There are moments when you suddenly connect with an aspect of history you’d never grasped before. Athens this weekend has given us one such moment after another.
The Acropolis is such a familiar image that we think we know it. To see it in reality, with the painstaking restoration of the Parthenon proceeding and the surviving caryatids holding up the porch of the Erechtheion, is astonishing. To come down the rocky hill past the theatre of Dionysos and enter the new Acropolis Museum is a revelation.
Opened only three years ago the museum, opposite the entrance to the southern slopes, displays more than 4,000 rescued items. You approach it over transparent floors showing excavations continuing below. A ramp representing the ascent showcases hundreds of offerings and domestic objects, from pots and tools to jewellery and tiny clay toys, all speaking of the people who lived on the slopes in ancient times.
Then come magnificent reliefs and statues from the Archaic period of the seventh and sixth centuries BC, outstanding among them the korae – some 200 marble statues of young women made as offerings to the temple of Athena. Many of them survived only because the Athenians buried them after the Persians sacked the temples in 480 BC.
It’s in this part of the collection that the museum a month ago launched its latest initiative, to explore the colours with which the white marble statues were originally painted. The ancients believed that four basic colours – white, black, red and ochre (echoes of Aboriginal culture?) – represented the four elements, air, water, fire and earth. Residues of blue, green and yellow have also been found on marble, and spectroscopy, documentary research and experimentation have all helped to establish that colour was integral to the creation of the statues.
THE PARTHENON RECREATED
On the top floor is the greatest display of all. In full view of the Acropolis through the windows, the exterior of the Parthenon has been re-created in actual size, displaying the rescued elements of friezes and pediments. They tell the stories of the birth of Athena, of the Trojan War, of the fight between gods and giants, and much more. Here you see human fears, desires and conflicts projected in myths represented in art.
Not every item shown is the original. White plaster copies mark the missing pieces that the world knows as the Elgin Marbles, held by the British Museum.
A film inside the gallery tells a story of destruction and survival. Some three decades after the Persian attack, rebuilding began under Pericles and the Parthenon as we know it was constructed. Advanced geometry gave it perfect proportion, the pillars tapering at the top and slightly inclined to create a soaring effect. The film digitally recreates the building as it was at its zenith, with the 13-metre ivory and gold statue of Athena inside and glorious painted façades.
RETURN THE MARBLES
The film’s shocking ending shows later destruction – by the Christians from the third to the fifth century AD, by the Crusades, and then from 1801 by Lord Elgin pillaging hundreds of pieces. For decades Greece has demanded their return. The British used to say the Elgin Marbles should stay at the BM because they were better looked after there.
I defy anyone to come to Athens today and say they belong anywhere but here. The Greek people, bloodied by wars and occupations, battered by economic crisis, have remained determined to uphold and reclaim their heritage, and there’s no better expression of that than the Acropolis Museum.
ETHICS OF ARCHAEOLOGY
How different from Elgin’s attitude was that of the German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann in 1876 when he discovered the tombs of Agamemnon and his followers at Mycenae. “With great joy” he telegraphed King George of Greece the news. “I have found in them great treasures in the shape of ancient things in pure gold. These treasures, alone, are enough to fill a great museum. It will be the most wonderful collection in the world. During the centuries to come it will draw visitors from all over the earth to Greece. I am working for the joy of the work, not for money. So I give this treasure, with much happiness, to Greece. May it be the cornerstone of great good fortune for her.”
The treasures now reside in the National Museum of Archaeology where we visited them today alongside people from many countries.
THE BEGINNING OF WRITING
One of many superb displays at the National Museum stopped me in my tracks – the Linear B tablets from Nestor’s Palace near Pylos, where we were a fortnight ago. Linear B is the first known version of Greek script, dated to around 1450 BC. These weren’t the first tablets to have been discovered – Arthur Evans had found some in Crete. But it was the Pylos find, unearthed by Carl Blegen in 1939, that enabled scholars to decipher them.
To me they looked at first glance rather like ancient Chinese characters. Not surprising when you realise they are syllabic ideograms – a picture for each syllable.
So many interconnections in the human story, so many keys to them here.