Largest artefact collection ever loaned to NZ by British Museum

September 7, 2022

Largest artefact collection ever loaned to NZ by British Museum

Archetypes of Greek myth remain relevant today. Ancient Greek goddesses Aphrodite (love and sexuality), Athena (warrior) and Hera (marriage, matriarchal authority). Image: supplied

Perhaps you had travel plans for a trip over the past several years which you had to put off due to pandemic restrictions.

Maybe, you had ideas of visiting some of the world’s most awe-inspiring cultural spots, learning about the seeds of modern society but were foiled.

The Ancient Greeks: Athletes, Warriors and Heroes exhibition, currently on at Auckland War Memorial Museum, might help.

The exhibition features more than 170 artefacts from ancient Greece brought here on loan from the British Museum.

Denise Cohen, head of brand and customer engagement at the museum, said most people had been unable to travel for years now.

"So the chance of going to any major European museum, or anywhere which would have artefacts of this ilk, has really been out of bounds for a couple of years.

“I think people have really enjoyed being able to see that.”

She said the majority of the artefacts were more than 2000 years old.

“There’s over a hundred items to see and most of them are [from] well before the common era .  .  .  500 to 600 years before. And they’re thousands of years old.

"We don’t usually see that many objects that are concentrated in a particular theme or genre in one place in one time in New Zealand, so I think that certainly has been rewarding for the people who have gone to the exhibition.”

Demographically, Cohen said visitors have really been from across the board.

It has been especially popular with families with school-aged children, couples, those who have studied the subject, and older people.

“The majority of visitors to the museum are families, so they have naturally been the people who have been coming to the. . .exhibition.

"But then there’s also been a lot of people who have studied classics or Greek history, and that are middle-aged.

"They probably haven’t travelled or haven’t seen this sort of content for a while.”


The relics toured Australia, on display in Perth and most recently in Canberra, before reaching our shores.

“Because of the priceless nature of the artefacts, there’s some sensitivity around how they were transported here that are private and confidential, but they’ve obviously been well looked after and cared for during their travel, given the priceless nature.”

Anastasia Bakogianni, senior lecturer in classical studies at Massey University, said ancient Greek culture had had a "major impact on today’s world".

“From the concept of the Olympic Games, to theatre and the arts, the ancient Greek world continues to resonate down the centuries, reflecting the complexity of the human experience.

“The exhibits are expertly arranged so that they reveal aspects of both the public and private life of ancient Greeks, such as war, politics, religion, domestic life, leisure pastimes, and the myths and stories that helped shape ancient Greek society and values, and that we continue to enjoy today in the form of novels, films, tv series, video games, and much more.”

Bakogianni said there was a particularly interesting artefact in the collection that could be “easily overlooked".

For anyone who is planning a visit, look out for “a small bronze token, pinakion,. . .used by Athenian citizens to participate in the democratic process".

Pinakions, small engraved bronze plates, were used in the democratic process in ancient Greece. CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons (size modified).

“Service on juries and for public offices in Athens was by lot and this humble identification tag played an essential part in this process.”

Bakogianni said the exhibition is a “timely reminder” for everyone living in a modern democracy to be active in exercising their voices when it comes to matters of public concern.

She said there was not a lot to do with ancient Greek science, though if you did end up in Athens one day, she recommended checking out the Museum of Ancient Greek Technology.

According to the Auckland Museum’s website, it is “the largest exhibition the British Museum has ever loaned to Aotearoa".

The exhibition runs until November 6.

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