GRECE 2010 - A year of discoveries and renovated museums
The effort to renovate and reopen archaeological museums throughout the country has borne some fine fruit over the last 12 months, offering the interested traveller a whole new range of promising excursions for 2011.
- Perhaps the most important newly built museum, the one at Pella, the royal capital of Philip’s and Alexander’s Macedonia, was finally inaugurated this summer. It contains rich finds from the town and palace itself, including some astonishing Hellenistic wall paintings and mosaics, as well as fine jewellery and other material from burials in the vicinity.
- In Thessaloniki, the site of the Roman Agora and its adjacent museum were opened, adding a new aspect to the wealth of ancient and mediaeval monuments in the city centre.
- Another major addition is the freshly renovated museum on the island of Thasos in the North Aegean, fabled for its wealth in the Archaic and Classical periods. The museum includes a very important collection of sculpture, as well as intriguing evidence for some of the oldest organised mining activities known worldwide, dating to the Palaeolithic period, some 15,000 years ago.
- At Arta, the site of ancient Ambrakia, the first Greek city to install a democratic system of governance, a new museum houses key finds from the city and its surroundings, presented with the help of an innovative digital guiding system.
- In Athens, the Kanellopoulos Museum, a private collection of ancient art located in a fine neoclassical building on the slopes of the Acropolis, has finally been reopened.
- Restoration work on the Athenian Acropolis made most visible progress, manifested by the removal of scaffolding from the Propylaia and most of the Parthenon and the restitution of the Temple of Athena Nike, sorely missed since the early 2000s.
- A new exhibition centre opened by the Foundation for the Hellenic World at the site of the battle of Thermopylae, near Lamia, includes a 3D recreation of that fateful event.
- On Naxos, the integrated complex of archaeological sites around Melanes was opened to the public. As Athens News has reported, it includes ancient quarries, unfinished sculptures, a sanctuary and an Archaic aqueduct, as well as a small exhibition of artefacts, making one of the best presented archaeological ensembles in a veritable archaeological park available to Greeks and foreigners alike.
Like every year, many dozens of research and rescue excavations conducted by Greek and international teams have taken place throughout Greece. Although information is not yet available
for all, we list some especially interesting ones.
- Between Alonissos and Peristera in the Sporades Islands, an underwater survey conducted by the Ephorate for Maritime Archaeology and the American Oceanographic Institute located a Middle Byzantine shipwreck containing amphorae that throwing light on mediaeval trade in the region.
- At Pella, excavation continued in the West Cemetery, revealing 37 graves dating between the 7th and 3rd centuries BC and bringing the total of burials at the site to over a thousand. Some of them contained rich grave offerings, including clay and faience vessels, weaponry, armour and jewellery.
- A wall at the entrance to the Cave of Theopetra near Kalambaka in Thessaly was dated by thermoluminescence to about 23,000 years ago, making it the oldest manmade structure in Greece and one of the oldest in the world. Excavations at this important site, conducted by the Speleological Ephorate for Southern Greece, have been ongoing for a quarter century.
- In Zea Harbour in the middle of ancient and modern Piraeus, a Greek-Danish project of underwater excavations has located elements of the Classical 5th century harbour structures, including some of the ship sheds that serviced the dreaded triremes at the height of Athens’ power.
- Near the islet of Modi, off Poros, the Hellenic Institute of Marine Archaeology continued the exploration of a Late Bronze Age (Mycenaean) shipwreck, from about 1200BC. One of the oldest wrecks known in Greek waters, it carried large amphorae, perhaps for oil or olives.
- At Pavlopetri, off the shores of Lakonia, a Greek-British project continued to explore the remains of a Bronze Age city submerged around 1000BC. More news on this should be expected in the coming years.
- At Eleftherna in Crete, ongoing excavations at a 7th century BC cemetery revealed the remains of a woman buried with over 3,000 pieces of gold jewellery, an immense wealth perhaps representing the local nobility or a specific position such as that of a priestess.
Archaeology is a part of life of this country, affected by its trials and tribulations, for better or worse. Three specific events underlined this most tangibly in 2010:
- The seizure of two large Archaic (6th century BC) kouroi in the Corinthia Prefecture this summer adds wonderful pieces to the known corpus of ancient Greek art. At the same time it highlights the Greek authorities’ struggle against the ongoing problems of looting and the illegal trade in antiquities. Only systematic excavation, revealing the precise context of such finds and allowing specialists to assess their date and use, can fully exploit the significance of these, as of any other, artefacts. For the new kouroi, this important information is presumably lost forever.
- The sale of a complete 3rd millennium BC Cycladic figurine at Christie’s in New York a few weeks ago, fetching nearly 17 million dollars, indicates the same issue: its provenance can hardly be anything other than a looted settlement or cemetery in the Cyclades. In other words, a key work of art that should be on public display in a Greek museum is now a toy of the super-wealthy halfway across the globe.
- The temporary closure of the Acropolis by striking site guards and archaeologists in October caused much outrage. Notwithstanding how one judges such actions, it casts some light on the difficult circumstances under which many Greek archaeologists, especially the younger generation, have to work, often depending on irregularly renewed temporary contracts, and frequently continuing their hard and painstaking work while awaiting payment for many months, a situation that prevailed already before the outbreak of the present crisis.
A closer look
The Deer Hunt Mosaic is one of the most famous pieces in the Pella Museum. Found as a floor decoration in a wealthy town house, it dates to the late 4th century BC, ie the generation following Alexander’s death. Signed by the artist “Gnosis” (Knowledge), it depicts two young men in heroic pose and a dog chasing down and killing a deer. The scene could be generic, mythological or even directly associated with the stories of Alexander’s life, which were progressively turning into legend at the time. It is likely that the owner of the house, belonging to the Macedonian nobility, had - or at least claimed - a direct association with Alexander. The work achieves great dynamism and plasticity while using only a restricted range of colours. It probably reflects on the popular style of painting at its time.
A thought for the invisible
Although exciting discoveries and impressive sites or finds such as the ones listed here are vital to keep archaeology visible and notable, true progress in the field rests not just on such spectaculars. It is carried on the shoulders of the many individual researchers in Greece and abroad, who spend their time and energy, year after year, studying and analysing even the most minute aspects of ancient civilisation, and whose labour is expressed through countless articles, notes, conference papers and academic discussions, far away from media attention, year-in, year-out.