Somewhere in the deepest recesses of my brain I will always be that kid who saw Raiders of the Lost Ark and from that point forward, wanted to be an archaeologist. I may sit at a computer all day these days, but in my mind I’m swashbuckling through the jungle, looking for a lost civilization or braving the blowing sands of the desert in Egypt, searching for a lost pharaoh’s tomb. Because of this secret longing, let’s just say it was love at first sight when I entered the Neues Museum in Berlin for the first time.
Built originally in the mid 19th century as an extension of the Altes Museum, it was decimated during World War II and sat in ruin until the mid 1980’s when a reconstruction began. Today the interior of the building has the feel of an ancient ruin. An appropriate home for the antiquities it houses.
Fragments of the old museum were incorporated into the new, giving it a less sterile feel than most museums. And each section displays painted walls and ceilings that look as though they were stolen from an ancient Greek temple or the inside of a tomb in the Valley of the Kings. Parts of old walls are pieced together from broken stone and brick, seamlessly married to more recent construction. In the reconstruction of this museum, the Germans provide a master class in how to arise from the ashes into something better. Something…well, something more.
The museum houses over six thousand exhibits, stretching from the Stone Age up through the Middle Ages. Priceless treasures such as Heinrich Schliemann’s gold hoard from Troy are on display in giant glass cases. As someone who read all about Schliemann’s discoveries at Troy, seeing the actual gold “headdress” his wife was famously shown wearing was a bit unreal for me. I just stood there – staring, with only a thin sliver of security glass separating me from a physical piece of ancient Troy; a tangible reminder, not only of the ancient world, but of the golden age of archaeology that occurred in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Perhaps the most famous exhibit of the museum is the bust of Nefertiti, queen to the bizarre pharaoh Akhenaten. She and her husband were the founders of a new religion in Ancient Egypt. They established the city of Amarna and began to worship just one god, a shocking change in a culture that had been worshiping many gods for centuries, if not millennia. After her husband’s death, it is possible she continued to rule herself, taking a new name and maybe even posing as a man (although this is hotly debated among Egyptologists). Upon her death, Amarna fell into ruin and all references to Akhenaten’s reign were stricken from history. Despite this, somehow this amazing bust survived the centuries intact.
Despite being the most famous artifact in the museum, no photos are allowed. The bust sits in a large cylinder glass case in the middle of the room. Guards stand on all sides and even work through the crowd (when the Germans say no pictures, they mean it). In fear of loosing my camera I didn’t even attempt it. Staring at her beautiful face through the glass – being that close to a tangible piece of ancient history was a memory that doesn’t require photographic proof.
Even though other exhibits aren’t as famous, they are beautifully displayed and lend themselves to taking pictures (as long as you don’t use a flash).
Enjoy your time with the ancients. It might not quite mirror being an actual archaeologist, but it’ll do. 🙂
All photos not marked are by the author.