Site-Seeing: Face to Face with Ancient Greek Warriors

From the July/August 2018 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review

I have spent several summers connected to excavations in eastern Crete and on mainland Greece, but I have never been able to share any of it with members of my family. A few years ago, I had a rare chance to share the archaeological side of my life, as well as many of my beloved favorite spots, with my father and stepmother. I was eager to show them one of my favorite places, Nauplion.

Located in the southern Argolid, Nauplion is an easy drive from Athens. You can get to the town within a lazy day’s drive with plenty of touristy stops along the way.

Nauplion is a city that has two distinct halves: the modern part of the city and the historic part. The majority of the tourist focus is the historic district, which is located by the port. It features older homes, civic buildings, hotels, shops, and restaurants.

The Dendra Panoply in the Archaeological Museum in Nauplion, Greece. Photo: Hercules Milas/Alamy Stock Photo.

The Archaeological Museum sits on the edge of Syntagma Square and is open Tuesday through Sunday, 8 a.m.–3 p.m. The museum building dates to 1713 and is one of the best-preserved examples of Venetian military architecture in Greece. The museum is three stories tall; the galleries are set on the second and third floors, and you pay your entry fee (6 euros) at the desk at the top of the stairs on the second floor.

Well lit, with signs in both Greek and English, the museum is set up to guide you from the earliest history of the area around Nauplion, and the artifacts on display date from the Palaeolithic through the Roman periods. Objects from the more famous sites of Tiryns, Berbati, Asine, and Dendra are also displayed in the galleries. (Objects from nearby Mycenae are housed in an on-site museum in Mycenae and the National Archaeological Museum in Athens and so are not represented in the Nauplion museum.)

The first gallery (on the second floor) has objects that date from some of the earliest sites on mainland Greece, including a display of objects excavated from the Franchthi Cave in the southeastern Argolid. The majority of the artifacts on this floor, however, date to the Bronze Age.
 


 
Tracing the enigmatic, mystical genesis of the Greek Olympiad, The Olympic Games: How They All Began takes you on a journey to ancient Greece with some of the finest scholars of the ancient world. Ranging from the original religious significance of the games to the brutal athletic competitions, this free eBook paints a picture of the ancient sports world and its devoted fans.
 


 
The second gallery displays (on the top floor) focus on the Iron Age and later periods. On this floor are four seventh-century B.C. terracotta ceremonial masks excavated from the bothros at Tiryns. This bothros was a votive pit deposit, possibly devoted to the goddess Hera, and was excavated on the Upper Citadel of Tiryns. The bothros also included some impressive terracotta votive shields from the early seventh century B.C. It is suggested that these pieces may be some of the earliest examples of narrative scenes of Greek myth. One of these shields depicts a male warrior killing a female warrior, perhaps showing Achilles killing the Amazon warrior queen, Penthesilea.

The centerpiece of the museum’s collection is the Dendra Panoply, a complete bronze suit of body armor excavated from a male burial in Chamber Tomb 12 (the “cuirass tomb”) in the cemetery at Dendra. This cemetery is associated with the palatial site of Midea and held 16 chamber tombs and one tholos tomb (underground circular stone burial chamber with a corbelled vault roof and entered through a long passageway). The armor, which dates to the late 15th century B.C. (Late Helladic IIIA), is at once imposing and fascinating, foreign and familiar. Although Chamber Tomb 12 was looted shortly before the excavation, silver cups, weaponry, and bronze vessels were also discovered by the excavators in addition to the armor.

Pieces of similar armor have been found at other sites, such as Thebes, Mycenae, and Phaistos. Additionally, ideograms depicting this type of body armor have been found in Linear B texts from Knossos, Pylos, and Thebes. Although this armor is unique because it is a full suit, its style seems to have been somewhat popular in the Late Bronze Age Aegean.

The helmet is the traditional boar’s tusk helmet, which is often represented in Aegean art. The pieces of boar’s tusk were attached to a leather or felted wool cap. There are several examples, in addition to this one, that are on display in museums in Athens, Heraklion, and elsewhere.

I’ve seen this armor in print and in presentations, but standing in front of it was literally breathtaking. It is not the most graceful suit of armor, and it looks bulky and uncomfortable to walk around in, let alone fight in. But it is another touch point to the Mycenaean world and their relations within the Aegean and the larger Eastern Mediterranean.

Although the Dendra Panoply is the show-stopper for me, the museum’s entire collection is impressive. I found myself “oohing” over many pieces as I moved around the galleries. They have a collection of beautiful ceramic vessels as well as tomb groups from nearby ancient cemeteries. Combined with small models and photos of various sites, it brings select archaeological sites to life for the visitor.

Not only are there several things to do in the city, but Nauplion is also a very nice base from which to explore the larger area. If you would like to see where the Dendra Panoply was found, the cemetery of Dendra is an easy drive from Nauplion. Tiryns and Mycenae, some of the most famous Bronze Age palace sites, are also accessible day trips from Nauplion, as is Epidauros, the famous sanctuary site dedicated to the worship of Asklepios, the god of healing.
 


 
“Site-Seeing: Face to Face with Ancient Greek Warriors” by Beth Ann Judas was originally published in the July/August 2018 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.
 


 
Beth Ann Judas researches interconnections between Middle and New Kingdom Egypt and the Bronze Age Aegean and has excavated in Egypt and Greece. She received her Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania.
 


 
Tracing the enigmatic, mystical genesis of the Greek Olympiad, The Olympic Games: How They All Began takes you on a journey to ancient Greece with some of the finest scholars of the ancient world. Ranging from the original religious significance of the games to the brutal athletic competitions, this free eBook paints a picture of the ancient sports world and its devoted fans.
 


 

Related reading in Bible History Daily:

What Does the Aegean World Have to Do with the Biblical World?

The Greeks Go to Washington

Who Were the Minoans?

The Athenian Acropolis: Antiquity’s High Holy Place

Ancient Greek Human Sacrifice at Mountaintop Altar?

Amphipolis Excavation: Discoveries in Alexander the Great-Era Tomb Dazzle the World

Phaistos Disk Deciphered? Not Likely, Say Scholars
 


 

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