Art / Greece / History / Travel

Cultures That Vanish: A Greek Mystery

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A career in archaeology in Greece must be like driving a snow plow in Buffalo, New York – job security is no problem. There are enough ruins scattered around the country to keep Indiana Jones busy for 25 sequels. 

Athens, in particular, is home to a number of intriguing sites, and thanks to early Athenian intellectuals, good historical records survive to document their culture. But not all early Greek cultures are so easy to unravel. 

The Minoan Culture of Crete as well as the Mycenaean Culture from the Peloponnesos both vanished without leaving behind any clear clues as to why. 

What they did leave behind, other than questions for scholars, were beautiful, sophisticated artifacts. Normally, these exceptional pieces were buried with the owner; the fact that they were made of gold or ceramic aided in their survival.

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The Archaeology Museum in Athens has an extensive collection from both groups. Many of these relics are world famous and instantly recognizable (if you’ve ever taken an art history course that is). A prime example is the golden funerary mask, known as the “Mask of Agamemnon” – which modern academics believe was actually created before his time. 

Mask of Agamemnon

The Mycenaeans were know for their wonderful frescoes, and the “Lady of Mycenae” is a romantic example.

Lady of Mycenae”

Both of these groups flourished for hundreds of years. They had complex, successful societies, and considerable influence well beyond their borders. Then, they just vanished. Theories for their demise range from competition from other groups, to earthquakes, volcanoes, and tsunamis. The debate continues, and the mystery remains an unsolved puzzle.

Happy Trails,
James
IMG_5053 - Version 2If you’re fascinated by other cultures that vanished, you’ll enjoy:

The disappearance of the Nabateans of Petra in Petra: A Dream Come True

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32 thoughts on “Cultures That Vanish: A Greek Mystery

    • I wasn’t aware of the museum’s reconstruction history Andrew, so I can’t make comparisons. But, I do remember that some of the rooms don’t flow well. This probably goes back to the original building. This is one of my favorite museums in the world, so I can’t complain too much. I enjoyed the arrangement of galleries which traced the development of Greek art. It was an easy tour to start in the prehistoric period, and follow from room to room through time. I’ve always thought about doing a post on that very thing. ~James

      • After considering the issue I think I agree with Henry Miller who wrote in the Colossus of Rhodes:

        “There has been much controversy about the aesthetics of Sir Arthur Evans’s work of restoration. I find myself unable to come to any conclusion about it; I accepted it as a fact. However Knossos may have looked in the past, however it may look in the future, this one which Evans has created is the only one I shall ever know. I am grateful to him for what he did…”

  1. Beautiful shots James. You brought back memories of many pleasant hours spent in that museum and the Benaki. You must be aware that the mask isn’t really that of Agamemnon as first assumed.

    • I wasn’t aware of the controversy Madhu, and your comment motivated me to do a bit of online research; which turned into an interesting read. Schliemann, the archaeologist that discovered Troy (and this mask) was quite a colorful character. The mask has been dated a few hundred years before Agamemnon lived, and it’s interesting that the Archaeology Museum still refers to it by its old (and incorrect) name. Thanks for the heads-up. ~James

      • You are most welcome 🙂 The mask would lose some of its luster if it were to be nameless! Greece that way is all about hype…unlike Turkey with a host of intact sites that aren’t marketed half as well. But the romance endures somehow.

  2. James: thank you for another excellent post. I am very interested in archaeology and the study of ancient cultures. I will continue to learn, and to see, little by little, from books , from travels and from fellow learned bloggers like you. Keep traveling and keep sharing!
    Best,
    Denise

    • Thanks Denise. On my first international trip (many moons ago), I traveled to Belize and discovered the Mayan Ruins on the Yucatan. I fell in love then, and have enjoyed antiquities and ancient cultures ever since. On our last RTW, Terri and I visited Petra and Angkor Wat, which had been on our bucket list forever. We plan on continuing to work on our list. ~James

  3. It’s hard to imagine how a civilization can just vanish. Natural disasters make more sense to me. If they were conquered by someone, there would be tales of the conquest. Interesting!

    • I’m with you Laura, particularly when it comes to the Minoan Culture, which existed on present-day Crete. Most scholars think that the horrific volcanic eruption that created Santorini was primarily responsible for the culture’s demise. It could have been the tsunami or the ash, or the combination. The humongous crater and 250 feet of volcanic ash on Santorini prove that the eruption was a whopper. And of course, geek that I am, I did a post on it. Check it out.
      https://gallivance.net/2011/11/29/santorini-island-paradise-or-ticking-bomb/
      ~James

  4. I think I’ve seen that Lady of Mycenae, but it may have been during college days. I took a course on Greek archeology, but I remember so very, very little. Would be fun to travel there or take a class at our local university free of charge, now that I’m a senior!!!

    • Rusha, you would have definitely have seen this fresco in your archaeology course, as it’s an excellent example and very famous. I suspect that it was also covered in the art history I took in college. But my class was at 8:00 am (major scheduling mistake on my part), and when I made it to class, I normally slept through most of it. With age comes wisdom, and I’d love to go back a retake that same course. ~James

  5. James those opening lines had me laughing out loud. 25 sequels of Indiana Jones….well that would keep Harrison Ford busy for some time. 🙂 Your photos of the artifacts are very good. Any tips you are willing to share?

    • Thanks Sue. But you must have read that Harrison injured his ankle on the set of his most recent movie. Maybe he isn’t the archaeology stud we thought he was. As to the photos, I didn’t do anything special except use my normal photography mantra: Thank God for digital cameras, and take lots of shots. But one nice thing about this museum was the lighting. Of course, all these artifacts were in glass cases, but the lighting was at a pleasant level (and angles) so there was very little glare off the case. And this made all the difference. ~James

      • The indoor lighting really can make all the difference. I will turn down my hero worship one notch then. 🙂
        I had not heard of Garrison’s injury. He beat heal quickly if he is to work at your suggested pace.

  6. Well Harrison Ford is 71… 🙂 and he still likes to do some of his own stunts, I believe. Peggy and I just watched the whole Indiana Jones series and tonight we are going to catch up with Hans Solo. It’s called watching Harrison Ford age. 🙂 He is undoubtably wealthy enough to make his own death mask. Like you James, I have always been fascinated with Greek History. Going there is like stepping back in time. Peggy’s mom used to take high school students on tours of Greece. That would have been a kick. –Curt

    • Curt, I’ve been to Greece a few times, but the month we spent in Athens was truly a travel dream come true for me. Having a month gave me time to dig deep, and Terri and I got off the tourist track and roamed the city at will. For my money, the Archaeological Museum in Athens is one of the best museums in the world. For Greek art and history lovers, it doesn’t get any better. And since Harrison is 71, I’ll cut him some slack. He needs to stay healthy for his for his 49 year-old wife. 🙂 ~James

      • Next time I will visit the archeology museum! I had it on our itinerary this last time until we allowed out taxi driver to take us to his cousin’s restaurant instead. LOL Food was very good, but not that good. And the price was high enough to cover several visits to the museum. 🙂 –Curt

  7. Fabulous post, as always, you two! You bring up some very interesting points. If cultures that existed for hundreds of years could just disappear, could that happen today, or would our blogs survive to tell the tales? What legacy will we leave behind? Hmmm, odd thoughts those.

    I have to agree with Madhu about the adjoining histories and artifacts in Turkey. I am fascinated by the population “swap” – how could that work today? In any case the shared histories and relics are marvelous. Though as Madhu mentioned, Turkey seems to be protecting itself from ruin by keeping its own secrets.

    Thanks again James & Terri. Love your perspectives!

    • Thanks Jonelle. We haven’t spent much time in Turkey, but we did visit Izmir and Ephesus. And my memory is that it was markedly lower key than the ruins in and around Athens. The Greeks realize that the tourist business is big business and they have planned accordingly (and the government coffers can use the money for sure). I’ve always had an interest in cultures that vanish, whether from a known or unknown reason (eg the Maya and Olmecs). I also enjoy post-apocalyptic books and movies. They always make me think about our society and how I would deal with life. My favorite doomsday book of all time is Steven King’s “The Stand”. It was a fun read and a great thought provoker. ~James

    • I agree Marie. Also, I always wonder what it would be like to live in a society in decline. At what point do the people decide that they have to move on or perish? It brings up all sorts of questions. ~James

    • They are fabulous, and what a wonderful coincidence that such lovely pieces have survived. These particular works have a simple, Miro quality that is so appealing. ~James

  8. Is this the same National Archeological Museum I visited when I was in Greece? http://catbirdingreece.wordpress.com/2012/09/13/travel-theme-on-display-national-archeological-museum-in-athens/ It seems it is. I saw the mask of Agamemnon there, and I think that fresco too. I loved that museum! So much history in Greece. There’s also the brand new Acropolis Museum, opened in 2009. I loved Greece and would love to live there forever! You’re right, James, Greek ruins could keep Indiana Jones busy for a long time. 🙂

    • Yes Cathy, this is the same museum. As I said to another commenter, this is one of my favorite museums in the world. The collection is incredible, and I enjoyed the arrangement of galleries which traced the development of Greek art. It was an easy tour to start in the prehistoric period, and follow from room to room through time. We spent a month in Athens, and honestly, if I’m in the neighborhood, I’d stop again just to go to this museum. ~James

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