Reopened in 2014 after a long renovation, the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion is Crete’s outstanding jewel. The two floors of the restored 1930s Bauhaus building make a gleaming showcase for the exhibits that span 5500 years, from neolithic to Roman times, and an extensive Minoan collection. The rooms are colour coded and artefacts are displayed both chronologically and thematically and are beautifully presented with descriptions in English. A visit here enhances any 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.
Rooms I–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. Don’t miss the golden pendant with bees from Malia, a sophisticated jeweller’s masterpiece, and the extensive jewellery collection. The elaborately embellished set of Kamares tableware is possibly a royal dinner service.
Rooms IV, V and VI illustrate life in the Late Bronze period (1700 BC to 1450 BC). This is when Minoan culture reached its zenith, as reflected in the foundation 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 and a stunning ivory-and-crystal inlaid draughts board. Most hone 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. Don’t miss the so-called ring of King Minos, a signet ring rediscovered and handed to authorities in 2001. The snake goddesses and stone bull's head (inlaid with seashell and crystal) are two stunning ceremonial items from Knossos.
Room 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 Mycenaens. 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 Aghia Triada (Room XXII) is presumed to be that of a ruler, given its detailed, honorific scenes.
Room XIII showcases Minoan frescoes (1800 BC to 1350 BC) including Evans’ famous (or infamous) recreations. The paintings reflects 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, and the bull head.
Rooms XV–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 and the bronze shields of the Idaean Cave, extravagant votive offerings.
Room XX–XXII We move to the Classical, Hellenistic and Roman periods (5th to 4th century BC) where utensils and 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.
Rooms XXVI and XXVII (7th to 4th century BC) exhibit the role of Crete in the development of monumental sculpture, plus Roman sculptures and the obsession with rendering (and copying) statues of heroes and Gods of the preceding Classical era.