Famous as the former site of the Colossus—one of the seven wonders of the ancient world—and home to the Knights of St John in the Middle Ages, the island of Rhodes was an important trading post between the Aegean and the East from ancient times onward. Yet the island’s archaeology remains relatively unknown to the general public.

The artworks on display give an insight into the Orientalizing influence on Greek culture between the Bronze Age and the late Archaic period. The chronological framework (from the 15th to the 5th century BC) encompasses historical highlights prior to the founding of the town of Rhodes in 408/407 BC, which brought together lands hitherto shared by the three ancient cities of Lindos, Kamiros, and Ialysos. Thus began a new chapter in the island’s history.

This exhibition, the first in the world to be devoted exclusively to Rhodes, has three main themes: the history of the excavations conducted without cease since 1859 by French, English, Danish, Italian, and Greek archaeologists; the cultural diversity of Rhodes, resulting from its position as a trading center in the eastern Mediterranean; and the Orientalizing character of Rhodian art, illustrated by some of its most spectacular pieces—notably examples of gold and silver work, unrivaled in the Greek world, and faience, a craft associated with Egypt and the Levant.

Excavation history - The discovery of Kamiros and Lalysos

The site of Kamiros was identified in 1859 by Auguste Salzmann, a French archaeologist from Alsace, and Alfred Biliotti, the British vice-consul in Rhodes. They conducted excavations on their own behalf, on behalf of the British Museum (1863–64), and for a patron with a passion for archaeology named Auguste Parent (1867–68). These Franco-British excavations disclosed evidence of an Orientalizing culture, originally associated with Phoenician art (largely unknown at the time). The most spectacular finds include rich examples of Rhodian gold and silver work, as well as the first traces of the Mycenaean civilization. Extensive archival study has brought to light a completely unknown segment in the history of the first excavations at Kamiros. In a letter addressed to his academician friend Félix de Saulcy, Auguste Salzmann mentions the discovery of a prestigious dish in the British Museum: “My latest archaic pottery find is a dish depicting three warriors fighting. Two are standing... What do you think of it - are we in the thick of the Trojan War?”

The exhibition also features a small electrum plaque with a “Mistress of Animals” decoration, discovered in Kamiros and bequeathed to the Louvre in 1862 by Salzmann’s friend, Félix de Saulcy. De Saulcy had shown it to Gustave Flaubert; it inspired the French writer’s description of one of the costumes in his historical novel Salammbô. Among the most spectacular finds of the 19th century are rich examples of Rhodian gold and silver work. The jewelry tomb, assigned to the British Museum, remains the richest example from the Archaic period; it is the first known funerary context to be published in the history of excavations in Rhodes. It consists of two necklaces, a pair of earrings, a ring inscribed in Phoenician script, and a scarab. The Musée du Louvre also holds an exceptional funerary context: two complex items of jewelry found together in a tomb. Long thought to be temple adornments, fixed with hooks to a kind of diadem, they may also be pendants.

Mycenaean findings

Chance findings during excavations meant that Mycenaean pottery was unearthed in Rhodes some ten years before Heinrich Schliemann’s excavations in Mycenae. These collections, intended for the Musée Parent in Paris, were only partially acquired by the Louvre. One of the most impressive works in this series is the rhyton (drinking horn) with octopus. While excavation notebooks, copied out by Alfred Biliotti, survive to this day from the large project funded in 1863–64 by the British Museum (where they are now held), this is not the case with Salzmann’s notebooks, from which only a single entry of excavations conducted in Kamiros in 1867 was published in the first and only edition of the Bulletin archéologique of the Musée Parent.

The Danish excavations (1902-14)

With the Danish excavations, Rhodian archaeology entered a new era of scientific publications and systematic exploration of the island’s cities. Archaeologists cleared a large part of the sanctuary of Athena in Lindos; in the cavity of the rock, they found two votive deposits that yielded numerous offerings including Cypriot limestone statuettes, Egyptian and Levantine ivory artifacts, Red Sea shells with exotic engravings, bronze and faience items and marble korai, reflecting the strategic position of Lindos as a stopping point on the sea route between East and West.

Excavations at Vroulia, at the southern tip of the island, unearthed the ruins of a settlement and a rampart on the hill overlooking the sea; further down, near to the port, the remains of a sanctuary; and a necropolis close to the city gates.

The Italian excavations (1912-1945)

Ottoman rule came to an end in 1912, when Italian troops conquered Rhodes and the Dodecanese islands. Restorations were carried out in the medieval city (1914–1918), and the Archaeological Museum was set up in the Hospital of the Knights. Italian archaeologists conducted major excavations at Kamiros, where some splendid kouroi were found, and at Ialysos, where a votive deposit was discovered at the sanctuary of Athena.

The Greek excavations of the 20th and 21st centuries

Since 1947, the Greek Archaeological Service has had sole responsibility for the protection and investigation of antiquities on Rhodes. The exhibition presents a selection of works from the Mycenaean tombs at Pylona, and an unpublished 11th-century funerary context that is unusually rich for the late Mycenaean period.

Rhodes, a place of exchanges

As a key trading post in the eastern Mediterranean, the island of Rhodes received an impressive number of imports from Egypt and especially from the East; Syria, Phoenicia, Phrygia (in the north of modern-day Turkey), Urartu (modern Armenia), and Cyprus, for example, are well represented. The highlight of the exhibition is a large, central display case presenting a delicate mosaic of small precious objects from Egypt and the East, made of varied materials (silver, bronze, alabaster, carnelian, ivory, bone, faience and glass, limestone, basalt, etc.); these items, which sometimes inspired local crafts, were mostly found in the three sanctuaries of Athena at Kamiros, Ialysos, and Lindos. Orientalizing objects from all over the Greek world are also presented on the other side of the display.

Rhodian art and crafts - Rhodian gold and silver work

Works in gold and silver are among the most impressive creations by the craftsmen of Rhodes. A new kind of jewelry appeared in the Archaic period, mostly composed of small plaques made from an alloy of gold and silver and decorated with Orientalizing images—mostly “Mistresses of Animals” and centaurs, but also sphinxes, griffons, and Cretan-inspired bee-women.

A set of magnifying glasses, dating to the late 18th or 17th century, was discovered in the votive deposit at the acropolis of Ialysos; this exceptional loan from the Archaeological Museum of Rhodes shows the existence of items of precision craftsmanship.

Faience and glass

While there is no doubt that Greeks in Rhodes contributed to the production of faience items (such as beaded necklaces, scarabs, and vases), as evidenced by the adoption of typically Greek forms, some objects are not easy to classify, as the iconography is so Egyptian in style or so close to Eastern, Phoenician, or even Cypriot models. Local glasswork dates back to the 13th century at least, as indicated by the discovery of scraps of glass in the Mycenaean settlement of Trianda (Ialysos). A cluster of glass beads, discovered in the votive deposit of the sanctuary of Athena, confirms the presence of a workshop that was active in the late 7th century BC.

Working the clay

There is evidence of Rhodian potters’ activity throughout the period, from Mycenaean to Archaic times. Archaeometric analysis has revealed the highly specific crafting of Rhodian clay work. The exceedingly rare case of findings of a mold and a positive cast testifies to the existence of local quality craftsmanship. Relief vases form one of the most spectacular offerings of Rhodian potters. Produced from the late 8th to the 6th century, they are characterized by a taste for decorative effect and by the use of very low relief, molded or stamped using a carved roller. Such monumental creations of Rhodian ware—sometimes over 79 inches (2 meters) high—have often been found in Rhodes.