'The Greeks' Unearths Ancient Artifacts, History at Field Museum


The Field Museum is telling the epic story of ancient Greece in its exhibition “The Greeks: Agamemnon to Alexander the Great."

More than 500 precious artifacts—many of which have never left Greece before—are now in Chicago. These national treasures illustrate pivotal moments in Greek culture through art, science, drama and sports, and prove that the legacy of the ancient Greeks is truly Olympian.

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“It’s really difficult to extract Greek religion from Greek history, from Greek athletics, from Greek thought. We tend now to separate them, but they go together,” said Field Museum exhibit project manager Susan Neill. “‘The Greeks’ exhibition here at the Field Museum covers a long arc of Greek history and culture, really from its roots in the Neolithic, about 6000 B.C.E., up through Alexander the Great’s death in 323 B.C.E.

"What people are really able to see here is the emergence of western civilization. We see the roots of democracy, and theater, and philosophy, and the Olympic games, and all of these things that we come to think of as who we are and forming who we are.”

Below, a slideshow of artifacts currently on display at "The Greeks" exhibit.

  • Vase Detail (Archaeological Museum of Delos)

    Vase Detail (Archaeological Museum of Delos)

  • (Field Museum of Natural History)

    (Field Museum of Natural History)

  • Alexander the Great Bust (Archaeological Museum of Pella)

    Alexander the Great Bust (Archaeological Museum of Pella)

  • "Mask of Agamemnon" (Replica)--When unearthed in the late-­‐19th century, archaeologists believed this to be the death mask of Agamemnon, the mythical king of Mycenae. (Archaeological Museum of Mycenae)

    "Mask of Agamemnon" (Replica)--When unearthed in the late-­‐19th century, archaeologists believed this to be the death mask of Agamemnon, the mythical king of Mycenae. (Archaeological Museum of Mycenae)

  • Gold Myrtle Crown--With hundreds of leaves and blossoms, this wreath worn by Queen Meda is one of the most remarkable gold objects of the ancient world. (Museum of the Royal Tombs of Aigai, Vergina)

    Gold Myrtle Crown--With hundreds of leaves and blossoms, this wreath worn by Queen Meda is one of the most remarkable gold objects of the ancient world. (Museum of the Royal Tombs of Aigai, Vergina)

  • Roundels--Found in a woman’s grave, these gold roundels would have been sewn onto a beautiful garment of colorful linen or wool. (National Archaeological Museum, Athens)

    Roundels--Found in a woman’s grave, these gold roundels would have been sewn onto a beautiful garment of colorful linen or wool. (National Archaeological Museum, Athens)

  • Cycladic Figurine--Cycladic figurines, often found in burials, are among the most iconic artifacts of ancient Greek archaeology. (National Archaeological Museum, Athens)

    Cycladic Figurine--Cycladic figurines, often found in burials, are among the most iconic artifacts of ancient Greek archaeology. (National Archaeological Museum, Athens)

  • Boar-­Tusk Helmet--Mycenaean warriors wore helmets made of the tusks of dozens of wild boars—which they first had to hunt and kill—that demonstrated their courage and strength. (National Archaeological Museum, Athens)

    Boar-­Tusk Helmet--Mycenaean warriors wore helmets made of the tusks of dozens of wild boars—which they first had to hunt and kill—that demonstrated their courage and strength. (National Archaeological Museum, Athens)

  • Inlay Depicting Mycenaean Warrior Wearing Boar-­Tusk Helmet (National Archaeological Museum, Athens)

    Inlay Depicting Mycenaean Warrior Wearing Boar-­Tusk Helmet (National Archaeological Museum, Athens)

  • Alexander as Pan--Alexander the Great is portrayed here with the horns and tail of Pan, god of the wilderness. (Archaeological Museum of Pella)

    Alexander as Pan--Alexander the Great is portrayed here with the horns and tail of Pan, god of the wilderness. (Archaeological Museum of Pella)

  • Gold Gorgon Head--One of two Gorgon heads that adorned Philip II’s linen and leather cuirass, this is one of the earliest and probably the most important surviving examples of this type of adornment. (Museum of the Royal Tombs of Aigai, Vergina)

    Gold Gorgon Head--One of two Gorgon heads that adorned Philip II’s linen and leather cuirass, this is one of the earliest and probably the most important surviving examples of this type of adornment. (Museum of the Royal Tombs of Aigai, Vergina)

  • Portrait of Homer--Statues of Homer carved between the 5th and 2nd centuries BC adorned the public spaces of many Greek cities. (National Archaeological Museum, Athens)

    Portrait of Homer--Statues of Homer carved between the 5th and 2nd centuries BC adorned the public spaces of many Greek cities. (National Archaeological Museum, Athens)

  • Achilles Avenging Patroclus Vase (Archaeological Museum of Delos)

    Achilles Avenging Patroclus Vase (Archaeological Museum of Delos)

  • Rhyton (Ceremonial Cup)--Equipped with three detachable handles, this elegant ritual vessel was used to offer libations to the gods and .is displayed in the exhibition for the first time outside Greece. (National Archaeological Museum, Athens)

    Rhyton (Ceremonial Cup)--Equipped with three detachable handles, this elegant ritual vessel was used to offer libations to the gods and .is displayed in the exhibition for the first time outside Greece. (National Archaeological Museum, Athens)

  • Seal Ring--This ring depicts a religious ritual with a goddess in the center. (National Archaeological Museum, Athens)

    Seal Ring--This ring depicts a religious ritual with a goddess in the center. (National Archaeological Museum, Athens)

  • Ring--The inscription on this ring reveals the name of a Macedonian woman who, buried in a tomb among rich objects, was clearly a high-­ranking elite. (Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki)

    Ring--The inscription on this ring reveals the name of a Macedonian woman who, buried in a tomb among rich objects, was clearly a high-­ranking elite. (Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki)

  • Cup--This gold cup was discovered in a grave containing the remains of two men along with many grave goods and is being displayed for the first time outside Greece. (National Archaeological Museum, Athens)

    Cup--This gold cup was discovered in a grave containing the remains of two men along with many grave goods and is being displayed for the first time outside Greece. (National Archaeological Museum, Athens)

  • Dagger--A masterpiece of Mycenaean craftsmanship, this dagger features a gold inlaid spiral decoration that is perfectly scaled to the blade’s narrowing point. (National Archaeological Museum, Athens)

    Dagger--A masterpiece of Mycenaean craftsmanship, this dagger features a gold inlaid spiral decoration that is perfectly scaled to the blade’s narrowing point. (National Archaeological Museum, Athens)

  • Votive Relief--In the center of this relief, Asklepios, god of medicine, leans on his staff, around which a snake is coiled. This symbol still represents medicine today. (National Archaeological Museum, Athens)

    Votive Relief--In the center of this relief, Asklepios, god of medicine, leans on his staff, around which a snake is coiled. This symbol still represents medicine today. (National Archaeological Museum, Athens)

  • Helmet--Whether warriors or not, the wealthy and powerful men of Archaic Greece wore helmets and carried swords and shields that displayed their power, even in the grave. These helmets were never used and were not meant for fighting, but to indicate the deceased’s rank in the Underworld. (Archaeological Museum of Pella)

    Helmet--Whether warriors or not, the wealthy and powerful men of Archaic Greece wore helmets and carried swords and shields that displayed their power, even in the grave. These helmets were never used and were not meant for fighting, but to indicate the deceased’s rank in the Underworld. (Archaeological Museum of Pella)

  • Helmet (Archaeological Museum of Pella)

    Helmet (Archaeological Museum of Pella)

  • Helmet (Archaeological Museum of Pella)

    Helmet (Archaeological Museum of Pella)

  • Metaphor for Democracy This relief shows a young athlete placing an olive wreath on his head, which has become a symbol of Athenian democracy. (National Archaeological Museum, Athens)

    Metaphor for Democracy This relief shows a young athlete placing an olive wreath on his head, which has become a symbol of Athenian democracy. (National Archaeological Museum, Athens)

  • Statue of a Soldier, Known as “Leonidas”--This statue is thought to depict the Spartan king Leonidas, whose troops battled the Persians in 480 BC. (Archaeological Museum of Sparta)

    Statue of a Soldier, Known as “Leonidas”--This statue is thought to depict the Spartan king Leonidas, whose troops battled the Persians in 480 BC. (Archaeological Museum of Sparta)

  • Linear B Tablet--For 3,000 years, the symbols that the Mycenaeans carved into clay tablets like this one remained a secret. It was not until 1953 that the script, Linear B, was deciphered, and the words of the Mycenaeans could be read once again. (National Archaeological Museum, Athens)

    Linear B Tablet--For 3,000 years, the symbols that the Mycenaeans carved into clay tablets like this one remained a secret. It was not until 1953 that the script, Linear B, was deciphered, and the words of the Mycenaeans could be read once again. (National Archaeological Museum, Athens)

  • Male Figurine--This bronze figurine depicts a young worshipper performing the “Minoan salute" to engage with the divine. (Archaeological Museum of Herakleion)

    Male Figurine--This bronze figurine depicts a young worshipper performing the “Minoan salute" to engage with the divine. (Archaeological Museum of Herakleion)

  • Goddess Figurine--This female figure has a cylindrical skirt, upraised arms, oversized hands, and a bird atop her head, which is interpreted as a symbol of divinity. (Archaeological Museum of Herakleion)

    Goddess Figurine--This female figure has a cylindrical skirt, upraised arms, oversized hands, and a bird atop her head, which is interpreted as a symbol of divinity. (Archaeological Museum of Herakleion)

The show is co-presented locally by the National Hellenic Museum in Greektown. It was developed by the Hellenic Ministry of Culture in Athens.

“The materials come from 21 different museums in Greece, many of whom parted with their most important artifacts for two years while the material is on tour,” Neill explained. “The big moments that we think of in Greek history are definitely addressed here in ‘The Greeks.’

"For example, the story that many of us know from '300' is represented by actual arrows that the massive Persian forces were showering upon the 300 Spartan warriors and the other Greek warriors who were fighting with them, in an attempt to fend off the Persians. It was ultimately a failed attempt, but it did give spirit and hope to the Greeks who eventually were able to win the larger war and hang on to democracy for us.”

A more recent echo of ancient Greece in modern culture: Spike Lee’s “Chi-Raq,” based on Aristophanes’ comedy about Greek women withholding sex from their warring husbands until they give peace a chance.

“What people are really able to see here is the emergence of western civilization. We see the roots of democracy, and theater, and philosophy, and the Olympic games, and all of these things that we come to think of as who we are and forming who we are.”

–Susan Neill


Other exceptional objects in the exhibition include a warrior's helmet made from the tusks of the wild boars he hunted and killed, ceramic vessels that tell the bloody story of Odysseus, hero of The Iliad and The Odyssey, and a golden death mask referred to as the “Mask of Agamemnon.”

“These objects really give us a tremendous insight into Greek life,” Neill said. “These materials for the most part were grave goods, so they were buried with people to represent who they are and often times to provide what were needed in the afterlife. And in that regard, these are often the most high quality and valuable objects, so you see a lot of precious metals and exquisite workmanship.”

From the epic poet Homer – to long forgotten warriors – the focus is on individuals.

“Many of the people we encounter in this exhibition are unknown, but quite a few people are also known,” Neill said. “There is a fascinating small ring that belonged to a woman who, we can tell by the other material in her grave is important, but we know her name because it is inscribed in Greek with the equivalent of ‘gift to Kleita.’

"This exhibition seems to suggest that so much of our own culture here in the U.S. now is rooted in ancient Greece – democracy, theater, philosophy, Olympic games. It’s a time that we go back to still today for inspiration.”

"The Greeks" runs through April 10 at The Field Museum, 1400 S. Lake Shore Drive.


Related:

Dueling Gold Mask(s) of Agamemnon at Field Museum

An original and a reproduction – one of only two in the world – are on display as part of the Field Museum's "Greeks" exhibit.

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