Museum HistoryThe monuments of the Acropolis have withstood the ravages of past centuries, both of ancient times and those of the Middle Ages. Until the 17th century, foreign travellers visiting the monuments depicted the classical buildings as being intact. This remained the case until the middle of the same century, when the Propylaia was blown up while being used as a gunpowder store. Thirty years later, the Ottoman occupiers dismantled the neighbouring Temple of Athena Nike to use its materials to strengthen the fortification of the Acropolis. The most fatal year, however, for the Acropolis, was 1687, when many of the building’s architectural members were blown into the air and fell in heaps around the Hill of the Acropolis, caused by a bomb from the Venetian forces. Foreign visitors to the Acropolis would search through the rubble and take fragments of the fallen sculptures as their souvenirs. It was in the 19th century that Lord Elgin removed intact architectural sculptures from the frieze, the metopes and the pediments of the building.
In 1833, the Turkish garrison withdrew from the Acropolis. Immediately after the founding of the Greek State, discussions about the construction of an Acropolis Museum on the Hill of the Acropolis began. In 1863, it was decided that the Museum be constructed on a site to the south-east of the Parthenon and foundations were laid on 30 December 1865.
The building programme for the Museum had provided that its height not surpasses the height of the stylobate of the Parthenon. With only 800 square metres of floor space, the building was rapidly shown to be inadequate to accommodate the findings from the large excavations on the Acropolis that began in 1886. A second museum was announced in 1888, the so-called Little Museum. Final changes occurred in 1946-1947 with the second Museum being demolished and the original being sizably extended. By the 1970s, the Museum could not cope satisfactorily with the large numbers of visitors passing through its doors. The inadequacy of the space frequently caused problems and downgraded the sense that the exhibition of the masterpieces from the Rock sought to achieve.
The Acropolis Museum was firstly conceived by Constantinos Karamanlis in September 1976. He also selected the site, upon which the Museum was finally built, decades later. With his penetrating vision, C. Karamanlis defined the need and established the means for a new Museum equipped with all technical facilities for the conservation of the invaluable Greek artifacts, where eventually the Parthenon sculptures will be reunited. For these reasons, architectural competitions were conducted in 1976 and 1979, but without success. In 1989, Melina Mercouri, who as Minister of Culture inextricably identified her policies with the claim for the return of the Parthenon Marbles from the British Museum, initiated an international architectural competition. The results of this competition were annulled following the discovery of a large urban settlement on the Makriyianni site dating from Archaic to Early Christian Athens. This discovery now needed to be integrated into the New Museum that was to be built on this site.
In the year 2000, the Organization for the Construction of the New Acropolis Museum announced an invitation to a new tender, which was realized in accord with the Directives of the European Union. It is this Tender that has come to fruition with the awarding of the design tender to Bernard Tschumi with Michael Photiadis and their associates and the completion of construction in 2007. Today the new Acropolis Museum has a total area of 25,000 square metres, with exhibition space of over 14,000 square metres, ten times more than that of the old museum on the Hill of the Acropolis. The new Museum offers all the amenities expected in an international museum of the 21st century.
The Gallery of the Slopes of the Acropolis
After crossing the ground-floor lobby towards the turn styles of the Museum, the first collection lies before the visitor. An ascending, wide glass-floored gallery houses finds from the slopes of the Acropolis. The occasionally transparent floor provides a view of the archaeological excavation, while its upward slope alludes to the ascent to the Acropolis.
The Gallery of the Slopes of the Acropolis houses finds from the sanctuaries that were founded on the slopes of the Acropolis, as well as objects that Athenians used in everyday life from all historic periods. On the left-hand side, finds from some of the key sanctuaries of the slopes are exhibited. On the right-hand side, finds from the smaller sanctuaries and settlements that developed on the slopes of the Hill are displayed. In antiquity, the slopes of the Sacred Rock constituted the transition zone between the city and its most famous sanctuary. This was the area where official and popular cults, as well as large and small sanctuaries existed alongside private houses.
Among the sanctuaries, or at a slightly lower level, archaeological excavations brought to light parts of the urban fabric of ancient Athens and provided evidence of its almost uninterrupted habitation from the end of the Neolithic period (about 3000 BC) until late antiquity (6th century AD). Houses and workshops, roads and squares, wells and reservoirs, as well as thousands of objects left behind by the local people in antiquity provide insight into the past. Most finds are made of clay, as objects made of other perishable materials have been lost to us, while the most valuable objects have been looted. The finds include tableware and symposium vessels, cooking pots, perfume holders, cosmetics and jewelry container, children’s toys and others.
The slopes, caves and plateaus of the Acropolis hill were the settings in which gods, heroes and nymphs were worshipped. The south slope was home to two of the most important sanctuaries of the city, those of Dionysos Eleuthereus and Asklepios. It was also the site of several other temples, smaller in size, yet of great importance to the Athenians.
The temple of Dionysos Eleuthereus was the site of the Great or City Dionysia, one of the most important festivals in town, which took place in the beginning of spring (in the month of Elaphebolion). It was from the cult of Dionysos, the god of wine, intoxication and ecstatic dance, that the theatre was born. On the slope above the sanctuary, the plays of the most important ancient Greek tragic and comic playwrights, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes, were performed for the first time. The sanctuary and associated healing centre of Asclepios in Athens was founded on the south slope of the Acropolis, through the initiative of Telemachos, an Athenian citizen who, in 420/19 BC, brought a statue of the god from the great temple at Epidaurus. In a stoa beside the sanctuary, patients lay in wait for their miraculous cure by the apparition of the god in their dreams. The numerous votive offerings, often with depictions of the body parts that the god healed, provide evidence of the great importance the god’s cult had for the Athenians.
At a short distance from the Sanctuary of Asclepios was a small open-air temple dedicated to the Nymphe, who was the protectress of marriage and wedding ceremonies. There, the Athenians dedicated the nuptial bath vases or loutrophoroi, as well as other votive offerings (perfume bottles, cosmetics and jewelry containers, spindle-whorls, symposium vases, figurines, female protomes and painted plaques). The loutrophoroi were luxury vases, painted in the red or black figure technique. Their decorative motifs were related to marriage and reflected the style prevalent at the time.
The Archaic Gallery
Archaic is the period throughout the 7th century BC, until the end of the Persian Wars (480/79 BC). This period is characterized by the development of the city-state and the transition from aristocracy to tyranny and, eventually, democracy. It is also characterized by great achievements in the economy, art and intellectual life.
In the Archaic Gallery, for the first time, visitors have the opportunity to view exhibits from all sides as three-dimensional exhibits. With the benefit of the changing natural light, visitors can discern and discover the delicate surface variations of sculptures and select the vantage point from which to observe the exhibits.
In the south side of the Gallery, depictions of young women (the Korai), the horse riders (the Hippeis) and many other provide a striking picture of the Acropolis in the Archaic Period.
The earliest building on the Acropolis was known by the name of Hekatompedon or Hekatompedos neos – meaning 100 feet long, and comes from an inscription referring to the layout of the sanctuary. It is thought that the building was built on the site, later occupied by the Classical Parthenon. The fragments of poros architectural members and sculptures uncovered to the south and east of the Parthenon, reveal that the Hekatompedon was a Doric peripteral temple.
The lioness pediment is distinguished by its high-relief carving and its striking size. It depicts a lioness with an unusually bushy mane, rearing on its hind legs and tearing apart a calf. It is believed to have adorned the east pediment of the temple. Two compositions belong to the west pediment. The one to the left depicts Herakles on his right knee, wrestling with the Triton, a creature with a body of a man ending in the scaly tail of a sea monster. The group to the right is the Triple-Bodied Monster, a composite creature consisting of three male figures conjoined at the waist. Each figure holds an object in its left hand: the first has water, the second fire, and the third a bird (symbolizing air).
The Ancient Temple
In the Archaic Gallery are presented the large architectural sculptures of the pediment of the Gigantomachy (battle between Gods and Giants), which decorated the Old Temple, i.e. the second temple of the Goddess Athena on the Acropolis. It has been argued that the temple had an earlier building phase (570 BC), involving the poros sculptures that are now assigned to the Hekatompedon, while the marble sculptures were associated with a renovation by the sons of Peisistratos. It is possible, however, that the temple was built and given its marble sculpted decoration in the last decade of the 6th century BC. The compositions of the pediments consist of larger than life-size statues, carved in Parian marble, which are attributed to the workshop of an important Athenian sculptor, either Antenor or Endoios.
From the time of Peisistratos onwards, the site of the Acropolis began to fill with votive offerings, dedicated to the Goddess, both as tokens of piety and as marks of financial and artistic development. These important offerings were mostly statues meant to please the Goddess. Votive offerings were used by the ancient Greeks to thank the gods for granting them a wish and frequently included a reference to the cost involved with the term dekate (dekate = tithe), which is one tenth of a specific source of income, or the term aparche (aparche = first fruits), namely the first crop or the first earnings.
The type, material and size of the dedications reflected the time period, social status and financial state of the dedicant. On the Acropolis, statues and other expensive artefacts were commissioned by members of aristocratic families and wealthy professionals, manual workers, as well as women, such as washer women and bakers.
The most distinctive offerings to the temple of Athena on the Acropolis were the Korai, marble statues of young women. Carved in different sizes, they follow a strictly defined sculptural type, with an austere body posture. From the mid-6th century BC onwards, they are dressed in the fine linen chiton and heavier mantle-garments that set off their femininity more than the heavy woollen peplos. In one hand, they usually held an offering to the Goddess (a wreath, fruit, bird, flower, etc.), while with the other they lifted their pleated garment off the ground as they walked.
The Parthenon Gallery
In the centre of the Parthenon Gallery on the 3rd floor, the visitor can observe a video presentation about the Parthenon and the sculptural decoration of the monument. In the same area are presented ancient marble inscriptions recording detailed cost records of the construction of the Parthenon and the statue of Athena Parthenos. As a result, visitors are informed on how democratic bodies functioned in the 5th century BC.
The installation of the frieze of the Parthenon on the rectangular cement core that has exactly the same dimensions as the cella of the Parthenon enables a comprehensive viewing of the details of the frieze, as one takes the perimetric walk of the Gallery. The narrative of the story of the Panathenaic Procession is pieced together with a combination of the original blocks of the frieze and cast copies of the pieces in museums abroad, such as the British Museum and the Louvre.
Once the Sacred Rock had been cleared of the ruins left behind from the Persian Wars, the Athenians quickly repaired the ruined temple of Athena Polias and continued their worship. A new temple was not built on the Acropolis until the middle of the 5th century BC. At that time, Pericles launched a new construction program, which began in 447 BC. Architects Iktinos and Kallikrates designed the Parthenon, while for the carving of the sculptures Pheidias collaborated with his pupils Agorakritos, Alkamenes and other great sculptors and painters. The temple, dedicated to the Athena Parthenos, was constructed in 15 years. Pheidias himself created the gold-and-ivory statue of the armed Goddess which adorned the cella interior.
The Parthenon architectural sculptures, namely the metopes, frieze and pediments, were made of Pentelic marble and embellished with the addition of metal attachments and paint.
The 92 metopes were the first parts of the entablature to receive sculptural decoration. Each one reproduced a self-contained scene, usually including two figures. The subjects were taken from legendary battles and symbolized the victories of the Athenians against the Persians. The east side depicted the battle of the Olympian gods against the Giants, who tried to overthrow the order prevailing on Mount Olympus (Gigantomachy). The west side presented the fight of Athenian youths against the Amazons, who threatened even the Acropolis (Amazonomachy). The theme of the south side was the fight of the Thessalian youths (Lapiths) against the Centaurs who attempted to abduct their women during a wedding celebration (Centauromachy). The north side illustrated the Sack of Troy (Iliou Persis).
The pediments, the triangular spaces formed by the horizontal and raking cornices of the roof at each end of the temple, were the last parts of the building to receive sculptural decoration (437-432 BC). They comprised colossal statues in the round and the themes were drawn from Attic mythology.
The east pediment above the temple entrance depicted the birth of the Goddess Athena from the head of her father, Zeus, in the presence of the Olympic gods. The west pediment illustrates the dispute between Athena and Poseidon for the claim of the land of Attica, a legendary fight that resulted in Athena’s victory.
In contrast to the mythological subjects of the metopes and pediments, on the Parthenon frieze, Pheidias chose to depict the Great Panathenaia, the greatest festival of the city in honor of the Goddess Athena. The festival took place every four years, lasted 12 days and included rituals, sacrifices, as well as athletic and musical contests. The festivities culminated on the 28th day of the month – Hekatombaion in the heart of the summer – on Athena’s birthday. On that day, a procession advanced to the temple of Athena Polias (the Archaios Naos that was later replaced by the Erechtheion) in order to hand over to the priestess a new peplos for the old xoanon of the Goddess. This procession unfolds over the 160 metres of continuous sculptural decoration of the Parthenon frieze.
The frieze consisted of 115 blocks. It had a total length of 160 metres and was 1.02 metres high. Some 378 human figures and deities and more than 200 animals, mainly horses, are presented in the process. Groups of horses and chariots occupy most of the space on the frieze. The sacrificial procession follows next, with animals and groups of men and women carrying ceremonial vessels and offerings. The procession concludes with the giving of the peplos, the gift of the Athenian people to the cult statue of the Goddess, a xoanon (ancient wooden statue). Left and right of the peplos scene sit the twelve gods of Mount Olympos.
From the entire frieze that survives today, 50 metres are in the Acropolis Museum, 80 metres in the British Museum, one block in the Louvre, whilst other fragments are scattered in the museums of Palermo, the Vatican, Wόrzburg, Vienna, Munich and Copenhagen.
Propylaia, Athena Nike, Erechtheion
The descent of the visitor from the third floor back to the first floor, to the last gallery of the Museum, affords views of unique works that became prototypes for subsequent periods from antiquity to today. For the first time ever, it is possible to view the coffered ceiling of the Propylaia and the sculptures from the parapet of the temple of Athena Nike, and finally, the Caryatids – or Korai of the Erechtheion at close proximity on the balcony overlooking the Gallery of the Slopes of the Acropolis. The main monuments that constitute the Classical Acropolis are the Propylaia, the temple of Athena Nike and the Erechtheion.
The Propylaia, the monumental entrance to the Acropolis, were built in 437-432 BC, following designs by the architect Mnesikles, in order to replace the earlier gateway (the Archaic Propylon). In 427-423 BC, the temple of Athena Nike was built, perhaps by the architect Kallikrates, on the bastion southwest of the Propylaia, to replace an earlier small temple on the same site. The Erechtheion is the last of the Periclean buildings. Construction began during the Peace of Nicias (421-415 BC) and ended after 410 BC.
In the Propylaia stood works of art made by great sculptors, like the statue of the Hermes Propylaios by Alkamenes. The building consisted of a central section flanked by two wings at the sides. The main building featured five openings. The central opening was the widest one, to accommodate the passing through of the Panathenaic procession and sacrificial animals.
The north wing had an anteroom and a spacious hall known as the Pinakotheke. This was probably a recreation area with paintings on the walls and couches with tables, where visitors could rest. The south wing had to be reduced, perhaps due to the temple of Athena Nike.
The Temple of Athena Nike
The temple of Athena Nike is a temple in the Ionic order, with four monolithic columns at the east and west fronts. As the epithet Nike (victory) implies, here Athena was worshipped as the Goddess who stands by the Athenians in time of war. The cella of the temple housed a wooden cult statue of the Goddess, who held a helmet in one hand, symbol of war, and a branch of pomegranate tree in the other, symbol of peace.
The sides of the bastion around the temple of Athena Nike were protected by a parapet of Pentelic marble. It was 41.71 metres in length and consisted of slabs with relief decoration οn the exterior. The sequence of representations commenced from the north-west corner, where the staircase leading from the Propylaia to the sanctuary ended. The slabs are not part of a continuous narrative. Instead, each one depicts an independent scene. Each side consists of a similar composition of winged Nikai, either driving bulls to sacrifice or holding weapons and bedecking victory trophies with Greek or Persian weaponry. The Goddess Athena is seated in their midst, having laid down her weapons.
The frieze ran along all four sides of the temple of Athena Nike and consisted of 14 sections. It was 25.94 metres long. The block from the north-east corner has been lost along with other parts and therefore the original sequence of blocks on the north, south and west side is uncertain. Four blocks, two from the south and west sections respectively are located in the British Museum. The east frieze represents the Olympian Gods and the other three sides of the frieze depict historic battle scenes, such as the Marathon battle in 490 BC.
The area around the Erechtheion was considered the most sacred of the Acropolis. The Erechtheion was a complex marble building in the Ionic order, an exceptional artwork. The eastern part of the Temple was dedicated to Athena, whilst the western part was dedicated to local hero Boutes, Hephaistos and other gods and heroes. Thus, the Erechtheion was a temple with multiple functions, housing older and newer cults, and the site of the ‘Sacred Tokens’, the marks made by Poseidon’s trident and the olive tree, the gift of Athena to the city of Athens.
The building had two porches. The roof of the north porch was supported on six Ionic columns, while below its floor the Athenians pointed at the mark of the thunderbolt sent by Zeus to kill the legendary King Erechteus. At the south porch, which was the most well-known, the roof was supported by six statues of maidens known as the Caryatids, instead of the typical columns. Below it stood the grave of Kekrops, another legendary King of Athens. A building inscription of the Erechtheion refers to the Caryatids simply as Korai (maidens), while the name Caryatids was assigned at a later time. The second Korai from the western section was removed by Lord Elgin in 1801 and is today located in the British Museum.
Several interpretations about the Caryatids have been put forth. The most convincing one supports the view that they constituted the visible portion of the grave of Kekrops and were the choephoroi who paid tribute to the glorious dead. The main building and the north porch were surrounded by a continuous Ionic frieze decorated with images of gods, heroes and mortals, in scenes related to the ancient cults of the Erechtheion. The figures were separately carved in Parian marble and affixed on slabs of grey Eleusinian limestone.
From the 5th c. BC to the 5th c. AD
The exhibition concludes at the north side of the first floor gallery. Reliefs of Athenian decrees, impressive portraits, Roman copies of classical masterpieces and depictions of philosophers and historical figures are the exhibits covering the period from the 5th century BC to the 5th century AD. These collections of the Museum include the Sanctuary of Artemis Brauronia, the votives of the Classical and Hellenistic Periods and the votives of the Roman Period.
Numerous statues were placed on the Acropolis, which represented gods, heroes, mythological themes and portraits of famous men. They were often works of well-known sculptors, dedicated by cities, rulers or even citizens. Few have survived and usually in poor condition. Moreover, from the mid-5th century BC stelai were also erected on the Acropolis. These were inscribed with decrees of the Parliament and the Public Assembly of the Athenians. The inscriptions on the stone were the publication of the original records which were written on papyrus or wooden tablets. The decrees are divided into two categories, depending on their content: a) Athenian treaties or alliances with other cities and b) honorary decrees for individuals who had offered services or benefactions to the city.
The Sanctuary of Artemis Brauronia
Artemis Brauronia was the Goddess protecting expectant mothers and women in confinement. Her main sanctuary was located in Brauron, in Attica. The sanctuary on the Acropolis was founded at the time of the tyrant Peisistratos, who originated from Brauron. The cella housed the wooden statue (xoanon) of the Goddess, similar to the one in her Brauron temple. According to Pausanias, a second statue of Artemis, carved by Praxiteles, was added (330 BC). The colossal head of that statue is on display in the Museum.
The Votives of the Classical & Hellenistic Periods
Few of the precious offerings of the Acropolis, depicting gods, heroes and mortals from the legendary and historical past of Athens, have come to light. Among them stands the statue of Prokne, daughter of King Pandion of Attica, which illustrates the dramatic moment of her decision to kill her son, Itys, in order to punish her husband. The sculpture was a work by famous artist Alkamenes. Other statues have survived in a fragmentary state, such as the statue of Io or Kallisto (the so-called Barberini Suppliant), a work by the sculptor Deinomenes from Argos.
Unique is the famous relief depicting an Athenian trireme, possibly the sacred vessel Paralos. Another exquisite work is the portrait of Alexander the Great, attributed to the sculptor Leochares or Lyssipos. In some cases, only the relief bases of bronze statues have survived, like the Atarbos base depicting youths dancing a warlike dance, the base with an apobates (armed warrior jumping from the chariot in motion) and the athlete’s base, attributed to the workshop of Lysippos.
The Votives of the Roman Period
From the erection of the Erechtheion to the end of antiquity, no new public buildings were erected on the Acropolis, with the exception of the small, circular temple of Rome and Augustus, whose architectural decoration quoted the Erechtheion. On the south Slope of the Acropolis, the Odeion was built in 160-170 AD, funded by Herodes Atticus.
Throughout the Roman period, the Acropolis retained the appearance it had in its heyday. It also preserved most of its dedications, unlike other Greek cities and sanctuaries, whose artistic treasures were plundered and transferred to Italy, mostly in order to adorn public buildings.
At the same time, a series of new dedications were added to the earlier ones. These were portraits of emperors, generals and other officials, portraits of philosophers, orators and priests, as well as images of individuals who benefited the city or distinguished themselves in athletic and other contests.
Acropolis Museum, 15 Dionysiou Areopagitou Street, GR-117 42 Athens
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*Photo Credits: Nikos Daniilidis