Cycladic Art Museum unfurls a ‘vast, taut canvas sail’

Some time in the seventh century BC, a Red Sea diver brought up a catch of fluted giant clams, a prized form of shellfish often used in the ancient world for cosmetics boxes. A Middle Eastern workshop fashioned one of the shells into a female face, apparently sprouting an elegant moustache and surrounded by the drapes of an elaborate headdress. The piece somehow ended up as an offering at the Temple of Hera on Samos. The humble clam’s peregrinations are typical, if not the most remarkable example, of the labyrinthine world of ancient Mediterranean commercial and cultural exchanges. As early as the seventh millennium BC, people from mainland Greece were making the dangerous sea voyage to Milos in the Cyclades to collect obsidian, a volcanic glass-like stone with razor-sharp edges that was widely used for tools by pre-metal cultures. The Mycenaeans imported amber from the Baltic, amethyst from Afghanistan, ostrich eggs from Africa and, presumably, gold from Egypt, establishing outposts in southern Italy and leaving samples of their distinctive pottery in most of the eastern Mediterranean, as well as in Italy and Malta. As the Greek world exploded eastward and, most notably, westward after the collapse of Mycenaean civilization, traders, settlers and mercenaries further expanded ties with other peoples living on the rim of the basin. A new exhibition that opened yesterday at the Cycladic Art Museum in central Athens traces a millennium of cross-cultural relationships in the Mediterranean from the beginning of the Mycenaean era to the sixth century BC, when the idea of a monetary system first came into play. «It would be a mistake to think of the Mediterranean in its current dimensions, when you can traverse the area in a plane boarded at dawn in Beirut, be over Athens by breakfast time and meet your friends in the center of Madrid for lunch,» Museum Director Nikolaos Stampolidis said during a presentation of the exhibition yesterday. «We should regard it more as a vast, taut canvas sail at a time when the Mediterranean was on its own a whole world, a universe and an entire planet. «For dozens of centuries, millions of people have traveled on the sea’s currents and waves… Some were burdened with their gods, others depended on their bodily strength or the strength of arms, others yet were drawn by the dream of a better life or the prospect of profit, but all carried with them their hopes. Their routes crossed on the Mediterranean’s coasts and islands, bringing, along with their material goods, habits, beliefs and ideas which created an amalgam of cultural interaction that is of unique significance.» «Sea Routes – From Sidon to Huelva,» the Kolonaki museum’s first major exhibition since the highly successful show of finds from the Athens Metro excavations which opened in 2000, is the result of a massive effort coordinated by Stampolidis, who managed to cull over 1,200 artifacts from 91 museums in nine countries. «All the museums we approached lent us artifacts,» Stampolidis said. «We chose to avoid institutions such as the Louvre and the British Museum, both because the pieces in their collections are very well known and because their exact provenance is not always certain.» The antiquities on display include stars such as the Cup of Nestor from Italy – inscribed with the earliest-known example of written Greek poetry – the El Carambolo golden hoard from Spain, the Lion-Tamer from Delphi (which recent research has tentatively linked with a throne dedicated by King Midas), a pride of griffins from Samos as well as less stunning works, such as the mustachioed lady on the shell. Some were merchants’ wares that traveled to distant coasts, such as a Mycenaean stirrup jar found in Porto Perone in Italy, an Egyptian alabaster amphora from Andalusia, an Attic kylix from Cadiz, an Phoenician lamp from Malaga or the countless aryballoi from the Greek colonies that were instrumental in dating pre-classical pottery. Others are what would now be denounced as pirated products, locally made copies of popular foreign goods. There are exhibits that attest to the flow of beliefs, customs and habits, examples of writing systems from cuneiform script to the Etruscan alphabet, and, quietly sitting in a ground-floor room, a stone ship’s anchor made on the Syrian coast in the late Bronze Age and found in a Minoan building on Crete. The exhaustive, 623-page exhibition catalog is published in Greek and English. «Sea Routes – From Sidon to Huelva» will run at the N.P. Goulandris Foundation – Museum of Cycladic Art until October 28. At the Stathatos Mansion (corner of Vassilisis Sofias Ave and Irodotou St). Tel. 210.722.8321-3. Internet address: The museum is open weekdays 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. and 10 a.m. – 3 p.m. Saturdays. It is closed Tuesdays and Sundays.