A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
For decades the great national numismatic collection of Greece has existed in obscurity. Relegated to rear rooms of the Athens National Museum and represented by a tired, old-fashioned exhibition that did not begin to do justice to its extraordinary wealth, the collection was barely known except to the handful of scholars who depended on it for research.
No longer. In December 1999, the mansion of the famous archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann, the Iliou Melathron, opened as the new home of the Numismatic Museum. Long closed to the public, the mansion, one of the major architectural landmarks of late nineteenth-century Athens, has been thoroughly restored and refurbished to provide a most elegant setting for one the finest and most informative exhibitions of ancient coins to been seen anywhere.
Unlike conventional coin exhibitions that monotonously display row after row of dutifully labeled coins with little documentation to make them come alive, the displays of new Numismatic Museum in Athens are thematically organized and in the best modern museum didactic tradition make sure the visitor is fully informed about the material presented. It is a self-guiding museum, and anyone wanting a short course on ancient Greek coinage could not do much better than to absorb the many lessons it has to teach.
The new exhibition begins, appropriately, with the Schliemann Hall, a chamber of historical panels devoted to the Schliemann family, the designing and construction of the Iliou Melathron mansion in the 1870s, and the character of the city of Athens and of Athenian high society at the time. Cases in the center of the room display the fairly significant collection of ancient coins, most of them from Greek cities of northwestern Asia Minor, that Schliemann privately assembled for his own edification.
The second gallery is devoted to the nuts and bolts of numismatic study and is by far the most intriguing and archaeologically instructive room in the museum. The displays illustrate such subjects as the manufacture and physical development of coins, techniques used in ancient forging, and the burial and recovery of ancient coins in hoards. One particularly notable item is an unique bronze die for the striking of Athenian tetradrachms with the characteristic owl of Athena; but found in Egypt, it must have been used for the production of imitation Athenian coins for local, Egyptian consumption. Yet it is the hoards that are the real glory of this gallery. Nine hoards are on exhibit, most of them with the ceramic container in which the coins had been buried. From a humble hoard of 12 Athenian silver pieces that someone had carefully saved in a small, black-glaze lamp to the larger hoards of up to 150 silver staters that filled medium-sized jugs, these hoards give a vivid sense of the actual use of coins as money and personal savings as nothing else can. Although some of the hoards come from controlled excavations, most were chance finds confiscated by the Greek government. Because of the Athens Numismatic Museum's responsibility for housing and curating such finds from all over the country, the museum's huge inventory of Greek coin hoards is unparalleled. The nine fascinating hoards on display in the second gallery represent only a fraction of the dozens upon dozens of coin hoards from all periods that the museum stores for scholarly study.
Another gallery presents Greek coins in the context of regional monetary history: the coinage of Athens, coinages of Magna Graecia, coinages of Greek leagues and alliances, coinage of Macedonia and Alexander, and the like. Of special archaeological interest here is the case displaying the bronze coins found in the French excavations of the Corycian cave above Delphi; the coins, brought to the sacred cave by pilgrims, come from a wide range of cities in central and southern Greece. Coin iconography is highlighted in the next chamber in cases that illustrate the importance of coins for the study of ancient portraiture, sculpture, buildings, and mythological themes. The museum's most artistic coins are exhibited in the last gallery, which is given over to the spectacular private collections of coins that wealthy Greek connoisseurs of the past century and a half amassed and donated to the museum. Since these were among the finest ancient and Byzantine coin collections of their time, each coin is a prime example of exquisite Greek or Byzantine art in miniature. The sequence of select gold coins of all the Ptolemaic kings and queens of Egypt is simply dazzling. Perhaps nowhere else can one experience so many superb ancient gold and silver coins in a single space.
Far from being just another museum with vitrines of coins, the newly-opened Athens Numismatic Museum shows how exciting and informative ancient money can be when carefully presented in its many historical, archaeological and artistic aspects. The museum's success owes much to its elegant setting in the Schliemann mansion. Designed by the neo-classical German architect Ernst Ziller in the architectural style of Italian Renaissance, the Schliemann mansion is richly decorated inside with floor mosaics and wall paintings of Pompeian themes and Schliemann's finds at Troy. Mando Oikonomidou, the former director of the Numismatic Museum, is primarily responsible for arranging the move of the museum from its old quarters to the refurbished Schliemann house, and the move and installation was supervised by her successor, Ioannis Tourasoglou, who has many plans for expanding the museum's exhibition, educational, and other activities of the Museum in its spectacular new home.
John H. Kroll, department of classics, the University of Texas at Austin