Does the ancient world still matter today? By incorporating the destruction of antiquities into its propaganda over the past year, the Islamic State has—in a perverse way—proven that it does. But for many Americans, the ancient cultures of Europe and the Middle East can be notoriously difficult to connect with. Some aspects of antiquity seem too mystical to be real, shrouded in myth and religious meaning; others are nearly impossible to understand or interact with in the absence of specialized education.
At a press conference yesterday morning marking the opening of Gods and Mortals, the Onassis Cultural Center's new exhibition of artifacts from the ancient Greek city of Dion, questions about the role of archaeology in global politics seemed to weigh heavy on everyone's minds. News of the brutal attacks on Brussels had broken only a few hours earlier. This latest outbreak of violence in a European capital had clearly shaken Greek Minister of Culture Aristides Baltas, who expressed grief at being away from Europe on such a painful day. Still, he emphasized the importance of sharing Greece's cultural heritage with the world. "Culture and education," he said, "may be the best weapon against terrorism of all kinds."
Such language—and the concept of pouring resources into exhibitions like this—could be framed as self-serving, ivory-tower grandstanding. But to do so would be a mistake of epic proportions.
Gods and Mortals is composed of nearly a hundred artifacts excavated over the past forty years from Dion, a Greek city that had enormous symbolic power in the ancient Mediterranean world due to its location on the slopes of Mount Olympus, the traditional seat of the gods. In contrast to the bright, sterile halls of many major museums, the Onassis Center's new exhibition space is softly lit and almost cozy. A recording of birds chirping and water running plays in the background. Nearly all of the objects on display are mounted without glass cases, offering a rare opportunity to get up close and personal.
Personal is, not incidentally, exactly the right word to describe the power of the exhibition. To be sure, the gods are present, most notable among them the head honcho Zeus, the matron of fertility and agriculture Demeter, the Egyptian transplant Isis, and the hard-partying Dionysus. But it's the mortals—and their touching relationships with each other—who really shine here.
One particularly stunning example is an enigmatic tombstone that nowhere identifies the people it commemorates, a husband and wife, by name. Instead, it tells us who they were in a mixture of text and imagery. As a short poem inscribed in Latin across the top of the stone tells us, the husband was a civic archivist—reflected in the key, scroll, and pen on the gravestone's bottom right—while the wife "was devoted to the Muses." In light of the stringed instrument featured prominently on the slab, this most likely means that she was a musician. The two hands clasped across the top echo visually what's written in the inscription: they loved each other and were faithful partners in life.
The exhibition is full of similar glimpses of the personal lives of people so far removed from us in time, from the lovely marble portrait bust of a little boy found in a private home to a small marble eagle dedicated to Zeus by a slave named Aurora, who wished to thank the god for the wonderful time she had during a festival in which slave women temporarily ran the city.
Not all was peace and prosperity in ancient Dion. As the site's director Dr. Dimitrios Pandermalis noted in his remarks, the process of excavation gives archaeologists the opportunity to see difficult periods as well as periods of renaissance. Dion itself has had its share of hardship over the centuries in the form of earthquakes, floods, and even political violence. But despite the ravages of time, something of the humanity of the city's ancient residents survives today. Even beyond the considerable aesthetic value of the objects on display, seeing the physical evidence of the love and respect Dion's people had for each other is an uncommon experience: it is proof positive of the best that humanity has to offer, and of our ability to connect emotionally to human beings from such a radically different time and place.
Gods and Mortals opens to the public tomorrow, March 24, and will run through June 18, 2016. The Onassis Cultural Center is located at 645 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY.