Recently my wife and I had the opportunity to visit the Archaeological Museum in Thessaloniki as well as Philip II’s Tomb Museum at Vergina and the new Archaeological Museum at Pella. It had been some time since we saw so many archaeological museums in a short space of time. It provided us with an opportunity to assess the state of museology in northern Greece.
Although the Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki is well-known and well-liked by us, it had two surprises. The first was a temporary exhibition along the walls of the entrance hall. The exhibition is called “Letter from the Underground. Writing in Methone, Pieria: late 8th / early 7th century BC”. The subject of the exhibition were the 191 incised and painted ceramic vessels that were found in a huge deposit of broken pottery in an unfinished basement at ancient Methone on the southwestern edge of the Thermaic Gulf. Methone was the earliest Greek colony in the northern Aegean, founded in 733/2 BC by a group originally from Eretria on Euboea.
The material in the exhibition is a sample of the inscriptions and potter’s marks that were incised and painted on these vessels. Some of these inscriptions are among the earliest known in the Greek world, as well as the earliest found so far in the northern Aegean and in Macedonia. What makes this presentation stand out to me, besides the unique nature of the material, is that accompanying descriptions (in Greek and in English) and captions contextualize so well both the meanings of these brief texts and their place in the development of Greek writing. Further, the purposes of these “writings” and the wide economic connections of the colony are clearly demonstrated. The presentation is erudite as well as accessible even to the non-epigrapher.
The second exhibition is in the lower level, spread over two rooms. It is entitled “Europa in Greece. Colonies and Coins from the Collection of Alpha Bank”. Using the myth of Europa as the organizing theme, the exhibit presents Greek colonizing activity beyond the Aegean basin in the Late Geometric and Archaic periods. This is visualized using mainly coins from the Alpha Bank Numismatic Collection and some other artifacts. The colonies of selected Greek city states are presented as trees with branches. It is a simple but clever means to convey the breadth of the spread of Greek societies to the coasts of the Black Sea, the central and western Mediterranean and North Africa. This is the first “globalization” of what we now call Europe.
So it is well worth visiting or re-visiting the Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki in the next few months to see these exhibitions and the spectacular permanent displays there.
In September the new Archaeological Museum at ancient Pella opened on the heights to the north overlooking the archaeological site. This is a spacious, large, state-of-the-art archaeological museum that displays a large selection of the finds from the site as well as the spectacular burial assemblages from the Iron Age cemetery at nearby Archontiko. The informative displays and reconstructions that were in the old museum have been augmented by a wider range of finds, including some of the pebble mosaics, large images, more reconstructions, and more texts describing the geomorphology of the region, the development of the settlement, its role as the capital of the Macedonian kingdom and its subsequent history. The displays are logically organized, well-placed and well-lit. The texts that accompany them are mostly readable without having to stoop at close range. The wealth and quantity of the material requires time to see and to appreciate. The view of the expansive site and the basin from in front of the museum puts many things in a better context. This should be a must-see site and museum on any visit to northern Greece.
At Vergina it was familiar territory. The display of artifacts from the tombs and graves are around the preserved architectural monuments all encased in the artificial mound built over them. All of this is in very dark spaces, as the lighting level is very low. The enormous quantity and quality of the finds from these monuments as well as other graves in the area is overwhelming. The normally large crowds, the commentaries of the tour guides, the small size of the descriptive labels and other texts, as well as the lack of lighting on them, combined with the general dim light make it very difficult to learn about and to appreciate properly the items on display. One leaves feeling that you have missed a great deal. For a more leisurely and rewarding visit one should be there first thing when it opens, before the tour buses arrive. As there is a new, very large archaeological museum under construction outside the village on the road towards Veria, maybe the local Ephorate of Antiquities will reduce the amount of material on display at the tombs and reorganize and re-think the display of what remains in order to create a better museum-visiting experience. The new structure can handle the overflow as well as the new finds that keep coming to light around this first capital of the Macedonian kingdom. Unfortunately the palace was not open as it is under conservation and partial reconstruction.
So Macedonia beckons. There is much more to see - including the Greek/CIG excavations at Argilos - besides the tumulus at Amphipolis!