The National Archaeological Museum in Athens was my favourite museum of all those we visited. It was serendipitous that we visited this museum and were able to see the Antikythera Exhibition.
I hadn’t known where this extraordinary exhibition was when scheduling our trip and it is one I’ve longed to see. It did not disappoint.
Notice the difference in the detail between the two kouros statues despite the mere seventy or so years between their creation.
The inscription on the memorial to this young man reads as follows:
“Stop and mourn at the grave of dead Kroisis whom the raging Ares destroyed when he fought among the defenders.”
This museum had been renovated for 2004, and it is fantastic. There is a chronological logic to the way the permanent exhibits are now displayed.
The written history to each item – where it was found, what its purpose was and its significance to the people at that time – is always informative and often insightful.
So many of the archaeological sites we visited had signs stating that the items discovered were now on display at this museum.
We were able to catch up with artefacts from the Temples of Aphaid and Apollo, Aegina Island, the ancient city of Corinth, the Temples of Poseidon and Zeus, archaeological digs on Santorini and Rhodes, sites whose stories were now so familiar to us.
I hope the many photographs give you the feeling of wandering through galleries filled with the wonders of Greece.
However, what made our visit to this museum a knock-out was the Antikythera Exhibition.
In 1900 a sunken shipwreck chokka-block full of Ancient Greek artefacts and destined for Rome in approx 60-50BC was found off the coast of Antikythera. Many of the relics from this over-laden ship lay scattered on the sea floor.
Some of the artefacts were recovered especially bronze statues, glass bowls and ceramics, and clay pottery. Archaeologists knew they didn’t have the equipment to recover most artefacts, especially anything carved in marble as well as parts of the boat itself.
In an act of blissful disregard for the bottom line, they left the vast majority of the artefacts at the bottom of the sea until they were able to recover them without causing further damage and further loss of life. A number of the deep sea divers succumbed to the bends.
After more than 70 years since its discovery, Jacques Cousteau was asked in 1976 by the Greek Government to lead a team to finally bring this precious find to the surface.
The exhibits are displayed well and the story of their recovery is well told. The bronze statues are undamaged.
However, beautiful marble statues have been disfigured by the 2000 years spent underwater.
Those parts of the statues covered by the silt of the sea floor stayed in pristine condition, while those parts remaining uncovered had been under continual attack from salt and marine life, and are damaged beyond repair. These Jekyll and Hyde statues become compelling viewing.
Glass bowls, jewelry and the minutiae of daily life are also on view. Some in such remarkable condition you stare in wonder.
But then you come to the Antikythera Mechanism, described as the world’s first analogue computer. It is an astrolabe. This amazing piece of technology, more than 2000 years old, is what sets the saliva going.
An astrolabe is a mechanical device which calculates astronomical positions. The Antikythera mechanism is ancient and has been dated to approximately 80BC . It is made up of a number of interlocking bronze gears causing the main mechanism to rotate resulting in the desired astronomical information. There are theories that it was designed and built on Rhodes which was the centre of studies in astronomy, engineering and the sciences at the time. All inscriptions on the device are in Greek.
To underscore the significance of this one single find, the exhibition also includes a whole section on astrolabes.
Models of early astrolabes, including Ptolemy’s, are there for the benefit of those who are intrigued by technology and not confronted by being constantly reminded that technology isn’t a modern phenomenon. Reproductions of the Antikythera Mechanism recreated by modern day nerds underscore how extraordinary this one piece is.
The academic responsible for the definitive analysis of the Antikythera Mechanism is recognised as Pro Derek de Solla Price. The mechanism had been put away with little real understanding of what it did until Pro Solla Price first looked at it in the 1950’s. He published a number of papers but in 1959 he released a major publication called ‘An Ancient Greek Computer’. In 1974 he also published ‘Gears from the Greeks: the Antikythera Mechanism – a calendar computer from circa 80BC’. To demonstrate how he believed the mechanism worked he designed a model which he subsequently donated to the National Archaeological Museum in Athens. (see photo above).
You can spend an entire day in this one museum especially with the Antikythera Exhibition, which remains there until April, 2013.
Mark Colvin @colvinius kindly referred me to two short videos whose links I hope are below and successfully work. Now you know why I’ve been delaying including them in this blog post. Sometimes technology is a little overwhelming. Not, apparently, for the Ancient Greeks. Please watch these short films. They are fascinating.
This is NATURE’s video on Antikythera Mechanism Part 1
This link is to Nature’s video on the Antikythera Mechanism Part 2.