The Archaeological Museum in Heraklion, Crete, one of Europe’s top museums

Archeologisch museum Heraklion, Kreta

The Archaeological Museum in Heraklion is one of the largest and most important museums in Greece and indeed one of the most important in the whole of Europe. It contains artefacts dating from all periods of Cretan prehistory and history, constituting a chronological timeline of more than 5,500 years, from the Neolithicum to the Roman age. The Minoan collection is of extraordinary importance and contains unique examples of Minoan art, including many true masterpieces. The Heraklion Museum is rightly regarded throughout the world as the top museum for the Minoan culture.

The museum, situated in the city centre, was built between 1937 and 1940 by the architect Patroklos Karantinos on the site of the Roman Catholic monastery of Saint Francis, destroyed by an earthquake in 1856. The building is a prime example of modern architecture and won a Bauhaus prize. The colours and building materials, such as the polychromatic veined marble, are reminiscent of Minoan wall paintings in imitation of clothing. The two floors contain 27 galleries, including one for audio-visual displays, as well as extensive modern laboratories, a cafe and a shop where copies of museum objects, books, postcards and slides can be purchased.

The Phaistos disc, one of the top pieces in the collection
The Phaistos disc, one of the top pieces in the collection

The Archaeological Museum in Heraklion is part of the Ministry of Culture and its purpose is to acquire, protect, conserve, study and display Cretan artefacts from prehistory to the late-Roman period. The museum organises temporary exhibitions in Greece and in other countries, co-operates with scientific institutes and organises a variety of cultural events. The museum illustrates the chronological development of the Minoan civilisation; the history of archaeological excavations in Crete; the major 20th century discoveries at Knossos, Phaistos and the palace of Malia; and the prevailing theories about prehistory in the Aegean Sea. On the first floor is displayed the collection of the Cretan doctor Stylianos Giamalakis which the museum purchased in 1962. The new wing of the museum was added in 1964

View of the spacious layout with the many top objects arranged in glass display cabinets.

The last renovation project was completed in 2014, when the display was rearranged according to modern museum practice combining a chronological axis with a wealth of thematic stories. The galleries on the ground floor are structured to reflect two linked themes – the dominance of the sea-faring Minoans in the Aegean Sea and the founding of the first urban centres on Crete in the 2nd millennium BC. The main theme of the display on the second floor is the development of the capital city, ranging from the beginning of the Iron Age to the Roman period. The story is told in a series of glass display cabinets, with coloured text guiding visitors through the themes and explaining why pieces are grouped together (such as settlements, trade, death, religion, administration etc.). The explanations (in Greek and English) bring the displays to life and illustrate the daily life and long-term development of this ancient socio-economic civilisation. Digital video displays, touch screens, 3D models and digital games also help to interpret the objects on display and provide a more emotional context.

Clear time-lines provide a clear path through the displays.

The permanent exhibition in the Archaeological Museum in Heraklion

The collections in the museum comprise works of Cretan art found during excavations in the central and eastern parts of the island, representing a chronological period of around 7,000 years, from the Neolithicum (7000 BC) to the Roman period (3rd century AD). Most objects date from prehistory and the so-called Minoan period, named after the mythological king of the island, Minos. They include pottery, carved stone objects, seals, small carvings, metal objects and wall paintings.

Impressions of the exhibition

The oldest objects date from the Neoliticum
Neolithic carved figure
Oldest jewellery found on Crete, Neoliticum
A lot of golden jewellery has been found on Crete.
Many of the stone figures found on Crete come from other islands, such as these which are typical of the Cyclades.
Stone objects
Water jugs
Pouring jugs
Pot with a skull from a burial
Fine golden brooch, one of the top pieces in the collection
Miniature pottery
Probably a game, found in Knossos
Copper plates. This is how copper was transported. At its destination it would be smelted into useful objects..
Wall painting from Knossos
Top pieces in the collection
Burial chests
Wall painting from Knossos
Wall painting from Knossos

Text                 Harrie Wolters

Translation     Alun Harvey


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