This state-of-the-art museum is one of the largest and most important in Greece. The two-storey revamped 1930s Bauhaus building makes a gleaming showcase for artefacts spanning 5500 years from Neolithic to Roman times, including a Minoan collection of unparalleled richness. The rooms are colour coded and displays are arranged both chronologically and thematically, and presented with descriptions in English. A visit here will greatly enhance your understanding of Crete’s rich history. Don’t skip it.
The museum’s treasure trove includes pottery, jewellery, sarcophagi, plus famous frescoes from the sites of Knossos, Tylissos, Amnissos and Agia Triada. The pieces are grouped into comprehensive themes such as settlements, trade, death, religion and administration. Along with clear descriptions, these bring to life both the day-to-day functioning and long-term progression of societies on Crete and beyond. Budget at least two hours for this extraordinary collection, if necessary taking a break in the on-site cafe.
On the Ground Floor, Rooms I to III focus on the Neolithic period to the Middle Bronze Age (7000 BC to 1700 BC), showing life in the first settlements in Crete and around Knossos. In Room II don’t miss the golden pendant with bees from Malia, a sophisticated jeweller’s masterpiece, and the extensive jewellery collection. The undisputed eye-catcher in Room III is the elaborately embellished Kamares tableware of red, black and white clay, including a 'royal dinner service' from Phaestos.
Rooms IV to VI illustrate life in the Late Bronze Age (1700 BC to 1450 BC). This is when Minoan culture reached its zenith, as reflected in the founding of new palaces, elaborate architecture and prolific trading practices. Not surprisingly, these are among the most visited rooms and the collection is vast. Highlights include the small clay house from Arhanes, a stunning ivory-and-crystal inlaid draughts board and a scale model of Knossos. Most home in on the Phaistos disc, a stunning clay piece embossed with 45 signs, which has never been deciphered. Nearby, the massive copper ingots from Agia Triada and Zakros Palace demonstrate important units of economic exchange. Other gems include the bull-leaping fresco and incredible bull-leaper sculpture (Room VI) that show daring sporting practices of the time.
Rooms VII and VIII reveal the importance of Minoan religion and ideology with cult objects and figurines. Room VII houses the Chieftain’s cup from Agia Triada that portrays two men, one holding a staff, the other a sword. In Room VIII, the snake goddesses and stone bull's head (inlaid with seashell and crystal) are two stunning ceremonial items from Knossos.
Rooms IX and X are dedicated to the palace of Knossos and its emergence as a centralised state (after the administrative collapse of other palaces) along with evidence of the Mycenaeans. Linear B clay tablets reveal the first ‘Greek’ script and indicate Knossos’ complex administrative system and bureaucratic processes. In Room X, look for the extraordinary boar’s helmet and gold-handled swords, displaying the importance of the aristocratic warrior status.
Rooms XI and XII highlight settlements, sanctuaries and graves of the Late Bronze Age, including fascinating visual representations of death. The extraordinary sarcophagus from Agia Triada (Room XII) is presumed to be that of a ruler, given its detailed, honorific fresco-style scenes.
On the 1st Floor, Room XIII showcases Minoan frescoes (1800 BC to 1350 BC), including Evans’ famous (or infamous) re-creations. The paintings reflect the interest in art and nature at the time. All are highlights, but for your at-a-glance reference, it’s home to the Prince of the Lilies, the Ladies in Blue, the Cupbearer, La Parisienne and the Dolphin Fresco.
Rooms XV to XIX focus on the Geometric and Archaic periods (10th to 6th century BC), the transition to the Iron Age and formation of the first Greek cities. The Apollonian Triad, bronze statues from Deros, are the earliest known Greek hammered-bronze statues, while the bronze shields of the Ideon Cave are extravagant votive offerings to Zeus.
Rooms XX to XXII move to the Classical, Hellenistic and Roman periods (5th to 4th century BC), where utensils, figurines and stunning mosaic floors and amphorae set the scene for the foundation of the autonomous Greek city-states, followed by civil wars and, finally, the Roman period. The huge Phalagari hoard of silver coins (Room XXI) is thought to be a military state fund. The cemetery finds of these periods are especially fascinating: look out for the skull with the gold wreath (Room XXII).
Room XXIII exhibits two private collections donated to the museum.
Back on the Ground Floor (Part II), Rooms XXVI and XXVII (7th to 4th century BC) house the museum's sculpture collection. Architectural reliefs from Gortyna exhibit the role of Crete in the development of monumental sculpture, while Roman sculptures and copies of heroes and gods of the preceding Classical era highlight the type of art during the Roman period.