‘The Greeks: Agamemnon to Alexander’ at National Geographic

If somehow we were allowed to redraw the party lines between ancient and modern history in this increasingly secular world, I think there would be a strong argument to change B.C.E. (Before the Common Era, which supplanted Before Christ) to B.A.G.: Before Ancient Greece — or Before Alexander the Great, if we really must assign that mantle to a single person.

Over a period of about 5,000 years, which ended about 2,500 years ago, the ancient Greeks built the framework for the superstructure of Western civilization. Think about that for a second. Try to imagine the time that has passed between the reign of Alexander the Great and today. Now double it. That is how long the civilization of Ancient Greece flourished.

The United States has not been in existence for even 250 years. So all this campaign-season talk about our country as the greatest nation in history might be a rather naive and shortsighted perspective.

Our concepts of science, democracy, medicine, astronomy, geometry and timekeeping all derive from Greek origins. Innovations like grid-based city planning, concrete, plumbing, educational systems, philosophy, even newspapers — it’s all Greek. And that isn’t even touching on art and warfare, probably the two most defining symbols of global society.

As a writer, I’m not even sure what there is to say about the ancient Greeks that hasn’t already been said many times before. But it is good to be reminded of these things that made us. At the National Geographic Museum through Oct. 10, “The Greeks: Agamemnon to Alexander the Great” is certainly an impressive display of this history, one that can reignite your passion for the awe-inspiring beauty and staggering genius of this ancient world.

Featuring a selection of genuinely exquisite artifacts, many of which have never been exhibited outside of Greece, this is the most comprehensive exhibition on Ancient Greece to tour North America in a generation.

It is a classic blockbuster museum exhibition. In terms of grandeur, it feels on the level of “The Treasures of Tutankhamun,” the legendary King Tut exhibition of the late 1970s, a diplomatic tour-de-force devised by Nixon, Kissinger and Egyptian president Anwar Sadat. On the level of scale and comprehensiveness, it is like an artifactual timeline of Ancient Greece developed into a physical, interactive journey.

Among the most eye-opening discoveries offered by the exhibition are early artifacts from the ancient Aegean era, when, prior to 5,000 B.C.E., small villages began forming for the first time on the Greek mainland and the islands throughout the Aegean Sea.

It is here that we see Cycladic sculptures, small funerary figurines that are among the most iconic images in Greek archaeology. Setting aside their historical or ritual content, these figurines are strikingly reminiscent of Modernist art from the 20th century, with a sleek minimalism that immediately calls to mind artists like Modigliani or Brancusi. A Cycladic idol like the ones displayed was even owned by Picasso, which is no surprise considering his fixation with obscure primitive ritual art.

Although perhaps the word “primitive” gives the wrong impression — this is, after all, a people who developed some of the earliest phonetic writing symbols. Perhaps the most moving and unforgettable objects in the entire exhibition are the Linear A Tablets, small slabs of redbrick clay engraved with a Minoan script that is yet to be completely deciphered.

No larger than the palm of your hand, these tablets show symbols that represent sounds, ideograms, commodities and symbols for quantities. More comprehensive than Egyptian hieroglyphics, they were likely an administrative record of agricultural produce and livestock.

This is to say that this writing is boring, purely economical, which has far greater implications about the advancement of this society than at first it might seem. First, these people were using writing as a tool for basic recordkeeping and logistics within an agricultural society. That means writing was an integrated tool; perhaps not everyone could read, but literacy was common enough that writing was used widely to save and pass along immediate and short-term information. This is a far cry from the narrative structure of Egyptian hieroglyphics, used to mythologize the exploits of a great pharaoh; this is bookkeeping.

Second, it implies an agrarian society, where farming is a distributed task among a wide and organized population. It offers a glimpse into the early genius of a society that would build itself into the greatest and longest lasting empire in civilized history.

In some sense, I wish to offer an apology. In this article, I have hardly even teased out the arrival of what is commonly regarded as the meat of Ancient Greece. We have not dipped our toes into the Bronze Age, advancements in metalsmithing and gilding, the renowned and beloved painted terracotta ceramics, Homer and the great Greek narratives, the theater, poetry, the Olympics, the unthinkable mastery of stone sculpture and monumental architecture, the conquests of Alexander the Great … the list goes on infinitely.

And it’s all there at the National Geographic Museum. I just wanted to get your history whiskers tingling. Ancient Greece set the stage for the modern world in ways it can be hard to fathom, even if we think we already know it. The Greeks didn’t just set the stage, they built it.

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