣΙ
It is interesting to see the H being used as a rough breathing on the word Horos, but not on Hodos and also interesting to see the E used where we would expect an H. Guys who dig epigraphy could probably date it on these grounds alone to the nearest five years, but this kinda thing ain't my bag, baby.

Low relief grave marker
It's archaic. I like it for the hair, for the hands and for the smile, although I did not make a note, so I cannot write too much about this.

Cinerary urn from tomb 18/I
The cinerary urn from tomb 18/I of the Kerameikos cemetery in Athens dates from the 10th century BC and aside from the wavy lines, sports one of the earliest depictions of horses in Attic vase painting.

Kerameikos museum - Warrior - Individual find
From a tomb dating between 750 and 700 BC. The depiction of the warrior is pretty standard - helmet plume, beard, twin spears and swords together with a sort of "boeotian" shield. I like this sherd because you can clearly see the individual brushstrokes used to make up the warrior and at the same time you have a nice look into a cross section of the fabric.

Individual find
This vase dates from the first quarter of the eighth century BC and depicts two men taming a horse. It is one of the earliest depictions of the human form in Attic vase painting.

Kerameikos museum - Tripod with warriors - Individual find
From a tomb dating between 740 and 730 BC. The tripod shape is one associated with ritual use, burnt offerings or funerary meals. The decoration is split into two bands - a frieze along the top showing standard geometric-era warriors and little vignetted warriors wrestling lions in the legs. The depiction of the warrior is pretty standard - helmet plume, beard, twin spears and swords together with a sort of "boeotian" shield, alternating with the standard round shield. The lion in the lower register is depicted as a ferocious beast, but clearly not one with which the artist is familiar.

More pots can be viewed on Flickr here: A visit to the Kerameikos in April 2010

We then went outside with A. for a photograph together in the Kerameikos proper.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Reopened archaeological museum in Nafplio / Nauplion / Nauplio

On one edge of Constitution Square, opposite the old mosque which now serves as a cinema, sit the Venetian-era barracks of the town's military garrison. This building now houses the offices of the local ephorate of antiquities and the town's archaeological museum. I am particularly fond of the ephorate here as they issued me my very first free-entry card to the antiquities of Greece and did so in one day! It was not until many years later that I realized how lucky I was to get the card issued so fast.
External view of the Museum of Nafplio on Constitution Square.

Following a lengthy refurbishment which seemed to last most of the present decade and which saw little seismic stickers put all over the building and the bulk of the Mycenaean finds go to the new museum at Mycenae, the Nafplio Archaeological Museum has been re-opened with a new layout and a refreshingly decent set of texts accompanying the finds. A lot of stuff has come out of storage, not least the Francthi child burial (more about that later) so the visit I made in April this year felt in part like a visit to old friends, and in part like a new museum altogether.

The museum houses finds from many of the sites of the Argolid, including Tiryns, Asine, Berbati, Francthi, Dendra / Midea, Kazarma, Nauplion itself and probably more that I do not recall. It used to be the best collection of Mainland Bronze Age stuff in Greece after the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, although now I would think the title of second best has to go to the Mycenae museum itself.

The museum is organized on the first and second floor of the building as before, with the first floor dedicated to the prehistoric periods and the second to the Iron Age onwards. The finds are exhibited either according to findspot / period or according to type - meaning that we have all the Franchthi finds in one corner, and all of the Dendra finds in another, but at the same time, the MH vessels are placed separately from the figurines, which are separate again from a bunch of sherds with imprints on their bases showing either mats or leaves.

The truth is that visiting with A in the pram was not 100% practical (despite the AMEA / wheelchair lift which we preferred not to use) so we did not spend too much time on the top floor which in any case has marginal interest.

The Bronze Age floor or more accurately Neolithic and Helladic floor was really quite fun. First in on the left, there are the finds from the Kazarma tholos including some nice palatial style jars, together with a good photograph of the state of the tholos at present (only the back wall is standing). Moving round the room clockwise, we have the cemetery of Dendra along the wall, joined by Asine later on and the Dendra panoply in the middle of this part of the room. The panoply is displayed nicely along with other bronze finds from the tomb allowing the visitor to build a good sense of what goes with what and what finds are from which tombs. The Dendra finds are displayed next to a scale model showing the placement of each tomb in the hillside. This provides another valuable link to the findspot which enhances the visitor's understanding of the finds as part of a functional whole rather than as individual pieces of art each independent of those around it.
Kazarma: display of palatial style vases together with other grave goods.

Dendra: Model of the cemetery showing the relative locations of the Tholos Tomb, the Cuirass tomb and the other Chamber tombs.

Dendra: Nice schematic LH murex shell on grave goods .

Dendra: the finds from the Cuirass tomb, all together in one case.

Further down we pass the Asine finds, with some good diagrams of the tombs as excavated and this is followed by some cases containing only figurines, whether wheelmade or hand made from a number of different locations and of different sizes, all presented together. These include the famous Lord of Asine.
Asine: sketches showing the findspots and context of the finds together with decent texts.

Asine: the "poor" man's Vapheio cup! ceramic Vapheio cup showing a goat rather than the bull one would expect...

Various sources: various figurines whether wheel-made or coiled, all together in one case. The so called Lord of Asine is the solitary head to the right of the image.

Moving on, there are finds from the MH (including some stirrup jars with simple painted motifs) and part of the plaster floor of the megaron at Tiryns showing two dolphins, heraldically opposed.
Various: MH era ceramics, including a coarse-ware bowl with carbonised figs.

Tiryns: painted decoration from the floor of the throne room of the megaron.

Moving on clockwise, we enter the MH period properly and this is represented by burial goods from Berbati and elsewhere. The finds reproduced in the burial of the MH with articulated skeleton are in stark contrast to the finds on show from the LH graves of Dendra.
MH burial reproduction: A is surprised at the austere nature of the grave goods.

The EH is represented by impressed hearths and pottery from Tiryns and Berbati, and the room finally closes with the NL just before the door leading us to feel that perhaps we should have gone anti-clockwise rather than clockwise round the room! Apart from the Urfirnis pot which used to be the highlight of the Franchthi section in the old museum, there are now a great number of small finds on display along with one of the famous child burials of NL Franchthi - again articulated with the grave goods in place in the display. The Franchthi section also has photographs and drawings of the cave itself with much information.
EH Pot bases: Impressions with plaster "positives", with some EH sauceboats in the background (sauceboats are the archetypal EHII type shape).

EH hearth: one of a number of such ceramic hearths decorated with relief patterns. This one is from Tiryns.

EH hearth: one of a number of such ceramic hearths decorated with relief patterns. This one is from Berbati (I think)...

Franchthi cave: Decent text introducing the visitor to the complexities of the NL.

Franchthi cave: Urfirnis ware - the best of the best of NL ceramics.

Franchthi cave: infant burial on display.

Franchthi cave: repaired ceramic bowl - shows the value of ceramics at the very beginning of their use.

The texts are well thought-out and the layout of the finds (especially the articulated skeletons) adds much to the visitors' understanding.

As I said - this is one of my fave museums anyway, but I think I have to give it a thumbs-up for the way it has been refurbished, re-planned and re-opened. Well done Δ ΕΠΚΑ!

Second floor: ceramic masks - an opportunity for some interaction with A.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Monastery at Daphne / Dafni

So we took A to the monastery at Daphni. I had not been since 1991, almost twenty years ago. I remember walls and fortifications and a blurry photograph I have of the pantokrator (which I may be confusing with a pantokrator in Mystra). I did not remember the Ionic columns from the temple of Apollo and I would not then have been able to spot any trace of Gothicness on the narthex, let alone remember it. Given how much we did learn and retain while making this study tour with the school, there is no fault to be ascribed to Jimmy and the gang if we missed some of the Mediterranean Gothic...

Walking into the site today, the visitor is confronted by the massive block of the Daphni church, orange and pink in limestone and brick with its impressive drum and dome on top, all covered in scaffolding and dotted with stickers labeled ΕΜΠ and NTUA. The south door which was in front of us was locked. We headed to the west colonnaded section of the monastic complex's southern courtyard. The buildings there housed classical sculptures from the Daphnephoros sanctuary and late antique, Byzantine and medieval architectural fragments. Across the court, on the top floor, there is an exhibition on the restoration and the work being done. After wandering about a bit more, we found the phylax and much of what follows we were either told or I figured it out for myself as the phylax took us up the scaffolding.

Photos and videos are not allowed inside (rofl). No, really, they are not, so I was all fidgety and annoyed both because of the brevity of the preparation time available to take some photos while no one was looking but also by the need to keep my (now handheld) helmet-cam hidden.

On the way up, we first see two Gregories, amazingly large when at eye-level, amazingly pink-skinned and white haired in their restored splendour. Each mosaic we saw was an invitation to spend a whole afternoon there, wondering in awe at the work of the mosaicist. Opposite these was Zacharias in an arch, with his funny cuboid hat and then onwards and upwards - the guide rushing us upwards, but telling us to take our time... At conch level, we were face to face with (from NE-NW clockwise): Annunciation (amazingly tranquil and inspiring), Birth, Baptism (no willy), and Metamorphosis (badly damaged). And like the Narnian Mouse - "Further up and further in!", cried the phylax and we found ourselves face to face with sixteen prophets around the drum, again splendidly pink and white, like the Gregories or Zacharias, all of course with their golden backgrounds and with calligraphic names but also with conspicuous tubes and plastic pipes sticking out of them for the strengthening of the mosaics and eventually for the cement enemas which will serve to strengthen the walls and finally allow the walls to again take the weight of the building for themselves.

Then, finally, on the top floor of the scaffolding, we stood face to face with the pantokrator in awe, and were able to distinguish the tesserae and notice that each one is quite a large stone. Amazing indeed, but I had to let K see it too. I came down with appetite for close-up mosaic unsated and told her to go up while we played with A in the garden to the West. The narthex contains one of the four original Ionic columns from the Daphnephoros sanctuary. I am not sure where the other three are, various sources give various stories about what indeed Elgin took from here. The asymmetric gothic exonarthex is rather fun as well, with its arches not quite lining up on each side.

The need for restoration came with the famous quake of 1999, where, apparently the mosaic decoration all came to the ground. On commencement of restoration, they only replaced whatever pieces had a definite provenance, meaning that there are great chunks which will never be replaced. The opportunity to get this close to such exquisite mosaic work was amazing and I totally recommend a visit. The feeling it inspires reminds me of the feeling I had when facing some fresco work in Ochrid or facing the frescoes of the Protaton in Karyes, both pretty much contemporary with these mosaics. I want to go again...

View towards the exonarthex from the North West

View towards the exonarthex from the North West in clunky HDR

Base of the Ionic column from the exo narthex colonnade, complete with seismic sensors

Capital of the Ionic column from the exo narthex colonnade

Ionic column from the exo narthex colonnade

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Our Lady of Isova - A medieval site in Elis

Together with Zarakas and Andravida, the remains of Our Lady of Isova make up the main bulk of the western Gothic ecclesiastical architecture on the Greek mainland. Everything else is Gothic additions to existing structures or Byzantine architecture mimicking gothic forms. The site is just outside the village of Trypiti, unmarked, near a water fountain on the main road. The site is unfenced. I first came across it in 2002 a few years after reading about it in an article on western architectural influences in medieval Greece by Bouras. I have been a few times, three times in the sun, once in the rain and I have photographed it probably with more cameras than I have used to photograph any other site... which is strange as there is not really that much to photograph.

I cannot tell if there is actual work work in progress, but there is a difference between the last time I went before the wildfires of 2007 and just last weekend, and this is not surprising as the fires swept through the site and presumably destroyed the pine buttresses holding up the North wall of the monastery. I say presumably because Isova was mentioned by the MiniCult as one of the sites afflicted by the fires and the wooden buttressing which used to be there has been replaced by some shiny blue iron scaffolding and a roof structure for the apsidal east end of the large building. Remind me to rant about the scaffolding in a moment.

The site is composed of the remains of two buildings, one a church of Saint Nicholas, the other presumably the main monastic building. Of the church of Saint Nicholas, only the apse and a very small stretch of the North wall exists. Of the monastic building, the whole structure is standing to a height of at least 2 meters (lowest around the apse to the east) going up to quite a height on the western wall. There are many gothic elements in the architecture of the building and no doubt many more are waiting to be found through archaeological excavation. The main building presents in the southwest corner the only in situ example of a gargoyle that I am aware of on Greek territory.

The first time I visited the site, in Summer 2002 we were met by an old local who told us quite matter of factly and without any doubt in his mind that when the Byzantines retook the Peloponnese and sacked the monastery, the lead on the roof was so plentiful that when it melted in the conflagration of the sack, the molten lead reached the river (some 1800m away) as it flowed downhill!

Visiting the site with A allowed us to see that the site is not entirely kiddie friendly. I had her in my arms most of the time as a proper visit to the site needs some scrambling on uneven surfaces and / or walking through undergrowth. Fortunately there were some sheep in a nearby field to visit, although this had the result that K spent some time getting sheepshit off the soles of A's shoes.

Aha - and time for my rant: Top Tip for the MiniCult: when you want to put scaffolding somewhere, first paint it and then place it. Doing it the other way round means that you get blotches of paint on 13th Century Masonry. And that's not very clever.

Gothic weekend

Coming soon: The monasteries of Daphni and Isova... woo!

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Archaeological Museum of Thera

An old school museum like the Archaeological Museum of Naxos last year. Well. This museum makes the Museum of Prehistoric Thera look like the very peak of museological perfection. The museum is in every way "old-school".

It is made up of wooden cases with dirty glass and one label per 30 exhibits or so, beyond the label saying 7th Century cemetery of Ancient Thera. There's not much to say museologically. The cases need renewing, the building has problems with water entering and causing walls to pop and the iron inside the concrete to crack in certain places (and this on an island which is traditionally considered dry).

General view of the main room with the old wooden cases and the kouros statues facing away. However brilliant this was in the sixties, it does not really cut today. Spot the bits of plaster / paint peeling off towards the top right of the photo...

The exhibition itself contains a pretty interesting batch of finds from all the periods usually covered. There are some very nice Attic ceramics, some daedalic figurines from graveyards and the sanctuary of Aphrodite and some good kouros statues. There is plenty of potential for this museum to be spruced up nicely, but at the moment it remains a type-case example of the crap old-school approach to museums as warehouses of stored antiquities.

One of the old Daedalic statuettes - from the sanctuary of Aphrodite and possibly mimicking a form more suited to a wooden xoanon.

And out of all the chaos and all the complaints, you come across a gem like this attic black-figure krater (mixing bowl) and everything else kind-of fades into insignificance. This piece alone (the photo does not do it justice) is worth the walk up to the museum past all the shops selling kitsch kak to tourists with perfect teeth and deep pockets.

And that's all I'm going to say about that.

Bad present conditions or bad restoration at some unknown point in the past? An old prehistoric pot is slowly crumbling into dust in its display case.

No self-respecting art lover holds the Roman era in much esteem. It is, however, a little extreme to put the Roman period statuary quite literally in the museum's broom cupboard...

Museum of Prehistoric Thera (Thira, whatever)

This museum was to have been the highlight of the trip. I had not been to Santorini since 1997 and the museum was still under construction then. The museum was to house the finds from the excavation of Akrotiri, the bronze-age Pompeii of the Aegean. The museum opened in 2000, so the chances of there having been a good museological approach employed were good. I had high hopes that I would come out of this museum knowing more about Akrotiri than I knew when going in. I consider myself a decently-read amateur so, it is not too much to expect that there would be something to learn from the combined wit and expertise of the Marinatoses and Dumases involved in the excavation and the museum itself.

Big disappointment.

The museum is little better than a store room with occasional explanatory texts. All the faults of the New Acropolis Museum are here (poor explanatory texts, lack of child-friendly texts, etc.), compounded by the exotic, unfamiliar and to a certain degree inaccessible nature of the material.

The exhibition is laid out chronologically with some further separation into categories with which I am not all that satisfied (to show for example, the cosmopolitan nature of the settlement, or the contacts with elsewhere).

I have nothing against contacts with elsewhere - my complaints stem from the bad labeling - put a map on the wall! What does it mean to the average visitor that these vases are from the Argolid, Corinthia or Aegina? Without a map, nothing; without an explanation of the travel routes and times necessary to get to Akrotiri, next to nothing. Again - we are shown lead weights in the trade section: how much did each one weigh? Was it a decimal system or something else? Are there parallels on Crete or on the mainland? In later weights? It's like being served a pistaccio nut and not being told that it needs to be shelled, then eaten!

Then again - what is Linear A? We are presented with a whole case of finds, inscribed with it and yet there is no attempt to help the visitor comprehend the significance of the script or the texts.

Frescoes - undoubtedly what most people go for what with the Minoan flounced skirts exposing breasts left right and center... I found the frescoes disappointing. Apart from the "African" and other fragments, there is nothing here that was not already on display in Athens before the earthquake of 1999. And yet, there have been so many discoveries, and so much is left in Athens (without good reason in my opinion). It is an injustice to keep the Ibexes, the fishermen and boxing boys in Athens when such a museum exists. It's not as if the labeling in Athens is much better. Even so - there is no text discussing the rituals depicted, the dress of the figures, the importance of crocus. The public do want to know. They come to the museum to learn and there is a real need (which is not being met) to explain things. Despite seeing many, I do not recall one explanation of what a rhyton is, or more significantly, how it was used in ritual. And all this from an exhibition designed and opened in the last ten years!

Museology #fail!

I did like the descriptive text about the frescoes and how they were painted, although diagrams or even photographs of pertinent parts of the frescoes showing such things as string impressions on the plaster or the way that true fresco differs from the dry fresco work (both were employed and presumably left different tell-tale signs). These are more missed opportunities to get people interested.

This museum was a great opportunity, sorely missed and it leaves you with a feeling of despair as you realize that we will always be two steps behind the museums of Europe (the real Europe, the one with industry, the one with proper state-sponsored education).

I have a bad feeling I'll be writing this about every new museum I will be visiting...

Ostrich-egg Rhyta showing contacts with the Levantine coast, but without any explanation of the form or function of a Rhyton...

Lion's-heda Rhyton again without any explanation of the form or function of a Rhyton... This piece used to be in Athens and is modelled on a metallic original (the angular eyebrows mimic the shape that a metal lion's head rhyton would take - there's one in the Mycenae room at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens). Of course, you won't learn any of this by reading the labels in the exhibition...

Saffron Gatherers... like the spinal tap song goes: "nobody knows what they were doing, but their legacy remains". It's not surprising that nobody knows, since there is no text written next to them to tell anyone.

Linear-A fragments. See text above for my complaints (or better still, don't - for that full "Greek museum ignorance experience").

Lead weights. See text above for my complaints (or better still, don't - for that full "Greek museum ignorance experience").

Oh, did someone mention a gold Ibex?

Museum of Natural History - Heraklion

Next stop was the museum of Natural History of Heraklion:

I hear a great deal about this. It's because of caving circles that I actually know about the existence of the museum. Friends work at the museum, and conduct research in its name.

I was not too sure what to expect from this natural history museum - I have not really been to one since childhood. The end result was a slight disappointment, brought about essentially by higher expectations than is proper. Perhaps I need to sit and think about what a natural history museum is for. The fact that this one is attached to the MiniEdu rather than the MiniCult may be a bit of a hint, but the whole "what is a museum for?" discussion can wait for another day.

The Heraklion Natural History Museum is divided into 4-5 sections: the dioramas make up the bulk of two floors, the temporary exhibition (currently housing the Antikythera mechanism exhibition), the living gallery with live animals, the earthquake simulator and an external space for traveling exhibitions (currently housing a medicinal plants from across Europe exhibit). The museum costs €6 and has a pretty good bookshop (even though it does not accept credit cards!).

So: Dioramas: The museum has set up dioramas of stuffed animals and vegetation from a number of habitats (mountain, plain, lowland) from a range of places such as the Balkans, Cyprus, Libya and Crete itself, in an attempt to show how the flora and fauna changes from zone to zone and from place to place. All well and good. My favorite question remains unanswered, and it is not asked nor even hinted at: why? Why do we have goat-like animals as the main herbivores and birds of prey and whatnot in each of these dioramas, but in each one they are slightly different? Why is it different eagles and different goats in each one?

The opportunity to discuss foodwebs and (in this, the year of biodiversity and Darwin's 200 years) Evolution has been missed. So, yes, one disappointment there.

The live animal zone was interesting enough although my eco-instinct kicks in and I get all anti-zoo whenever I see animals kept in small boxes. It's hard to balance the benefits of seeing a live viper (οχιά) against the ethics of having seen one in a small box dressed to look like the natural environment. This is most disturbing in the terrapin tank where all the little guys are falling over eachother, literally, in their attempt to get to the best spot under the lamp illuminating their exhibit, which, presumably is also a welcome heat source for the cold blooded anapsids.

Finally, on to the earthquake simulator: The simulator is very popular with the locals. It has been on local TV and subsequently on youtube and the lady giving out the tickets as you enter will suggest that you don't miss it and tells you the time of the next performance. I have been on the simulator at the British Museum of Natural History (Science) as a child and I have felt "the big one" of San Francisco (1906), so I was thinking, like, what's the point? I skipped the simulator.

I regretted this the moment I heard and saw the kids in the simulator screaming (with terror or with glee, I know not) as they were rocked to the rhythm of the Kobe earthquake of 6.9 Richter (1992). wow. So, perhaps worth not missing after all.

In all, the museum is great for the city, albeit a little overpriced, especially to someone used to getting into MiniCult museums for free. I am probably wrong in mentally comparing it with London or even the Goulandris in Athens. Speaking of which: where are the insects, the butterflies and the invertebrate endemics of Crete? Kids love to look at the creepy crawlies and Crete has plenty. I will assume that the curators have this in mind.

To summarise, a good museum for Heraklion which can with time and effort become a great museum for Greece.

The Natural History Museum of Heraklion - already a happy gem for the island of Crete, potentially a gem for all Greece.

Left: a view over the dioramas which take up two floors of the museum. Right: An inhabitant of the live gallery, a Viper - Οχιά. Ethics of keeping live animals aside, an opportunity to get to know one of the poisonous snakes of Greece, close up!

Left, a Cypriot mountain goat (as per the country's Euro coinage), center a Cretan wildcat and right Bonelli's eagle, all from the various dioramas on show.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Four museums in two days

The weekend of the assumption, I had the joy to visit four museums in two days, in two different coastal towns of the Aegean. Two museums in Heraklion and two in Fira on Thera (Santorini). There would have been more in Heraklion had I been slightly more forward looking but there it is. Of the four, two are first time visits, two are repeat visits. I repeat here the notes I made within hours of the visits, with small embellishments.

Archaeological Museum of Heraklion - temporary exhibition
Natural History Museum of Heraklion
Museum of Prehistoric Thera
Archaeological Museum of Thera

Archaeological Museum of Heraklion - temporary exhibition

The museum houses all the finds from excavations not housed in local museums on the island of Crete. It is undergoing a long restoration and reorganization. My last visit was in 2000 during my large Cretan road-trip. Crete is best known in archaeological circles for the prehistoric Minoan civilization which flourished in the late bronze age and has been the subject of much study and theorizing since. The material remains of the Minoan culture forms the bulk of the normal exhibition and also of this temporary exhibition. So:

One hall for 4,000 years of finds is ambitious enough. When that 4,000 years takes us from the NL to Roman times and the subject is Crete, it would be easy enough to see that one hall would be well less than enough. Nevertheless, the curators have managed to cram into this one spare room a veritable treat of Minoan and cretan stuff and I challenge anyone to tell me that their fave piece from the Heraklion Archaeological Museum is not on display. The only thing missing for me was an LM diadem that I am quite fond of - but it is a minor piece that I liked because of the depictions of clothing in the figured scenes. There were also far fewer seals than a sealy person would have liked, but this is to be expected.

So, finds: yes, many and good. All old friends were there. Layout: The layout took a mainly chronological approach through the hall with some thematic display cases covering "external contacts" or "trade". The texts accompanying the exhibition were mainly old-school descriptive labels with a paragraph or two introducing display cases. The layout and lack of space meant that odd pieces became bedfellows in the same cases. For example the Anemospilia boar's head dagger was juxtaposed with the bee pendant from Chrysolakkos. The shortness of space meant that there was no description of the findspot or contextual information about most of the objects sot the visitor will never know about the youth sacrificed with the boar knife in front of the wooden xoanon with the clay feet. I am curious how they will treat these pieces in the final museum, or indeed what they will do with the dodgy reconstruction of the Lilly Prince.

Anyway - in all a good starter-pack of Minoan art, but for me it needed better texts to persuade me that the exhibition which is coming will not be just another same-old same-old storehouse of antiquities with labels.

The bee pendant from Chrysolakkos and the boar's-head dagger from Anemospilia: unlikely bedfellows

Prince of the lilies: wishful victorian thinking or just bad reconstruction?

Where are your lilies, oh man from the siege rhyton? and why is your head facing the wrong way?