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The glories of Greece: Exhibition at Canadian Museum of History puts 5,000 years on display

 Don Butler, Ottawa Citizen

astonishing treasures from five shaft graves in a royal cemetery at the ancient citadel of Mycenae, a powerful centre of Greek civilization in the second millennium B.C.
One was a round-faced funeral mask fashioned from gold. After he found it, Schliemann, a German businessman and roguish archaeological pioneer, reputedly declared in a telegram: “I have gazed upon the face of Agamemnon.”
Not long afterwards, Schliemann discovered another, more finely detailed, golden mask, with a pointed beard and handlebar moustache. If you Google “mask of Agamemnon” today, that’s what pops up.
In fact, the artifacts found at Mycenae by Schliemann (and Greek archaeologist Panagiotis Stamatakis, who excavated a sixth shaft grave at Mycenae a year later) date from the 16th century B.C., at least 300 years before Greek mythology says Agamemnon, the Mycenaean king, waged war against Troy to retrieve Helen, wife of his brother, Menelaus.
In other words, neither is likely the mask of Agamemnon, if such a person actually existed outside of myth. Nor is there any evidence that Schliemann ever made his much-quoted “gazed upon the face” comment.
Ultimately, none of that matters much. What’s important — what has the power to amaze — is the sheer opulence and excellence of the artifacts recovered from the graves of Mycenaean kings and their families who lived 3,700 years ago.
Residents and visitors will have an unprecedented opportunity to experience those riches when the Canadian Museum of History’s blockbuster summer exhibition, The Greeks: From Agamemnon to Alexander the Great, opens June 5.
The Mycenaean artifacts, mostly from Grave Circle A at Mycenae, are the clear stars of the show, which presents more than 500 objects from 21 Greek museums. About 300 have never before been seen outside of Greece.
Among them is that first funeral mask discovered by Schliemann. Not only has the mask never before left Greece, since its discovery “it has essentially not left its case” in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, says curator Terry Clark. “So this is a major coup for this object to travel to North America.”
The other mask — the one now popularly known as the mask of Agamemnon — is too valuable to travel. But the history museum will display a replica made by a Swiss artist shortly after it was found by Schliemann. “It’s an artifact unto itself,” Clark says.
The exhibition, described as the most important Greece has ever sent abroad, first opened last December at Montreal’s Pointe-à-Callière Museum.
When its run ends here on Oct. 12, it will shift to Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History and conclude its tour at the National Geographic Museum in Washington in 2016.
The four museums formed a consortium to organize and shape the exhibition, which spans Greek history from about 6,000 years before the birth of Christ to Alexander the Great’s rise to power in the third century B.C.
It’s the first time the history museum in Gatineau (or its predecessor, the Canadian Museum of Civilization) has ever led an international consortium. President and CEO Mark O’Neill calls it “the most complex and complicated partnership we’ve put together.”
The exhibition is more than just a spectacular display of artifacts. It’s tied together by what curator Clark calls a “big idea” — the changing relationship between individuals and their gods — and features an array of high-end audio-visual and interactive elements.
The first object visitors will encounter is the Dimini amulet, a small, green figurine, about 8,000 years old, that looks a bit like a turtle. “What it is, is a person crouched down in complete reverence,” says Clark. In an animation, the figure will slowly rise to a standing position. “It will be a powerful image when people see this is a person.”
The object neatly symbolizes the absolute submission of Neolithic individuals to the gods, who were generally nasty and vindictive when crossed.
The opening section also features objects from Cycladic culture in the third millennium B.C., including three of the marble figurines the culture is famous for.
There’s a Minoan section, as well, with artifacts mostly from museums in Crete. “We’ve got some great pieces,” says Clark, including a gold diadem — a sort of early crown — and other items from a woman’s burial site. “Or it might be a male, we’re not exactly sure,” Clark confesses.
The mysterious Minoan is the first of the exhibition’s 11 “person encounters.” Early in time, “we don’t have a great deal of knowledge about them,” Clark says. “Then by the end, we know their names and have their words and many sources about how they lived their lives.”
Next come the Mycenaeans. “This is the major coup of the exhibition,” Clark says. “We’ve got lots of objects and almost all of these have never travelled before.”
There will be many fascinating artifacts on display this exhibit until October.
After that is a zone drawn from Homer and the stories of The Iliad and The Odyssey. Among other things, it features the best bust of Homer still in Greece and “a fantastic, dramatic” burial grouping found on Crete that Clark thinks visitors will be talking about.
In the Iliad, Homer describes in detail the burial ritual of Patroclus, a friend of Achilles, who was killed by Hector. The burial in Crete “follows this pattern exactly,” Clark says.
“It lets people think, is Homer simply myth, or is there an element of history to it? We’re saying that, line for line, some verses are historical fact.”
Later generations adopted the Homeric burial model, Clark says.”In many ways, they see the Homeric time — the mythical time of Agamemnon and the real time of the Trojan War and the Iron Age — as a time of valiant warriors and heroism and mythical monsters.”
That’s apparent in the exhibition’s fourth zone, called Aristocrats and Warriors of Archaic Greece, featuring “fantastic helmets” and female burials from Pella, the capital of ancient Macedon and birthplace of Alexander the Great. “People will immediately see the link to Agamemnon,” Clark says.
Next up is the democratic period, starting with athletes and the Olympic Games. “We’ve got some great objects that show the importance of sport and competition in linking the feuding city states of Greece,” says Clark. “Even in times of war, there was a truce to compete.”
Then comes the Battle of Thermopylae, where about 7,000 Greek soldiers, including 300 unyielding Spartans, held off an invading Persian force of up to 200,000 for three days.
Some consider Thermopylae a major turning point in world history, arguing there would be no Western civilization without it. Though every Greek soldier died in the battle, their resistance gave hope to their countrymen and ultimately helped them win the Persian War.
Exhibition visitors will see the most famous bust of Leonidas, the Spartan warrior king who died at Thermopylae, and arrow and spear heads from the final day of the battle. The exhibit includes a special dramatic treatment to give people an idea of the magnitude of the battle.
In Athens, the democratic period was a time of science, philosophy and new ways of interacting. Among other things, the exhibition features a carved relief known as Youth Crowning Himself, seen as a metaphor for democracy.
“Previously, most depictions were of the gods giving things to mortals,” says Clark. “Here we have a relief carving that’s very famous of a youth putting a laurel wreath on his own head. This is people taking charge of their own destiny.”
The exhibition concludes with a section called Kings of Ancient Macedon, which includes two superb burial groupings. One comes from the grave of an affluent, intellectual male, the other from an equally wealthy priestess.
It then moves into what Clark calls the exhibition’s secondary highlight: objects from the tomb of Philip II, Alexander the Great’s father, who was assassinated in 336 B.C. by a bodyguard — a former lover — at the wedding celebration of one of his daughters.
The exhibition has several items from Philip’s tomb, which was only unearthed in the late 1970s. One is Philip’s gold-and-sliver diadem, worn like a Pope’s mitre to symbolize his spiritual leadership. “It’s quite possible he was wearing this when he was murdered,” Clark says.
There’s also a spectacular golden wreath, believed to belong to Meda, one of Philip’s seven wives, who was buried in a chamber next to him. Meda was from Thrace, and Thracian burial custom called for wives to climb onto the funeral pyre with their husbands.
The exhibition ends as Alexander the Great succeeds his father as king. It includes the most famous bust of Alexander, made shortly after his death, looking uncannily like Terry Fox, his youthful face framed by curls.
Another small statue, which depicts Alexander as the god Pan, “ties together our whole big idea for the show,” Clark says.
“Early on, people are afraid of the gods. Then they begin to challenge the gods. This generally works out poorly for them until we get to the classical period, where the things they rely on the gods for — guidance and prosperity — they take it upon themselves to get.”
The final item in the exhibition is a gold coin, made about a century after Alexander’s death, depicting him as Zeus Amun, the father of the gods in Greece and in Egypt.
More than five millennia after an ancient amulet depicted someone prostrate in devotion, a human had ascended Mount Olympus and taken his place alongside the immortals
The Greeks: From Agamemnon to Alexander the Great runs from June 5 until Oct. 12 at the Canadian Museum of History, at 100 Rue Laurier in Gatineau.

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