The Archaeological Museum Heraklion is one of the largest and most important museums in Greece, and among the most important museums in Europe. It houses representative artefacts from all the periods of Cretan prehistory and history, covering a chronological span of over 5,500 years from the Neolithic period to Roman times.
The singularly important Minoan collection contains unique examples of Minoan art, many of them true masterpieces. The Archaeological Museum Heraklion is rightly considered as the museum of Minoan culture par excellence worldwide.
The museum, located in the town center, was built between 1937 and 1940 by architect Patroklos Karantinos on a site previously occupied by the Roman Catholic monastery of Saint-Francis which was destroyed by earthquake in 1856. The museum’s antiseismic building is an important example of modernist architecture and was awarded a Bauhaus commendation. Karantinos applied the principles of modern architecture to the specific needs of a museum by providing good lighting from the skylights above and along the top of the walls, and facilitating the easy flow of large groups of people. He also anticipated future extensions to the museum.
The permanent exhibition in the Archaeological Museum Heraklion occupies a total of twenty four rooms
After the completion of the new exhibition project in April 2014, the exhibition occupies a total of twenty four rooms. Several important themes, such as Minoan wall-paintings are presented separately from the overall chronological sequence. The objects give a complete image of Cretan civilization, as it developed in different regions and important centers. Social, ideological and economic aspects form the core of the display, with a strong focus on religious and ceremonial practices, mortuary habits, bureaucratic administration and daily life. Explanatory texts, photographs, drawings and models of monuments supplement the exhibition.All galleries of the Archaeological Museum Heraklion, including those of the Minoan civilization, are open to the public since the 6th of May 2014. They include state-of-the-art installations, as well as finds from the latest archaeological excavations which are exhibited for the first time.
Among the most spectacular masterpieces exposed to the public in the Archaeological Museum Heraklion are:
This most famous example of Minoan pictographic script, unique in its kind, was discovered inside a small room of the Phaistos palace. It dates to the early Neopalatial period and is preserved intact. Both sides of the disc have signs impressed in a single spiraling line beginning at the edge and ending in the centre. The inscription uses forty-five different signs, which are repeated and grouped together to form words separated by vertical incisions. The signs were impressed on the unbaked clay using seals and for this reason the disc is considered as the earliest known example of typography. Until now several different interpretations of the text have been suggested, none of which is entirely convincing. Modern scholars believe it to be a religious text or hymn. It is noteworthy that several signs of this inscription appear on an axe from Arkalochori.
This most important fresco from Knossos was found in fragments and thoroughly restored. The lively and colourful composition is dominated by the figure of a young man rendered in low relief. He walks towards the left against a red background and wears a loin-cloth with wide belt, a necklace and an elaborate head-dress decorated with lilies and peacock feathers. His stance appears to indicate that he was pulling an animal or imaginary creature (sphinx or griffin) with his left hand. The figure was named « prince », because it was thought to represent the Priest-King who lived in the Knossos palace. Despite its poor state of preservation – only parts of the torso, arms, legs and elaborate head-dress are preserved – the artist’s effort to render the muscles and details of the garment is evident.
This magnificent rhyton is a characteristic example of Minoan stone carving of the early Neopalatial period. It is a libation vase, which was filled with the appropriate liquid through a hole in the neck and emptied through another hole on the muzzle.
This rhyton imitates a bull, the most important animal in Minoan religion. Its horns, which were not found, were probably of gilded wood, the inlaid eyes are of rock crystal with painted irises, the eyelashes of jasper and the muzzle of tridacna shell. The locks of the animal’s mane are shown in relief and the hair represented with incisions. The lapidary rendered the strength and beauty of the animal, its anatomy and expressiveness, in a most naturalistic manner, as seen by the attention to anatomic detail. The rhyton is only partly preserved, its left side being the original.
The two famous figurines of the Minoan earth goddess with the snakes, possibly representing a mother goddess and a daughter, are exquisite examples of Minoan miniature sculpture.
The smallest of the two shows the goddess standing, holding snakes in both of her raised hands. She wears the elaborate Minoan garment – a tight vest with sleeves, which bares her ample bosom, and a long skirt with seven horizontal tiers and a short apron – and an equally elaborate head-dress on which a panther sits. The rather flat, lifeless body is enlivened only by the opulent garments and head-dress. By contrast, the triangular face is dominated by the huge expressive eyes, which convey all the tension of the figure. This figurine was found together with the another similar but larger figurine, and other precious objects.
This famous pendant, one of the finest and best-known examples of Minoan art, was found in the archaeological site of Malia and represents two bees or wasps storing away a drop of honey in a comb. The composition is centered round the circular drop, which is shown schematically as a disc with granulated decoration.
The two insects face one another, their legs touching the drop, their bodies and wings finely detailed with minute granulation. Gold discs hang from their wings, while an openwork sphere and suspension ring stand atop their heads. This masterpiece of Minoan jewelry, brilliantly conceived and naturalistically rendered, illustrates the fine craftsmanship of the Protopalatial period.
The Archaeological Museum Heraklion was closed for a long time because of its renovation. In 2013, the 12 rooms of the first floor were opened once again to the public. Here the Hall of Frescoes clearly dominates, with its original frescoes from the Minoan palace of Knossos. Thanks to the splendid exhibition pieces, the colors of the walls of Knossos Palace are now brought closer to the visitor.
- Read about the archaeological site of Knossos in The Minoan Palace of Knossos – Crete’s most famous building