The war was raging in Europe— Italy had invaded Greece and rumblings from the north were being heard in faraway in Athens. Curators and archaeologists at the National Archaeological Museum saw the writing on the wall and six entire months before the first Nazi soldier would even enter Athens, they hatched a plan to protect and preserve thousands of treasures from Greece’s glorious past.
With the declaration of war in October of 1940, the Department of Archaeology of Greece’s Ministry of Culture reacted instantly and issued a letter to all museums with instructions on how to protect antiquities from air raids and other acts of war.
Instructions included two ways to protect bulky treasures: The first method was “to cover the statue with sandbags after protecting it with wooden scaffolding and the second method, which was deemed more effective, was to bury the statues in the ground.
A committee was organized at the National Archaeological Museum and the monumental operation to hide thousands of objects was under way.
“Really early in the morning, even before the moon had set, the people who had undertaken this job would gather at the museum and they would leave for home really late at night”. Semni Karouzou, a curator at the time wrote in museum archives.
Massive trenches were dug in the basement of the museum, often extending under streets and avenues that surrounded the vicinity of the building on Bouboulinas Street in central Athens while above, city life went on in the bustling capital.
“The storing of the statues would take place according to the size and importance of each one. The bulkiest among them would be lined up standing in deep ditches that had been dug in the floors of the North halls of the museum, whose foundations happened to lay on softer underground. Improvised wooden cranes were used in order to lower the statues into the ditches, and were handled incessantly by the museum’s technicians. The ditches that were reminiscent of mass graves,” she wrote.
The underground trenches were painstakingly filled, one by one and with extreme care and dedication by museum technicians and staff. Once the antiquities were placed in the concrete-fortified trenches, they were topped with sand and eventually filled with dirt for further concealment and protection.
While the hiding operation was taking place, a meticulous process of cataloguing was also taking place by museum registrars, listing each and every item, its location in the ground and method of preservation— to provide as many details as possible to those who would some day be uncovering the treasures.
For safe keeping, the crates of antiquity registration were handed over to the general treasurer of the Bank of Greece for safe keeping. Along with the records, wooden crates filled with the golden objects and famous treasures from Mycenae were delivered to the headquarters as they were considered to be the most priceless treasures of all.
It was the final act of a six-month operation that had succeeded in saving the immeasurable treasures of the largest museum in the country— ten days before the first Nazi soldier would arrive in Athens.
When Nazi officers arrived at the museum on the morning of Monday, April 28th, it was a surreal image.
The entire museum had been stripped of all its content. There were naked walls and empty showcases and not a single trace of an antiquity in sight. One by one, museum staff reported in a line up to receive their new conquerors.
The German officer sent to occupy the building asked persistently where the treasures were and the staff sat motionless and speechless, preserving the secret operation to hide the treasures.
Not a single treasure was ever found from the massive collection of the National Archaeological Museum in Athens and the secret location of the antiquities was never revealed, preserving for generations to come important statues like the Kouros and other great and timeless Greek antiquities, which were eventually dug up and put back on display years after the liberation of Athens.
All photographs from the archives of the National Archaeological Museum of Athens.