While visiting Thera, I really should tell you about Akrotiri – a city buried in ash during the Bronze Age volcanic eruption that destroyed the island (see Volcano and Legend). It is a sort of detective story, which begins with the finding of small clues.
The detective is a Greek archaeologist named Spyridon Marinatos. Many years ago, at the beginning of his career, he was digging out a ruined Minoan villa at Amnissos, the ancient port of Knossos on Crete. The villa was once a beautiful mansion with a superb view of the sea, but there is wasn’t much to see when I visited. It is now mostly rubble, a foundation and a few crumbling walls.
Ruins of the Amnissos villa on Crete
At that time, in the 1930’s, leading archaeologists scoffed at his idea. Marinatos decided the best way to convince them was to excavate on Thera. If he could find Theran pottery of the same period as that of the destroyed palaces and villas in Crete, this would help to prove his theory.
Evidence of ancient habitation – potsherds, worked stone, and the like – had been unearthed near Akrotiri, a farming village at the southern end of Thera. However, no one bothered to investigate further. The village was ignored and local farmers and craftsmen went quietly about their work, as they had done for generations.
All that changed in 1967, when Marinatos – after decades of waiting – finally started digging for Minoan pottery. What he found was far greater than anything he had imagined. While pursuing small clues, Marinatos unearthed a Bronze Age city, well-preserved under six meters of volcanic ash. Akrotiri, whose name was given to the archeological site, suddenly became famous.
Although only a small part of the archaeological site is open to the public, it is among the most impressive anywhere. Unfortunately, a tourist died last year when part of the roof protecting the excavation collapsed. The site was closed for repairs when Duane and I arrived, but artifacts were on display at the Museum of Prehistoric Thera and we had earlier photos of the site. Also, in Athens we visited the splendid Akrotiri frescoes, which were long ago removed to the National Archeological Museum.
Entering the ancient city along the central boulevard, one can see the city as it was 3600 years ago. There are paved streets with a drainage system running under them, and flat-roofed stone buildings with wood framing that was engineered to withstand earthquakes. At the street level are workshops and stores, some of them with large ceramic storage jars (excavators found dried up food products in these). Above the shops are apartments where families lived comfortably with stylish furnishings in decorated rooms. Some homes even have indoor plumbing. Surprisingly, ancient Akrotiri looks very much like modern-day towns on Thera and other Aegean islands.
Walking these streets, one can begin to see how the inhabitants lived, and what sort of dealings they might have had with the Minoan empire on Crete – and with other countries as well. The most obvious clue is in the city itself. Wood was needed to erect houses, make furniture and tools, and (most importantly) build merchant ships that made the island rich. But prior to the great eruption, when the island was much larger than now, there were few trees. So where did Therans get enough wood to build cities and ships? They had to trade with others – Greece, Crete, Anatolia (Turkey), Cyprus, and Syria.
More clues are found in people’s homes. For example, some Akrotiri pottery is similar to Minoan wares, and it dates to the same period as the Cretan disaster (which supports the Marinatos volcano theory).
Other pottery styles indicate extensive trade. The colorful decoration technique used in many Theran vases did not develop locally. It is was copied from pottery of the East. There are even drinking vessels made from ostrich eggs, which suggests trade with Syria, Palestine and Egypt, where ostriches roamed wild.
This trade with eastern cultures also influenced Theran artwork. While the wall paintings in affluent Akrotiri homes maintain their own stylistic characteristics, strong Minoan and Egyptian influences are evident. The stylized wall paintings of ladies and papyrus plants from one house were like the Knossos frescos we saw on Crete. But curious differences suggest questions.
Does papyrus grow on Thera? No. It grows along the Nile River in Egypt. Why are people shown mostly in profile with a rigid stance, one leg placed firmly in front of the other? Many human images in Akrotiri are drawn according to the Egyptian Canon of Proportions, which was a religious art standard. This means each artist followed the same rules in depicting people, using a grid to ensure precision. The same proportions can be seen in the “fisherman fresco” found in another Akrotiri house.
This wall painting depicts a naked young fisherman carrying the day’s catch. Nudity is rare in Minoan art. Another unique feature is the fellow’s head, which appears to be shaved except for a few locks of hair, and painted blue. Some think it was a juvenile fashion, since only young people are shown with shaved heads. Others believe the style is religious and the fresco depicts an offering to the gods. Supporting a religious inference is the fact that the fisherman is walking towards a corner in the room where a table of offerings was found.
Pictures of animals, on the other hand, did not follow the same regulations, so artists had more freedom of expression. The famous “blue monkey” fresco is a good example. This seems to be an amusing composition of monkeys climbing a rocky hillside. These monkeys exude vitality and movement with their elongated, stylized bodies and wildly curvaceous tails. However, the painting also has religious significance, because monkeys were considered servants of the gods. It is believed the monkey motif originated in Crete or perhaps even Egypt, and later became popular on Thera. Artists in all these locations used blue coloring for the monkeys’ fur and skin.
The fresco of the antelopes diverges even more from Egyptian style. The antelopes are depicted using only black lines to define graceful legs, curved backs, long necks, and sharp horns. As a purely decorative painting, its beauty and simplicity is striking – and quite modern. Above the antelopes, a curving red-brown border reflects the curving backs and tails of the animals, creating a pleasant rhythm to the painting. Above that an ivy leaf frieze indicates springtime.
This painting reveals attention to form not seen in Egyptian art. Interestingly, although the antelope (Oryx beissa) is native to East Africa and is a popular subject in Egyptian art, the way it is depicted here reveals a uniquely Theran exuberance and love of beauty. While having integrated subject matter from a trading partner, this artist created a work entirely Theran in character – lively, fluid, and festive.
Minoan and Theran art seems to center on nature and the joys of living, but this focus is more enthusiastic at Akrotiri, where murals explode with color and movement. The clues found in this excavation make it clear that the people of Akrotiri were exposed to ideas and styles from many foreign lands. However, they managed to create their own unique identity.