National Archaeological Museum
The National Archaeological Museum houses the world's finest collection of Greek antiquities. The enormous 19th-century neoclassical building holds room upon room, filled with more than 10,000 sculptures, pottery, jewellery, frescoes and more. You simply can't appreciate it all in one go – but whatever you do lay eyes on will be a treat.
Prehistoric Collection & Mycenaen Antiquities
Directly ahead as you enter the museum is the prehistoric collection, showcasing some of the most important pieces of Mycenaean, neolithic and Cycladic art, many in solid gold. The fabulous collection of Mycenaean antiquities (Gallery 4) is the museum’s tour de force.
Mask of Agamemnon
This great death mask of beaten gold is commonly known as the Mask of Agamemnon, the king who, according to legend, attacked Troy in the 12th century BC – but this is hardly certain. Heinrich Schliemann, the archaeologist who set to prove that Homer's epics were true tales, and not just myth, unearthed the mask at Mycenae in 1876. But now some archaeologists have found the surrounding grave items date from centuries earlier. And one researcher even asserts that Schliemann, a master of self-promotion, forged it completely.
The exquisite Vaphio gold cups, with scenes of men taming wild bulls, are regarded to be among the finest surviving examples of Mycenaean art. They were found in a tholos (Mycenaean tomb shaped like a beehive) at Vaphio, near Sparta.
Gallery 6 contains some of the superbly minimalist marble figurines of the 3rd and 2nd millennia BC that inspired artists such as Picasso. One splendid example measures 1.52m and dates from 2600 to 2300 BC.
The galleries to the left of the entrance house the oldest and most significant pieces of the sculpture collection. Galleries 7 to 13 exhibit fine examples of Archaic kouroi (male statues) from the 7th century BC to 480 BC. The best by far is the colossal 600 BC Sounion Kouros (Room 8), which stood before the Temple of Poseidon. Its style marks a transition point in art history, starting with the rigid lines of older Egyptian carving but also showing some of the life-like qualities – including the smile – that the Greeks would come to develop in later centuries.
Gallery 15 is dominated by the incredibly precise, just-larger-than-life 460 BC bronze statue of Zeus or Poseidon (no one really knows which), excavated from the sea off Evia in 1928. The muscled figure has an iconic bearded face and holds his arms outstretched, his right hand raised to throw what was once a lightning bolt (if Zeus) or trident (if Poseidon).
In Gallery 20, admire the details on the statue of Athena, made in 200 AD: the helmet topped with a sphinx and griffins, a Gorgon shield and the hand holding a small figure of winged Nike (missing its head). Now imagine it all more than 10 times larger and covered in gold – that was the legendary, now-lost colossal figure of Athena (11.5m tall) that the master sculptor Pheidias erected in front of the Parthenon in the 5th century BC. This daintier version is thought to be the best extant replica of that colossus.
Jockey of Artemision
In Gallery 21 is a find from the shipwreck off Evia excavated in 1928. This delicately rendered bronze horse and rider dates from the 2nd century BC; only a few parts were found at first, and it was finally reassembled in 1972. Opposite the horse are several lesser-known but equally exquisite works, such as the statue of Aphrodite showing a demure nude Aphrodite struggling to hold her draped gown over herself.
Precious treasures discovered in 1900 by sponge divers off the island of Antikythera (Gallery 28) include the the striking bronze Antikythera Youth, forged in the 4th century BC. His hand once held some spherical object, now lost. More mysterious is the Antikythera Mechanism, an elaborate clockwork device, now in fragments, apparently for calculating astronomical positions as well as dates of eclipses and the Olympic games, among other events. Who made it, and when, is still unknown.
The two-room (40 and 41) gallery presents the best of the museum’s significant Egyptian collection, the only one in Greece. Dating from 5000 BC to the Roman conquest, artefacts include mummies, Fayum portraits and bronze figurines.
Upstairs a room is devoted to the spectacular and incredibly old Minoan frescoes from a prehistoric settlement on Santorini (Thira). The frescoes were preserved when they were buried by a volcanic eruption in the late 16th century BC. The frescoes include Boxing Children and Spring, depicting red lilies and a pair of swallows kissing in mid air. The Thira Gallery also has videos showing the 1926 eruption and the Akrotiri excavation.
The superb pottery collection traces the development of pottery from the Bronze Age through the Protogeometric and Geometric periods, to the famous Attic black-figured pottery (6th century BC), and red-figured pottery (late 5th to early 4th centuries BC). Other uniquely Athenian vessels are the Attic White Lekythoi, slender vases depicting scenes at tombs.
In the centre of Gallery 56 are ceramic vases presented to the winners of the Panathenaic Games. Each one contained oil from the sacred olive trees of Athens; victors might have received up to 140 of them. The vases are painted with scenes from the relevant sport (wrestling, in this case) on one side and an armed Athena promachos (champion) on the other.
- Mask of Agamemnon
- Vaphio gold cups
- Sounion Kouros
- Artemision Bronze
- Varvakeion Athena
- Artemision Jockey
- Antikythera Mechanism
- Akrotiri frescoes
- Panathenaic amphorae
- A joint museum ticket is available for €15 (€8 for students), valid for three days here and at the neighbouring Epigraphical Museum, plus the Byzantine & Christian Museum and the Numismatic Museum.
- Arrive early in the day to beat the rush. If you come after tour groups are moving through, head upstairs first.
- Allow a few hours, and maybe more if you have a special interest.
- Exhibits are displayed largely thematically. For more information get an audioguide.
Take a Break
The museum cafe in the basement extends into an open-air internal courtyard.
For a meal, head into Exarhia, to a place like Yiantes for fresh modern Greek food with a glass of wine.
Bus 2, 3, 4, 5 or 11 to Polytechneio, just in front of the museum.
Metro Viktoria, less than 10 minutes' walk away.
Sidebar: The Building
The museum took shape in this spot between 1866 and 1889, with a facade designed by Ernst Ziller. The east wing expanded during the 20th century. All told, the museum has about 8000 metres of floor space. Pace yourself!
Sidebar: The Egyptian Context
The bulk of the museum's Egyptian collection was donated in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by two wealthy Greek residents of Egypt. The Egyptian government also donated nine mummies. The relics provide critical historical context for ancient Greek art, some of which took early inspiration from the culture just across the sea.
Greece's finest classical treasures.