The Greeks Go to Washington

The National Geographic Museum presents The Greeks exhibit

alexander-the-great-bust

Marble bust of Alexander the Great. Photo: © Archaeological Museum of Pella.

Walk around Washington, D.C., and you will see the influence of the ancient Greeks everywhere—from the Lincoln Memorial, modeled after the Parthenon in Athens, to the bare-chested, toga-wearing statue of George Washington in the National Museum of American History, which was inspired by Phidias’s colossal statue of Zeus at Olympia (one of the seven wonders of the ancient world).

The Greeks—Agamemnon to Alexander the Great opens June 1 at the National Geographic Museum in D.C. Showcasing more than 550 artifacts from 22 Greek museums and spanning 5,000 years of history and culture, this traveling exhibit offers visitors an exceptional view of the culture, traditions and innovations of the ancient Greeks, who gave us the Olympics, Socrates and much, much more.

The Greeks is the largest and most comprehensive exhibition of Greek history and culture to visit North America in a generation,” said Kathryn Keane, Vice President of Exhibitions at the National Geographic Society, in a press release. “From their Bronze Age beginnings to the height of classical civilization, the Greeks and the traditions they founded continue to have a profound impact on our lives today.”

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The Greeks exhibit at the National Geographic Museum. Photo: Mark Thiessen/National Geographic.

“This is our most adventurous exhibit done so far,” said Dr. Fredrik Hiebert, curator of The Greeks at the National Geographic Museum, at a press preview of the exhibit. “We want you to feel like you’re walking into the pages of National Geographic.”
 


 
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.
 


 
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Cycladic figurines (fourth–third millennium B.C.E.) from the National Archaeological Museum, Athens. Photo: Robin Ngo.

On entering The Greeks exhibit, visitors are greeted with a short video highlighting the legacy of the ancient Greeks. The exhibit is divided into six sections: The Aegean Prelude, Rulers and Warriors of the Mycenaean World, Heroes of the Iron Age, Aristocrats and Warriors of Archaic Greece, Athletes and Citizens of Classical Greece, and Kings of Ancient Macedon.

The Greeks begins with the Aegean Bronze Age—the era in which Homer’s epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey, are set. Objects and writing from mainland Greece, the Cycladic islands and Crete offer a glimpse into this period, including Cycladic figurines, Linear A and B tablets and grave goods—organized by burial group—from the 16th-century B.C.E. royal cemetery at Mycenae. Mycenae was where King Agamemnon, leader of the Greek forces in the Trojan War, ruled in Greek mythology.

Featured in the exhibit is the first gold funerary mask amateur archaeologist (and Troy excavator) Heinrich Schliemann discovered at Mycenae, which he believed belonged to King Agamemnon until he found a second gold mask—now called the “Mask of Agamemnon.” A replica of the Mask of Agamemnon is also displayed in the exhibit. Neither could have belonged to Agamemnon, if he did exist, as the royal burials pre-date the time of the Trojan War by about three centuries.

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Left: The first gold funerary mask Schliemann found at Mycenae; Right: Replica of the “Mask of Agamemnon.” Photo: © National Archaeological Museum, Athens.

Interestingly, The Greeks exhibit includes a display highlighting the modern recreation of a Mycenaean button made of bone and gold foil using the same types of tools and techniques the ancient craftsperson would have used.

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Recreation of a Mycenaean button. Click on photo to enlarge. Photo: Robin Ngo.

Throughout the exhibit, we also meet Archaic votive statues, watch scenes from the Iliad and the Odyssey unfold on ceramic vases, gaze upon a youthful Alexander the Great, whose marble bust was carved shortly after his death (see above), and explore the roots of western democracy.

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Display showing the tools of Athenian democracy (counter-clockwise from top left): a jury machine, a juror’s ticket, wage tokens and jury ballots. Photo: Robin Ngo.

Dr. Diane Harris Cline, Associate Professor of History and Classics at The George Washington University and author of The Greeks: An Illustrated History (National Geographic, 2016), explained in an email to Bible History Daily the ingenuity of Athenian democracy:

We must imagine that as the Athenians developed their system of government, they had rich conversations. Proposed innovations get their start in solving a problem or improving a process. How can we vote the way we want to without being influenced by others? A juror would take two bronze tops between thumb and middle finger, one with a hollow axle and the other solid (see top right objects in the image at right), and go over to the ballot box and drop one of them in. The other would be put in the discard pile. A hollow top meant guilty, a solid one was innocent. No one could tell which way he voted. Perhaps later, to solve the problem of someone bringing in bronze ballot tops of his own, the Athenians engraved into the bronze the words psephos demosia (public ballot) so forgeries could be prevented. Greek inventions were the result of problem-solving together, talking through issues and improving on others’ suggestions in their social networks. Through trial and error and lots of conversations they ended up with what we find in excavations and marvel at in the exhibit.

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Fragment of a krater from Argos (c. 670–650 B.C.E.) depicting a scene from the Odyssey in which Odysseus and his crew blind the cyclops Polyphemus. The krater is from the Archaeological Museum of Argos. Photo: Robin Ngo.

The Greeks is an artifacts-based exhibit that highlights the material culture of the ancient Greeks as well as the ways in which we study them—through the fields of archaeology, Classics, art history and history. Coherently weaving through these objects and concepts, the exhibit offers a breathtaking journey through thousands of years of history.

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Gold myrtle crown (c. 350–336 B.C.E.) of Queen Meda, wife of Philip II, king of Macedon and father of Alexander the Great. Photo: © Museum of the Royal Tombs of Aigai, Vergina.

D.C. is the final stop for The Greeks, which began its North American odyssey in 2014. Prior to its arrival in the U.S. capital, the exhibit was featured at Pointe-à-Callière, the Montréal Museum of Archaeology and History, the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Quebec, and the Field Museum in Chicago, Illinois. The exhibit closes October 10, 2016.
 


 

Related reading in Bible History Daily:

Who Were the Minoans?

Minoan Frescoes at Tel Kabri

Phaistos Disk Deciphered? Not Likely, Say Scholars

Bronze Age Collapse: Pollen Study Highlights Late Bronze Age Drought

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

Alexander in the East

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

Power and Pathos in Sculpture
 


 

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  • Paul says

    For an excellent insight, read “Why Homer Matters” by Adam Nicolson, a serious and beautifully written book.

  • WILLIAM says

    If Agamemnon died three centuries before the Trojan War, then why does he appear in the Illiad? Did Homer nod? Or did the version of the scholarly article that appeared here have elisions that might explain this discrepancy?


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