Reporting live from the trowel’s edge…
For the next six weeks, Ricarda and I are sweating it out in the middle of the Greek countryside, all in the service of academic discovery and for the advancement of human knowledge. We’re part of a team excavating a Mycenaean chamber tomb in Boeotia, a synergasia (collaboration) project between the University of Cambridge and the Ephorate of Boeotia, under the auspices of the Hellenic Ministry of Culture and the British School at Athens (co-directors: Dr Yannis Galanakis and Dr Alexandra Charami). By Greek law, all pre-publication information on the excavation is hush-hush and top secret – but we can say (spoiler alert!) we are dry sieving a lot of soil. So while we can’t blog about the project itself, we thought we would write something about our weekend trips off-site. Last weekend it was the museum in Thebes, and the Mycenaean sites of Gla and Orchomenos – let’s talk about the first of those today.
The newly opened Archaeological Museum of Thebes is the third generation of museum for the region. In 1905, Antonios Keramopoullos opened a museum at the foot of the city’s Kadmeion acropolis in order to display prehistoric and classical finds from the sanctuary of Kadmos, Thebes, and Tanagra. This was expanded in 1962 on the same site, with a view to displaying the material from the sanctuary of Artemis at Aulis. The third museum (located on an entirely new plot, and built around a medieval tower and atop a prehistoric settlement) displays antiquities from right across the Boeotian region – and it pays homage to this rich curatorial history in a fascinating display in the first room.
Unlike many regional museums in Greece which focus on a small selection of Mycenaean and classical objects, Thebes’ USP is that its museum is a diachronic museum. This means that it has regional objects on display right from the Palaeolithic (2.6 million years ago) through to the Ottoman period (1460s-1822 AD). For archaeologists, ancient historians, and classicists such as ourselves who are trained to think critically about a very specific set of periods, it is certainly refreshing, challenging, and indeed thought-provoking to see the story of a much longer-durée history being told.
The layout of the museum helps to frame both this narrative and the comparative perspective. In the first few galleries, one is introduced to the meaningful role Thebes played throughout history via the various myths surrounding the city – Oedipus and the Sphinx, or Dionysos and his cult, for example. The past is connected cleverly to recent times through sections on contemporary theatre and its role within Greece, as well as beautiful prints which depict early modern travellers of Boeotia and their encounters with the region. Due to the sloped nature of the site, the museum is organised over two levels: a main ‘shop-floor’ and a mezzanine. Sequential bays along the main atrium tell the story of each chronological period, while the thematic and overview panels were kept to the upper level. From the mezzanine, there is also a path out to the site excavations. These are illustrated informatively by both 3d reconstruction models and interactive panels, and they contribute a different and exciting angle to the extensive Mycenaean displays from the main galleries.
That said, I rather unashamedly admit that the standout section of the museum for me was indeed that which contained the finds from my beloved Archaic period (c.700-480 BC). Of particular note, the collection boasted four impressive kouros statues: naked male youths carved from limestone or marble which were frequently set up within sanctuary precincts as offerings to the gods. They were originally found in the nearby sanctuary of Apollo at Ptoon – as were some of my other favourite objects on display. Recently in my research I have been thinking about the usage of local alphabets across different regions of Greece, and so it was especially exciting to see on display some objects inscribed with local Boeotian letters. One of these was a ceramic drinking cup – two people had written their names on it, claiming it as their own! Another couple of inscribed objects included a dainty bronze spearhead and a bronze handle.
Ricarda’s favourite bit: Due to its amazing range of time periods and astonishingly diverse and fascinating objects on display, it is really hard for me to choose a favourite section. I was intrigued especially by the introductory bits, relating past and present and providing the visitor with a pathway towards antiquity. What also needs mentioning is that despite heaps of precious jewellery from burials and breathtaking vessels, elaborately painted and used during sumptuous feasts, the “ordinary” people weren’t forgotten. Displays showcased kitchen ware and the processes behind the objects used to display power and wealth.
The museum is open daily from 8am-8pm (closes early at 3pm in winter; closed Mondays), and costs the modest sum of €6 for a ticket. It’s well worth every cent, and either as an introduction to the archaeology of the region or as a reference collection for the more seasoned antiquarian this museum will keep you well occupied for a good couple of hours.
And if that’s not enough to convince you, the museum has a five star rating on TripAdvisor.
Co-authored with Ricarda Meisl