The Archaeological Museums

The island’s archaeological collections are housed in two separate buildings: the Old Archaeological Museum, in a 1920s mansion on the corner of 8th November and Argyri Eftaliotis Streets (across from the Customs House at the northeastern extremity of the port); and the New Archaeological Museum, 150m further north up 8th November Street, on the eastern side. Both are open daily 8.30–3, except Mon. One admission for both collections.

The *New Archaeological Museum was custom-built in the 1970s to house a collection of fine mosaics from the period of the Roman administration of the city in the 2nd and 3rd centuries ad: it stands in a plot which was once the site of a Hellenistic temple of Aphrodite. The quality and condition of the mosaics give a vivid impression of the sophistication and leisured opulence of Mytilene in Late Antiquity.

Room 1 displays superb *floor-mosaics from a villa referred to as the ‘House of Menander’—after the fine imaginary portrait of Menander, the 4th century bc Athenian writer of comedy, in one of the panels. All the themes of the decorative ensemble are related to theatre, poetry and song, suggesting that the building may possibly have functioned as a meeting-place for actors; the outer border has anenious running design of theatrical masks.
   The figurative panels are complemented by areas of clear, abstract designs, created in principally eight colours—including an unusual turquoise blue, used by the artist for ‘lifting’ neutral tones. The central image is of Orpheus surrounded by a ‘zodiac’ of beautifully rendered animals.
   Room 2 exhibits a floor mosaic from the dining-room of a wealthy residence of the 2nd century ad, complete with its ivy-leaf border fram the central scene of the Arrival of Telephus in Mysia (a kingdom on the main land of Asia Minor, opposite Lesbos); apart from its local connections, the scene was a popular motif in the art of Attalid Pergamum. The design has many attractive details, including an image of two long tailed exotic birds (apparently parakeets) drinking from a vase. There are accompanying wall-murals with repeating patterns. If these seem to lack sophistication in places, it should be recalled that all this work is the ancient equivalent of wall-paper and carpeting in a modern house—the work of accomplished artesans, rather than ‘artists’ by vocation.
    Rooms 3, 4 & 5 follow on successively lower levels and are dedicated to the island’s marble sculpture and relief-work. The small collection includes grave reliefs, portraits, and statuary of Hellenistic and Roman times. A number of the pieces are copies of great originals, illustrating the lasting hold that a small number of well-known images had both on the imagination and the art-market of late Antiquity.
   Room 6 displays the most (technically) sophisticated of the series of 3rd century ad floor mosaics: its centre piece is a personification of the Euripos as a beardless youth whose hair is curiously decorated with lobster legs and claws. The modelling of the face is achieved by the simplest effects, in seven or eight colours of tesserae. The mosaic functioned as the floor of an impluvium in the atrium of a house; the small perforated drain-cover allowed the water to drain into a cistern below.
   The Exhibition Room of the museum houses a rotating display of the moulded terracotta vessels, which were a unique and characteristic production of the city’s workshops in the 1st centuries bc and ad. There is a wide variety of fruit and leaf de signs attractively executed in relief and glazed on the outer surfaces of domestic pots and cups, in such a way as to imitate the more expensive vessels in beaten gold and silver used at aristocratic symposia.

Across the road from the entrance to the New Archaeological Museum is the city’s Old Natural History Muse um (open daily 10–2 except Mon). The main collection has now been moved to a new site at Si­gri in the northwest of the island (see below p. 115-116), for which this building is merely an ‘appetizer’: it now houses a permanent exhibition relating to all aspects of the history and cultivation of olives and the production of olive oil, including a 60,000 year old volcanic fossil from Santorini bearing the clear impression of olive leaves.
   8th November Street is lined with interesting 19th and early 20th century villas; at its southernmost extremity, is the Old Archaeological Museum, housed in the Vournazos mansion which stands in its own small garden. Another particularly fine villa, decorated with terracotta embellishments, stands next door on its east side.

The collection is laid out on two floors of the house. The ground floor has the earliest material: Late Neolithic artefacts from the Aghios Bartholomeos cave on the east side of the Gulf of Gera, including a minute, headless stone figurine. A visual account is exhibited of the excavations at Thermi­ (see p. 55-58), to the north of the city, where five phases of settlement have been identified, running from the 3rd millennium bc through to a destruction by fire in the 12th century bc. The site has given an unusually clear picture of its remarkable urban planning, and of the style and shape of the dwellings built in these periods.
   The upper floor exhibits articles, mostly in terracotta from historic times. In a show case on the landing, are finds from the necropolis of Ancient Pyrrha—a magnificent array of beautifully modelled terracotta figurines of all kinds, including the famous 5th century bc figurines of dancers and female acrobats (no. 26). Many of the objects—such as no. 64, decorated with small, applique flowers—would once have been brightly coloured.
Room VI contains examples of the characteristic incised grey pottery of Lesbos.
   A number of carved altars, capitals, sarcophagi and sections of Roman decorative frieze have been collected together in the garden area; amongst the funerary pieces are some sizeable sculptures of lions from funerary monuments of the Hellenistic and Roman periods. A small annexe at the back of the garden contains the collection’s most important stone pieces: there are two magnificent Aeolic capitals of the 6th century bc from the sanctuary of Ancient Klopedi (see pp.97-98), together with fragments of the temple’s decorative sima in terracotta. They compare interestingly with the contemporaneous Ionic capitals in the museum in Samos : though admirably simple in conception and beautifully carved, the design of the Aeolian examples lacks the tension and plasticity of the Ionic capitals. Arranged around them is an important collection of inscriptions of sacred laws and political agreements from many periods, and a marble throne of the 3rd century bc from the theatre, elaborately carved with sphinxes, tripods, lion’s claws and serpents in relief, known as the ‘throne of Potamon’, from the name inscribed below the seat.

Fifty metres east of the museum building stands Mytilene’s bronze Statue of Liberty, created jointly in 1922 by the sculptor, Grigorios Zevgolis, and the local painter, Giorgios Iakovides: it is a copy loosely based on the original in New York. It occupies the site of the ‘Kastrelli’—a free-standing, forward bastion of the main castle behind, which protected the entrance to the port and which was still standing at the turn of the 20th century. Above the stand of pine-trees behind, rise the walls of the castle, one of the largest and most important in the Aegean.

Lesvos Island is part of the Northern Aegean Island Group, Greece.
Mytilene, the Archaeological Museums.

 


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