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  • Writer's pictureAntonis Chaliakopoulos, MSc

A Brief History of Athens' National Archaeological Museum

What is the National Archaeological Museum?

The National Archaeological Museumin Athens was founded in the early 19th century and contains over 11,000 exhibits, including the golden mask of Agamemnon from Mycenae.

Front of the National Archaeological Museum in Athens

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National Archaeological Museum History

During the Greek War of Independence in the 1820s, Yannis Makriyannis, a Greek general and national hero – who had no formal education and taught himself to read only late in life – managed to preserve two ancient statues. When he discovered that some young soldiers were considering selling the treasured antiquities, the general took them aside and explained: ‘You must not give away these things, not even for ten thousand talers; you must not let them leave the country; it was for them we fought’. Makriyannis implied that the Independence movement was consciously seeking to protect the antiquities, which he believed formed part of the Greek national identity. In 1829, one of the earliest moves by the first governor of Greece was to found the National Archaeological Museum with the mission to store, protect and exhibit antiquities. For more than a century, Greek archaeologists saw it as their mission to protect the classical heritage of the newfound state and the museum played a key role in this endeavour.

During the 19th century, the field of archaeology evolved into a more systematic discipline and advanced rapidly. Ever-increasing interest in the Greco-Roman world led to more and more excavations, and thus in turn more treasures to be displayed. Greece’s National Archaeological Museum had to be relocated numerous times before this magisterial Neoclassical home was constructed for it in the late 19th century. Today, it’s the largest museum in the country, with more than 11,000 exhibits, and one of the most important collections of archaeological finds worldwide.

However, this spectacular collection nearly met its end during the Second World War. In October 1940, fascist Italy presented Greece with an ultimatum, threatening war if it did not allow the Italian army to occupy the country, after which Greece entered the global conflict on the opposing side. As Greek soldiers were marching to counter the Italian invasion in the north, archaeologists in the capital were working tirelessly to disperse what they had been accumulating for over a century: the exhibits displayed in the National Museum. By April, it was empty, the former contents either carefully packed and buried in pits in the north wing of the building or else secured in large crates that were secretly deposited in nearby caves. Why were the antiquities hidden like this? To remain safe from harm during air raids and looting by foreign invaders. Five years later, in 1946, Greek archaeologists resumed work, this time unpacking the crates they had carefully hidden. In 1947, the museum finally reopened to the public in all its glory.

mask of agamemnon at national archaeological museum athens

It’s a ‘must see’ for visitors to Athens. Here you’ll find a comprehensive collection of antiquities from the Neolithic period to the Late Byzantine era. Highlights include the golden mask of Agamemnon from Mycenae, colourful Minoan fresco paintings, the Cycladic art collection with the unique white figurines that inspired modern artists like Pablo Picasso, a large collection of Egyptian antiquities, and of course an impressive collection of Greco-Roman sculptures – including the famous bronze statue of a boy riding a horse, the Jockey of Artemision. Still, arguably, the greatest highlight is the Antikythera Mechanism, the world’s oldest analogue computer, used to predict eclipses and astronomical positions decades in advance!

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