The Greeks: 5,000 years of history in 500 objects

A reproduction of the so-called "Mask of Agamemnon". The original was discovered at Mycenae in 1876 by Heinrich Schliemann.

By Josef Siebert

As the glass doors to the special exhibit area close behind us like a tomb, an ethereal hum gradually fills our ears, prompting a feeling of rising exultation. Gone are the bright light and clatter of hundreds of people milling around the towering columns, white marble walls and vaulted ceiling of the main hall at the Field Museum.

You face a small stone amulet with an unrecognizable symbol. On the dimly-lit wall next to it is a series of images, showing the symbol unfurl itself, hunched and stone-like, into an upright human figure walking away. An august baritone seeps into the aural miasma, like tzatziki sauce spreading between layers of lamb and pita on a gyro: “Ancient Greece, it’s legacy is all around us…”

“The Greeks—Agamemnon to Alexander the Great,” which opened Nov. 25 and closes April 10, is an atmospheric tour de force. It offers a whirlwind tour of over 5,000 years of Greek history featuring more than 500 objects on loan from Greek museums, many making their first appearance in the U.S. The exhibition is billed as the largest Ancient Greek exhibit in North America in the past 25 years.

The show is arranged chronologically, with each room representing a different time period. Giant, colorful canvases near each room’s entrances name the period, and give a general synopsis of each era. Colorful maps scattered on the walls feature timelines and illustrations, focusing on innovations, achievements and landmark events.

The course of history is easy to follow, and the diversions along the way are as rewarding as they are plentiful. An examination of signet rings and ancient seals leads you down a path of language comprehension, deciphering and translating Linear B, the earliest form of written Greek.

Examining the fractured torso statue of a Hoplite, an ancient Greek soldier, is another fascinating diversion. The incomplete figure is dynamic despite its fragmentation; the spirit of the warrior is conveyed completely in the armless, pitted marble torso and fiercely smiling visage. The warrior has a beard with no mustache, identifying him as a Spartan. Named Leonidas, after the legendary Spartan king, the bust shares its space with a series of arrowheads, collected from the site of the battle of Thermopylae. The different designs of arrowheads illustrate the variety of Greek forces aligned against the invading Persians in the 480 B.C.E. battle. The movie “300,” based on this battle, emphasizes the sacrifice of the Spartans and Leonidas, but these arrowheads betray the fact that the Spartan forces did not stand alone.

Other must-see items include a golden mask originally thought to be that of the possibly mythical, ancient king Agamemnon; a display of personal items from the grave of Alexander the Great’s father, Philip II, and a collection of marble statues bearing small traces of paint. The marbles are accompanied by a video which explaining that the monochrome, stately statues we associate with Greece, were actually originally painted garishly with bright mineral pigments and beeswax.

A statue of a young woman from Athens in 520-510 BCE. As it is now, and how it might have looked with paint.
A statue of a young woman from Athens in 520-510 BCE. As it is now, and how it might have looked originally with paint. (Josef Siebert/MEDILL)

Each room is not only more recent in time than the last, but also more detailed. Toward the end of the exhibit, you are treated to elaborate pictures of the lives of people who lived thousands of years ago. This journey toward intimacy peaks with the exhibit of Philip II of Macedon. The details of his life, the contents of his tomb, and the story of his success are all on display.

Unfortunately, that’s where the narrative quits, ending with the ascendancy of Alexander the Great in 336 BCE. A few pieces of marble, some coins, and some short paragraphs are all there is to pitch his story forward. You are propelled back out of the glass doors, into the cacophony of the modern world, where there exists democracy, science, philosophy and art: fruits of the tree that has flowered during the intervening millennia from that moment in time to now.

More information on “The Greeks” can be found at the Field Museum website.

Photo at top: A reproduction of the so-called “Mask of Agamemnon”. The original was discovered at Mycenae in 1876 by Heinrich Schliemann. (Josef Siebert/MEDILL)