The extensive archaeological sites of Crete have yielded a plethora of spectacular artifacts dating back to neolithic times. The most important finds from excavations in Crete can be found at the Heraklion (Ηράκλειον, Iraklio) Archaeological Museum. Although a "decentralization" philosophy has landed many artifacts in smaller museum around the island and closer to their place of origin, a visit to Crete would not be complete without a visit to this museum.
The museum at Heraklion houses the second most important collection of antiquities in Greece, and the chronology of artifacts represent life in Crete from 6300 BCE until the first century CE. The collection of Neolithic artifacts is comprised mostly of ceramic vessels found in sacred caves and Tholos tombs, but the bulk of the museum is filled with art from the Minoan era. The rooms of the museum are appropriately arranged for the most part in chronological order, so it is easy to follow the relative evolution of the Minoan culture through its artistic achievements.
The first room contains artifacts from the Neolithic and the Pre-Palatial periods, which span a period from 7000 BCE until 1900 BCE. Many beautiful alabaster and ceramic vessels which were found in places like Phaistos, Levina, Fourni, Mohlos, and Palekastro are exhibited behind glass cases. A large vitrine protects a multitude of typical Cycladic marble statuettes that were unearthed in Crete.
The second room is filled with artifacts from the Proto-Palatial era (1900-1700 BCE). Most of the exhibitions in this room represent the early palace cultures at Knossos, Malia, Zakros, Gournia, and from numerous burial places of the same era. Best known of the artifacts are the bronze knife with the decorative golden handle, and the small pottery pieces which represent multi-storied houses of the era.
The excavations at Phaistos have yielded what is exhibited in the third room of the museum. A great deal of "Kamares" pottery adorns the cases with their bold designs and contrasting color patterns, while the mysterious "Phaistos Disk" is prominently displayed in the center of the room.
Walking through to the next room one is confronted with some of the most famous artifacts that have decorated the pages of every major Art History textbook. Standing in the center of the room, the visitor is flanked by he fierce stare of the, "Snake Goddess" from the one side, and by the beautiful "Bull Rython,s" cool gaze. A little further back, one finds the ivory statuette of an acrobat, which exhibits surprising fluid motion as he leaps in space, and on the other side of the room, a little behind the Bull Rython, rests the alabaster Rython in the shape of a lioness' head.
Artifacts from the later stages of the Knossos palace fill room five. Some impressive, gigantic pithoi line up the wall to the left, and many ceramic artifacts are displayed throughout the room, with the most noteworthy being the clay replica of a Minoan house, and the tablets of Linear A script (which has yet to be deciphered).
Room six is filled with artifacts from the Necropolis of Knossos, Phaistos, and Arhanes. The two helmets (one made of boar's teeth, and one made of bronze) are similar to the ones found in mainland Greece, and I found the gold ring-seals to be most impressive.
Moving to the next room (seven) one has to pause to admire the skill of the Minoan goldsmiths. The "Bee Pendant" is thematically spectacular, and technically immaculate. It was found at Chrisolakos, the burial ground outside the palace of Malia. The Labyrns (the giant double axes) exhibited around the room look menacing, but they were nothing more than ceremonial objects in Minoan Crete, and were not used in warfare. The same case where one finds the Bee pendant, shelters a number of beautiful Minoan gold rings and "double axe" jewelry. The unique steatite "Harvesters" rython in the middle of this room is decorated with a dynamic scene of olive harvesters who march as they sing at the top of their voice. It is a beautiful arrangement of low relief forms of unprecedented expressive power. Another small steatite rython nearby is adorned with a low relief of what looks like children dressed up as soldiers.
The eighth room hosts finds from the palace of Kato Zakros. Several impressive rythons are displayed around the room, but most impressive of all is the one made of oryx, and it is decorated with silver and gold (picture).
Room nine represents the Neo-Palatial era in eastern Crete, and here we find an impressive array of seals carved in semi-precious stones and ivory.
Artifacts from the Post-Palatial and Proto-Geometric periods are exhibited in rooms ten through twelve, and room thirteen exhibits a host of Minoan Sarcophagi.
One of the highlights of the museum is room fourteen on the second floor. Here, the walls are filled with the famed Minoan frescoes from Knossos such as the Dolphins wall painting from the Queen's chambers, and the Bull sports. In the center of the room one finds the famous sarcophagus from Agia Triada, decorated with scenes of worship, and abstract motifs. An impressive wooden replica of the palace of Knossos is also exhibited in this room.
Rooms fifteen and sixteen are home to fragments of some more exquisite frescoes, smaller in scale than the large ones found in the previous room.
Room seventeen was closed during my visit, but the next room housed an impressive exhibition centered around the Ring of Minos - truly impressive gold ring decorated with scenes from Minoan life. The exhibit was an attempt to trace the development of gold-smithing techniques, and most importantly to outline the evolution of the thematic significance of the relief found on the ring's face.
Following the stairs down to the ground floor one can find art from Archaic, Classical, and Hellenistic Greece.
We have visited the museum several times over the past ten years, and the wealth of the exhibited artifacts made every visit worthwhile. It can take anywhere from one to three hours to tour the entire museum, and more scholarly study of the artifacts would command multiple visits. Strolling through the rooms is like a dive into prehistory which provides a unique perspective of how truly extraordinary is the island of Crete .
The museum closed for renovations and only a collection of highlights were available for view in a small room behind the museum. It was scheduled to reopen in 2010, but that date has moved unofficially to "Summer 2014" or sometime after the "end of the 2013 tourist season", in the words of several guards at the museum.
In addition to the collection of highlights that's open for view (3 Euro entry), two more rooms were open in July 2013: a large hall with Archaic/Classical/and Greco-Roman sculptures, as well as the upstairs room with the superb Minoan frescoes (free entry to both). One more room with artifacts from the Geometric period (post-Minoan) was scheduled to open in August of the same year. With the opening of that room, the temporary exhibit of the most important Minoan finds (currently in the back of the museum) will be moved to a space in the main building.