“This exhibition is like an amuse bouche,” joked Susan Neill, the Project Manager for the Chicago Field Museum’s newest exhibition. She’s quite right. “The Greeks: Agamemnon to Alexander the Great” certainly whetted our appetites for a return trip to Greece. Beautifully decorated vases from Delos brought us right back to that extraordinary island a short ferry ride from Mykonos, where it’s possible to wander through the ruins of an entire city, à la Pompeii, but without the crowds.
But “The Greeks,” with 500-some objects spanning 5,000 years of history assembled from 21 different Greek museums, also feels like a full and very satisfying meal. As President and CEO of the Field Museum, Richard Lariviere, explained, “This exhibition is notable for the personal way objects and stories are told... Visitors will be able to step into the shoes of men and women who lived thousands of years ago.”
To illustrate this point, Neill led us to a nearby vitrine containing what proved to be one of our favorite objects in the show: a Mycenaean warrior’s helmet composed of dozens of boar tusks. We overlooked it on our visit to the National Archaeological Museum in Athens — its grey color doesn’t immediately draw the eye — but its story is remarkable.
“The man who wore this helmet had to hunt and kill all the boars from which the tusks for this helmet came,” Neill related. “It’s not as much about the Greek vases — this isn’t an art historical show — it’s about individuals, which makes it particularly moving.” Her favorite object is a small gold ring with an oval top bearing the inscription, “Gift for Kleita.” Found in a tomb, this extremely personal object was buried with its owner, a noblewoman who lived more than two millennia ago.
That’s not to say that the show lacks visually spectacular pieces. We stared in wonder at quatrefoil rhyton (ceremonial cup) carved from a single piece of alabaster, complete with three delicately swirling handles. Metal helmets — never worn except in the grave — were embellished with striking gold faceplates, some of which served as death masks. Five cleverly sculpted gold octopuses each had only seven tentacles, perhaps because they represented a giant Mediterranean species whose eighth tentacle normally remains hidden.
Most spectacular was the gold myrtle crown worn by Queen Meda, wife of Phillip II (Alexander the Great’s father). The delicacy of this ethereal wreath astonished us. Amid the paper-thin myrtle leaves bloomed dozens of flowers, their petals and even stamen wrought with remarkable clarity. Less delicate but no less moving was a gold funerary mask from the 16th century B.C., famously discovered by Heinrich Schliemann, which he thought belonged to Agamemnon.
After seeing such extraordinary pieces, we certainly empathized with Dr. Bill Parkinson, the lead curator of the exhibition, when he exclaimed, “I’m an archaeologist. I’ve worked in Greece, and I’ve never seen anything like this.” But his favorite piece in the collection, one of its oldest, doesn’t immediately appear to be a blockbuster attraction. It’s a little goddess amulet, worn around the neck of someone in northern Greece in the Neolithic era. Like many of the objects in “The Greeks,” it’s a thoroughly personal piece that provides an almost tangible connection to the individual who wore it, despite the 7,000-year gap between us.