PIRAEUS Archaeological Museum
The Archaeological Museum of Piraeus hosts exhibits of the broader city of Piraeus, which flourished as the most important trade center in classical Mediterranean, as well as the naval port of Athens. Piraeus was the ancient port of Athens throughout the Archaic, Classical and Hellenistic periods and in fact consisted of three separate harbours – Kantharos, Zea, and Munichia. Kantahros was and still is the main port of Piraeus; Zea (aka pasalimani) is today a huge marina; and Munichia is a picturesque little port, we call today Mikrolimano (aka tourkolimano). The long walls running from Athens down to the coast used to protect the roads connecting the two cities.
The museum is hiding down a quiet street in a non-descript suburb between the main port and the Zea port in the heart of Piraeus. The old building of the museum, which is currently used as a storage room, was built in 1935. The new two-store building, shaped as a big “Γ” was inaugurated in 1981. The ancient theater of Zea dating back to Hellenistic period (2nd century BC) is next to the museum and part of it. At the open space in front of the theater an open-air exhibition of sculptures has been recently opened. Home to some of the finest ancient bronzes, it is really a shame that this small but important museum is not well known to public; most probably because it is dwarfed by the prestigious National Archaeological Museum in Athens. The lack of visitors is rather depressive, but for others this is attractive because you can wander around and admire the exhibits in peace. Actually, this August (2019) was the first time I visited it.
From central Athens, the museum can be reached easily by both bus and metro. It is 15-minute walk from Piraeus metro station and a 2-minute walk from the nearest bus stop.
Working hours: 08:30-15:00 (November to March), 08:30-16:00 (April to October). Closed on Tuesdays.
Entrance fee: 4 € (reduced fee 2€).
The objects of the collection have been arranged in simple chronological order. Your journey through time starts on the upper floor and then continues on the ground floor.
The upper floor
In the first rooms upstairs have, there is little to be seen, compared to other Greek museums, but there are some highlights on the hallway (room 1-just at the top of the staircase), which illustrate Piraeus’ maritime connections. Three impressive artefacts are a bronze ram in the form of a trident, a marble eye, and a stone pyramid anchor all from a trireme, the famous Greek warship which had three levels of rowers. Another unusual exhibit is the marble table used to check measurements in the sale of liquids, a price inscription (a list for various types of meat) and, finally, the 4th century BC wooden coffin from Aigaleo.
Room 2 is dedicated to pottery (from the Mycenean to Hellenistic years) and other everyday life objects.
Room 6 is dedicated to votive relief plaques and grave stelai, some of them quite moving in their depiction of grieving relatives saying a fond farewell to their loved one.
In room 5 there is a reconstruction of a typical Classical sanctuary, in the center of which lies the nave with the worshipful statue of Cybele, found in Moschato. The statue is framed by a series of votive reliefs.
The star pieces of the museum come in rooms 3 and 4: these are a stunning collection of four bronze statues with an added bonus of a large bronze mask inspired by Greek tragedy (during my visit the mask had been transferred to Seoul for a temporary Exhibition, so I did not see it). These masterpieces were discovered during public works on the Piraeus sewers in 1959. They had probably been stored for temporary safe-keeping in 87 BC during the siege by the Roman general Sulla and were buried in the cellar of a building which was then destroyed by fire. Considering that there are less than 40 surviving full-figure bronze statues from any ancient civilization, to have four in one room is something of a luxury. Bronze statues had the ill fate to be melted, especially during war periods, and their metal to be reused for other purposes or even for the casting of newer statues at a later stage
The earliest bronze statue and the most beautiful of them all is of a youthful naked Apollo (in the form of a kouros, typical male statues of the Archaic period) which stands 1.95 m tall and dates to the 6th century BC (possibly from the years 530–520 BC)- room 3. The Piraeus Apollo is a product of the late archaic period, in which the Greek sculpture attained a full knowledge of human anatomy and used to create an harmonious whole. It is among the very few such bronzes that have survived. The statue seems to differentiate from the previous formality and represents a kind of motion. The symmetry and the analogies of the members are closer to the post-archaic sculpture which gives more emphasis not to the illusive reality but to the analogy and the interaction of each member with the others in the whole.
In the adjacent room (room 4) are the bronze statues of Athena and Artemis, along with the bronze theatre mask (possibly in honor of Dionysus), each given plenty of breathing space with no other distractions and no glass to get between the visitor and 2,000 years of history.
The oversized Athena (known as Piraeus Athena) stands at 2.35 metres. It is identified as a cult statue and her Corinthian helmet with extravagant crest only adds to the overall majesty of this striking sculpture. Athena is wearing a peplos (a dress made of one piece of uncut fabric that drapes around the body, falling in folds) that is open on the right side. The cloth of the peplos appears heavy, as evidenced from the deep cloth lines in the sculpture. Athena is shown to have an aegis diagonally across her peplos in the sculpture. The aegis has a miniature Gorgon's head on it along with a border of snakes. Its small dimensions make it to be more like a marker of Athena's identity than an actual piece of armament. There is a hole in the palm of the right hand and the right thumb indicating that Athena was originally holding an item, but that item's identity it is not certain. Some suggest it might have been an owl or the representation of victory, Nike. It is also thought that Athena may have held in her left hand a spear or a shield. Athena additionally wears a helmet, which also helps to date the statue. This is because Athena wears a Corinthian helmet, which in fourth century B.C became very popular, as opposed to an Attic helmet where she is shown wearing in other sculptures. The helmet in the Piraeus Athena has griffins on each side of the crest, and two owls on the visor.
There are two statues of Artemis in the room, facing each other. They are usually referred to as Piraeus Artemis A and Piraeus Artemis B.
Piraeus Artemis A, at a height of 1.94 meters, is the taller of the two (late Classical, second half of the fourth century BC). A quiver strap runs diagonally over the figure's right shoulder and under her left arm. There is a trace of lead solder on the strap on the statue’s back, which shows where the quiver was attached. Her hand still contains a lump of clay that was used to anchor her bow. There are also two small, bronze remnants of a phiale (offering bowl) that she would have held in her upturned right hand. This stance is in fact one of the stances in which Artemis and Apollo were often portrayed in Greek art. The goddess wears a peplos that folds at the shoulders, hanging doubled over to her hips and held down by round drapery weights. Most of her left foot and sandal is exposed due to her stance, while only her toes are shown on the right foot. However, the sandal straps have disappeared, as they were cast separately from the rest of the shoe. The statue's features are extremely elaborate as well, and separately cast from the rest of the bronze statue. Her lips are made of copper-rose, and part to reveal teeth made of white marble, while her bronze lashes frame eyes made of marble and chestnut irises. However, due to the condition of the irises the statue looks cross-eyed. Her hair is coiffed in the 'melon' style; the wavy hair has been parted into equal sections, twisted and pulled back, and then combed into two large braids and coiled around the top of her head.
Piraeus Artemis B is the smaller of the two Artemises (1.55 meters) and the smallest of the bronze statues found in the Piraeus excavation. It is also the later of the two, as it was made in the Early Hellenistic period (possibly from the 1st part of the 3rd century BC). This statue is the least well-preserved of the statues found in the Piraeus cache; the bronze has crumbled slightly, and other sections have separated completely. The right side of her head is also slightly disfigured due to swelling. The figure is in a similar stance to that of Artemis A, however, unlike the Artemis A, whose gaze is more uniform and slightly to the right, Artemis B turns much more dramatically to the right, her head tilted and focused in the direction of her outstretched right arm. She looks almost fully rotated, creating a real sense of movement to the viewer's eye. Her arms also seem to be positioned farther from her body in comparison to the other statues found in the Piraeus cache. Her left hand is positioned to hold a bow, and, like with Artemis A, evidence of a bronze circle attached to her thumb indicates that she held a phial in her right hand. Here, rather than the two straps that cross around Artemis A's chest, only one strap crosses over the figure's right shoulder and under her left arm, supporting part of the quiver that is still intact. The quiver itself was cast separately from the rest of the statue and had to be reattached to the statue at some point in antiquity, setting the quiver in a slightly different position than it had been originally. The quiver strap itself is also elaborate; it is decorated with a meander and dot pattern with silver inlay. The figure wears a belt around her waist that is tied in a knot in the front. The knot was cast separately from the torso, made from cut and hammered bronze. This goddess also wears a peplos that was made separately from the skirt underneath, as well as a cloak that wraps around her right shoulder and across her back, hanging past her left hip. The Artemis B wears a Hellenistic hairstyle similarly coiled to that of Artemis A, though the coils of hair lie somewhat higher on her head.
The ground floor
Taking the staircase down to the ground floor it’s impossible to miss the huge (3m) lion sitting at the bottom which is a funerary monument made of white marble (room 7). This is a copy of the Piraeus Lion, one of four lion statues on display at the Venetian Arsenal, where it was displayed as a symbol of Venice's patron saint, Saint Mark.
It was originally located in Piraeus. It was looted by Venetian naval commander Francesco Morosini in 1687 as plunder taken in the Great Turkish War against the Ottoman Empire, during which the Venetians captured Athens and Morosini's cannons caused damage to the Parthenon only matched by his subsequent looting.
The lion was sculpted in about 360 BC in Moschato. It was moved later in Piraeus and became a famous landmark of the city. Having stood there since the 1st or 2nd century AD, its prominence was such that the port eventually became referred to in Italian as Porto Leone ("Lion Port") as the port's original name ceased to be used. It is depicted in a sitting pose, with a hollow throat and the mark of a pipe (now lost) running down its back.
It is depicted in a sitting pose, with a hollow throat and the mark of a pipe (now lost) running down its back; this suggests that it was originally used as a fountain. This is consistent with the description of the statue from the 1670s, which said that water flowed from the lion's mouth into a cistern at its feet.
The first rooms on this level continue the evolution of grave stelai which began upstairs in the 5th century BC. With deeper and deeper carving and more and more extravagant sculptures the stelai reach into the late 4th century BC.
The most impressive sight here is the “Funerary Monument of Kallithea” of the Istrian metic Nikiratos and his son Polyxenos (330-320 BC), standing in room 8. The monument is a highlight of the funerary luxury of the period and the wealth of metics, Greeks and foreigners who lived in Attica.
Hellenistic plastic (room 9) is represented by a few but exceptional works of art, characterized by grace and subtlety. During this period Piraeus experienced a decline, under the influence of Macedonian rule, cut off from Athens, which is evidenced by the small number of sculptures.
The last room (room 10) of the museum presents the art of the Roman period, during which Piraeus was a craft center, producing copies of classic sculptures. The Roman collection includes some handsome marble copies of earlier Greek sculpture and the ubiquitous busts of Roman emperors, notably an expressionless Hadrian and a stocky-looking Balbinus. Perhaps most striking are the Neo-Attic decorative slabs depicting Amazons. One slab in particular, has a male tugging back the hair of a female warrior in full escape mode. Another impressive slab has Hercules struggling with Apollo for possession of the Delphic tripod.
In the middle of room 10 there is a small kiosk and a projection room, narrating the life in Piraeus in early 1900s. Highlights of famous movies shot in Piraeus are screened here.
The theater and the open-air exhibition
From a glass door, located opposite the staircase, the visitor can get outside at the museum garden that contains the Hellenistic theatre of Zea and the usual bits and pieces of ancient architecture that always seem to dot any Greek museum’s outdoor space. These weather-worn chunks of columns and statue bases seem only to be awaiting the arrival of a skip to finally put them out of their misery. For some of them, this long waiting has been put to an end, as recently, a shelter built at the eastern end of the plot now accommodates them. This shelter forms an open-air exhibition.
The theater, which was built between 200 BC and 100 BC, was modeled after the Theater of Dionysus in Athens. Design and proportions matched those of the theater in Athens.