Delos is a monument island, one of world history’s top archaeological sites, the birthplace of Apollo and Artemis and one of the major sanctuaries of the Greek world, but also a ‘riddle’ of an island since the site does not reflect its importance and visitors cannot approach it comprehensively and understand it.

For years now there has been a need for restoration work which would add value to the island and help increase visitorship; however, according to Mr Athanasoulis, head of the Cyclades Ephorate of Antiquities, the projects should be funded by sponsors.

The Foundation has heeded the appeal by offering a €550.000 grant for the partial restoration of the Stoa of Philip whose fragments are strewn on the ground; this project will save them from wear and erosion by the salty sea air.

 

“In 1960, Nick and Dolly Goulandris, shocked by the rampant theft of antiquities in the Cyclades, starts a crusade to save the looted proto-Cycladic and other antiquities by repatriating them from provate collections and museums abroad. By 1986 they had the world’s largest collection of proto-Cycladic and Cycladic items. The Museum of Cycladic Art had been born. Today, after 30 years of operation, the Museum celebrates in the most natural way, by hosting Cycladic exhibits from various parts of the country, from the Archaeological Museum of Athens, from many other museums on the Cyclades and from the Paul and Alexandra Canellopoulos Museums. What better way to celebrate?

The guided tour began, and in a single breath we were travelling in one of the earliest and most fascinating civilisations spawned by the Aegean light. We dived into the black veil of the stage set which symbolises the unanswered mysteries of the proto-Cycladic and Cycladic culture and surfaced back to the light of the exhibits which speak their own language and silently proffer their own explanations. Our guide and interpreter of a civilisation loved for its minimal approach, Mr Papamichelakis, an enthusiastic, spirited and witty archaeologist of the Museum of Cycladic Art, introduced us to the three phases of Cycladic civilisation and charmed us with his humour, his questions, his assertions and revelations. One of the latter was the ‘naked truth’ that the civilisation we so admire for its austere, primitive look was in fact multicoloured, which would probably seem rather kitsch to our eyes of today.

The absence of writing allows our imagination to scan the excavation finds to divine—rightly or wrongly, no one can tell with certainty—the ‘what’ and ‘why’ and ultimately arrive at collating all scientific views and perhaps at following the middle way. The three figurines with their hands in different positions point to different artists, different workshops or both? The fact that most of the figurines are female is because the Cycladic women exalt the rebirth of nature and hence fertility—or are they worshiping ‘images’ of their god who is female—or is it both? The finds, which come mainly from tombs, were items that dead used in their life or were they made specifically to accompany them to their next life? Sadly, once an object is illegally and violently removed from its place it is also removed from its context and from a possible explanation as to what it was and what it was used for. And this can never be recovered…

The 35 small or larger islands of the Aegean, whose settlements created what we admire today and try to explain, present us with thousands of finds which are eloquently ‘saying’ what we already know: We remain the same across the centuries. We carry the same anxieties, the same need for expression and the same questions. Is it because we bear the same DNA, or is it that memories are imprinted on it ad end up reproducing roughly the same model of existence?

The hub of society is man and woman, woman and man. The woman bears children, and after giving birth her belly retains stretch marks to show that the body has yet to return to its prior state. Chance events such as resting a clay object on leaves to dry ‘reveal’ to us the poplar trees and vines that grew or were cultivated in the region, while the remains of olive oil in a small vessel confirm that they knew how to press oil out of their olives and use it for themselves or their gods. They drank wine. They played music and danced. Just like the fairs that are still going strong on the islands, they gathered to play the flute and the harp, to stand next to one another holding hands and probably… dance. The women sat on stools with their hands together and their head slightly raised, not out of coquetry but in order to sing. Noble women rested on seats with backs which rose above the seated woman to display its fine workmanship. Every new material that came to their hands was turned into a tool, with a preference for weapons—knives, daggers, edges, spears, arrows—for defence or aggression. Gold and silver was wanted for jewellery and decoration; men bear arms, women bear jewels. Marble, which was plenty on some islands, was used elaborately, the various hues exploited in an admirable way. Colour was everywhere: red, orange, blue, black, green. They used it to paint all sorts of objects, to make the eyes, eyebrows, hair and mouth of their figurines. The used it with a needle to make tattoos. Everything—jewellery, materials, seats, weapons, figurines—attests to one’s social class and position in the hierarchy. They travel in vessels sometimes made from a single tree trunk, dug out in the middle like a canoe, and use the oars like gondoliers. Thus they travel as far as Asia Minor and Crete, clearly showing their need for communication and exploration. Spirals drawn everywhere—on frying-pan vessels, rocks and plaques—symbolise the eternal cycle of life, while others are linked to calendars and natural phenomena, just as we as Orthodox Christians set Easter on the basis of the moon. The bird, the dove, stands for divinity, just as we have the dove symbolising the Holy Ghost, and in funerals they break cup-shaped vessels just as we break plates with boiled wheat. All these and others that took place between 3200 and 2000 BC have changed little 5000 years on…         Till April 9, 2017.

The exhibition MONEY, tangible symbols in Ancient Greece at the Museum of Cycladic Art presents a subject that is topical at all times —perhaps even more so in our days— in such a way that the value of money, at least for a while, comes down to what we learn from it; to what people over the centuries chose to imprint on the cold metal of coins.

In the exhibition MONEY we learned that for thousands of years people exchanged goods for goods. In Homer’s times, “bartering” used oxen: the weapons of Diomedes cost nine oxen. Yet this kind of money could be neither stored nor divided. So in the Bronze Age people invent talents, 25-kg lumps of oxen-shaped metal, rather difficult to carry, and cut rods of iron (oboloi = spits), with six oboloi, all a human fist could hold, making one drachma (from dratto [grasp] – drachma = fistful). Yet with talents one could never be sure of their actual weight or the quality of the metal; this is how coins came about.

The money that does not bring happiness

We learned that around 650 BCE the kingdom of Lydia was the first state to mint coins of electron, an alloy of gold and silver. Croesus becomes the richest man in the world, mints coins of just gold or silver (bimetallism), and when he asked the sage Solon to confirm his “happiness” we were reminded that “the happiness of a man’s life cannot be judged until after his death”. Croesus remembered it, too, as Cyrus ordered that he be burnt alive, and cried “Solon, Solon!” — which, according to the legend, may have saved his life as Cyrus spared him, perhaps fearing that he might have a similar end and also invoke Solon’s name. We admired the amphora with the relevant image of Croesus on the pyre, which came out of the Louvre for the first time for the requirements of this major exhibition.

The Greek cities follow after a lag of twenty years

The Greek cities of Miletus and Ephesus near Lydia start their own coinage 20 years later. There follow Aegina in 570 BCE with staters carrying its famous tortoises, Athens with the goddess Athena and her owl, and Corinth with the winged Pegasus. The first king to mint gold coins in Greece is Philip II, while the tetradrachms of Alexander become the first “dollars”, being minted in their thousands in all cities where his power spreads.

Money and Trade

The ancient cities mint coins adorned with their local products: figs for Rhodes which even the Athenians cannot match, little fish for Cyzicus, a fishing hub in Asia Minor near Phrygia, and vines for Chios, which seals its amphorae of wine with the domain, the grower’s name and the year, as we do today, and mints its coins to resemble those amphora seals.

Money and Art

Coins give us a clear picture of famous ancient sculptures which do not survive. The chryselephantine statues of Hera in Argos and Athena in the Parthenon, the statue of Praxiteles’ Aphrodite of Cnidus, the roof panels from one of the six famous temples of Apollo in Delphi on one of the ten surviving Delphic three-drachma coins. A tetradrachm shows us that Philip II becomes the first mortal to be featured on a coin before he dies, while on some 2nd c. AD coins Athens, which no longer shines, relies on its old glories (the battle of Salamis) to adorn its coins.

Concepts and propaganda in the past and present

Some coins depict abstract notions such as wealth and fortune or propaganda messages, like the coins minted by all the descendants of Alexander with his head, anxious to show that each of them was the great king’s true successor. Alexander himself minted coins with the head of Hercules, although it happened to be the same as his own — a practice also adopted by king Pyrrhus of Epirus, on whose coins the head of Achilles was much like his own. In a Delian inn destroyed together with the entire island by Mithridates we find an intact hoard of 120 coins from all over the Eastern Mediterranean in the possession of a prostitute who seemed to accept all currencies. Still, every ancient town had a foreign exchange centre where you could check the authenticity of your coinage and measure the volume of what you bought.

500 BCE: the first Banks, sacred or otherwise

People have always been the same at all times: they would hide—bury, actually—their money or entrust it for safekeeping to the sanctuaries which would lend it with interest to the benefit of the god or goddess… Later the super-rich do the same, establishing private banks to keep and lend money. In Hellenistic times it is the state’s turn to found banks, while an inscription on show at the museum shows how lending, interest, loan haircuts and ‘red’ loans have been around for centuries, blurring the distinction between current affairs and ancient history.

Before you go, “mint” your own coin

Choose the coin of your favourite city, the metal you prefer and take your picture which will feature on your own coin. Send it to your email, and you have just issued a new coin.

Museum of Cycladic Art, till April 15, 2018; https://www.cycladic.gr/page/chrima?slide=1#