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An Artistic Aegean Anniversary

June 19, 2012

A few weeks ago, my husband and I celebrated our first anniversary on an amazing cruise through the Aegean Sea. I majored in Ancient History at the University of Texas, so you can imagine my excitement at getting to experience numerous ancient sites in person. In particular, I have always been fascinated with prehistoric Aegean cultures, so the stops on both Crete and Thera (Santorini) were definitely a highlight.

One of the most interesting cultures is the Minoan civilization, which thrived during the Bronze Age from 2100-1500 B.C. on the island of Crete. Named for the mythical King Minos, the Minoans developed a centralized political system ruling from urbanized palace centers, the largest of which was located at Knossos on the north central coast of Crete. As prosperous sea-farers, the Minoans established extensive contact and trade with the contemporary cultures of Egypt and the Near East. Ancient writers even asserted that King Minos ruled over a maritime empire which included many Aegean islands. Although the extent of the Minoan political sphere is unclear, the Minoans were certainly in contact and influencing the culture of nearby islands like Thera, as attested by the surviving art.

Looking into the caldera on Thera, with the active volcano at left

Thera is a unique island whose history has been shaped by the active volcano at its center. During the period of Late Minoan 1A (c. 1625 B.C. or c. 1550 B.C.—dating is disputed by different scholars), the volcano erupted with such extreme force that it spread ash across the entire eastern Mediterranean and likely created a global cooling event. This eruption not only formed the distinctive caldera and picturesque cliffs seen on the island today, it also covered an entire ancient site in ash and pumice, perfectly preserving it like a prehistoric Greek Pompeii. Because of this eruption, the archaeological site of Akrotiri has yielded frescoes that are much more complete than those found elsewhere in the Aegean.

To execute their frescoes, Minoan artists used mineral pigments in white, red, brown, yellow, black, and blue. The wall surfaces were divided into three zones: the upper zone, above windows and doors, contained miniature friezes or decorative patterns; the middle zone included the large main subject; and the lower zone served as the base, sometimes using patterns to imitate stonework. The basic composition was painted in buon fresco technique, on the wet lime plaster surface. Additional colors and details were added after the plaster dried (fresco secco), using an organic fixative like egg white. The scenes include themes from nature (landscapes with plants and animals), daily life (fishing, sea-faring), and ritual (offerings to a goddess). The Theran fresco style is similar to the style found in Knossos and other palace centers on Crete, but utilizes a livelier, though less refined, hand.

A visit to Thera is certainly not complete without a trip to the Museum of Prehistoric Thera, where you can see examples of these beautiful frescoes, along with other objects found at Akrotiri. But visiting the extensive ancient sites of both Knossos and Akrotiri really allows for a more complete understanding of the Minoan culture that flourished thousands of years ago. That such beautiful art could be created so long ago—simply amazing!

Click on the thumbnails below for larger images.

Further Reading:

  • Chapin, A. (2010). Frescoes. In E. H. Cline (Ed.), The Oxford handbook of the Bronze Age Aegean (ca. 3000-1000 BC) (pp. 223-236). New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Doumas, C. (1992). The wall-paintings of Thera. Athens: Thera Foundation.
  • Rutter, J. (n.d.).  Lesson 17: Akrotiri on Thera, the Santorini Volcano and the Middle and Late Cycladic Periods in the Central Aegean Islands. Retrieved from Dartmouth.edu.
  • Shelmerdine, C. W. (2008). The Cambridge companion to the Aegean Bronze Age. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Sarah Coffey
Assistant to the Chair of Learning Initiatives

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