The National Geographic Museum’s latest exhibition, “The Greeks: Agamemnon to Alexander the Great,” is an expansive look at nearly 5,000 years of Greek artifacts, but its title isn’t entirely accurate. Contained within the exhibition are artifacts from the Cycladic and the Minoan civilizations, nearby island cultures that preceded the ancient Greeks. But neither left us with the name of a ruler that could complete the snappy alliteration for the title. Still, the inclusion of several of those artifacts establishes some of the traditions of Ancient Greece—specifically, what they took to their graves.
Pottery wasn’t uncommon. Assorted trays, jars, and pots were found with the bodies of Cycladic people. So were presumed fertility goddesses. Around 5,000 B.C., early Cycladic people were carving female figurines from stone. Unlike earlier bulbous statuettes, such as the Venus of Willendorf, the Cycladic statuettes are angular, with only suggestions of breasts and pelvis: Their noses are more prominent.
The Minoans, who emerged around 2,000 B.C., possess many of the same funerary traditions of the Cycladic, but several things distinguish them. Their jars possessed pattern. They left behind delicate gold jewelry. And then, there was the presence of weapons, and a written but undeciphered language called Linear A. At a glance, what separates the Minoans from the rest of the Greeks seems to be the detail within their work, and the quantity of it that has been unearthed and put on display. And while we understand the importance of the bull in their culture (Minoan and Minotaur share the same root), we don’t glean from the exhibition any dominant historical figure.
Enter Agamemnon of the Mycenaean world.
The first artifact of Agamemnon is a shiny golden funerary mask, nearly flattened over time into a disc, with a face attempting to stretch from its middle. As indicated in the exhibition, Homer described Agamemnon as the first Mycenaean lord to unite the people under a common cause. It was to avenge the Trojan abduction of Helen, his brother’s wife. The mask, discovered in 1876 by businessman-turned-archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann, was believed to be part of Agamemnon’s ancient city. A more detailed mask was believed to be the face of Agamemnon himself. Further research indicates the graves existed three centuries before Homer’s account, uprooting the notion that the masks belong to Agamemnon, if he even existed.
Fuzzy math aside, the artifacts found near the funerary masks are astounding for their opulence and quantity: swords, knives, pots, pins, roundels. There were terra cotta figurines of various sizes—from children’s trinkets to larger idols for worship—and rings with signets on them. There was even a cache of small golden octopi.
While the display of the exhibition gives us little clue as to the specific identity of the people who once inhabited these graves, we get a clear sense of their wealth and some insight into their spiritual habits. The objects also indicate their increasing sophistication with materials and representation: While earlier Minoan crowns had all the sophistication of tin punched with an awl, these later Mycenaean artifacts are remarkably detailed. This is where the cynicism can kick in.
After viewing nearly 200 artifacts, it’s easy to be filled by a sense of awe from the masterful craftsmanship that developed over the course of 3,500 years. Still, the exhibition has yet to reach the threshold of the Iron Age, let alone the midway point. There are still another 300 artifacts to go, and it’s only beyond the Mycenaean galleries of the exhibition that visitors will encounter the bust of Homer, the helmets of ancient Greek warriors, and the stylized black-and-red terra cotta pots that depict Homeric and mythological tales. Further into the exhibition, visitors are greeted by Archaic Greek figures of the Kouros and Kore, the Hellenistic contrapposto found in the idealized form of the Delos Herakles, and other prized works of antiquity, like the Gold Myrtle Crown of Queen Meda (wife of King Phillip) and its hundreds of intricately fashioned leaves, blossoms, and stamens.
The exhibition is encyclopedic and exhaustive, and it demands the time to view it. Unlike some exhibitions that can be whimsically toured over a lunch break, this is an exhibition that requires you to pack a lunch.
At National Geographic Museum to Oct. 10. 1145 17th St. NW. $10-$15. nationalgeographic.com/thegreeks