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Notebook

Notebook, 1993-

Doumas, Christos, Santorini, A Guide to the Island and its Archaeological Treasures. Athens: Ekdotike Athenon S.A. 1995. [Christos Doumas is Professor of Archaeology at the University of Athens, Director of Excavations at Akrotiri.]

Prehistoric Thera:
Akrotiri

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Wall Paintings
Akrotiri's most significant contribution to our knowledge of the prehistoric Aegean and Europe in general is its monumental graphic art. The wall-paintings of Thera constitute the earliest examples of large-scale painting in Greece and enrich inestimably the history of European art. Their technique is not that of fresco, for which reason it is not correct to use this term. It seems that the artist began painting when the plaster was still quite fresh on the walls. He did not, however, take care to maintain this wet condition. So the wall gradually dried and the painting was finally made on an entirely dry surface. This is why the colour often flakes if the modern technician does not manage to fix it with chemicals. Wherever the painting was made on a wet surface the colour has seeped in and does not flake.

The plaster on the wall destined to be painted was rubbed whilst still wet, so that its surface became smooth for the artist's paint brush. This smoothing seems to have been effected using special sea pebbles. Hundreds of these pebbles with one or two flat surfaces from the rubbing have been found amidst the ruins of Akrotiri. The colours which the prehistoric Theran artists used were red, black, yellow, blue and cream. The latter was usually used as a background. With these colours the artist painted diverse surfaces both in shape and dimensions.

One of the principal characteristics of the art of Akrotiri is that the artist had complete command of the space in which he moved unhesitatingly. He infallibly selected a subject suitable for filling the surface offered by the arrangement of the area. Door and window jambs, small surfaces of wall between two such openings, zones which are of necessity created for the opening of cupboards or windows and finally large expanses of wall, always bear the composition best suited to their shape and size. A representation of a pithos plant pot with lily adorned the jambs of the window in the West House. Again in the West House, a door jamb was apparently decorated by the so-called "Young Priestess." The narrow surface between the window and the NE corner of Room 5 in the same house was occupied by the famous Fisherman while another similar painting was depicted in a corresponding position diagonally opposite. Such a surface--between the two doors--was covered by the wall-painting of the Boxing Children in the upper story of Room B1. In Room 5 of the West House the narrow strip of wall under the windows was painted as an imitation marble dado whilst the zone high above the windows was decorated with the Frieze of Miniatures. The Frieze with the Monkeys from Xesté 3 must have been a similar case. But the artists of Akrotiri were not afraid to paint whole blank walls. The grand composition with the Monkeys was discovered in Room B6, while three of the four walls of Room 2 were completely covered with the wall-painting of the Lilies. From the homonymous house came the wall-paintings of the Ladies. Finally, from Xesté 3 comes an enormous composition of Women Gathering Crocuses. [p. 34]

Even though the character of the wall-paintings from Thera is Minoan, there is an apparent independence of the artist from the conventions of Cretan art. Freedom in conception, freedom in design, freedom in composition, freedom in movement are the characteristics of the Theran wall-paintings. Men, animals, plants are rendered with such conviction that it borders on naturalism. Purely decorative subjects rival the pictorial scenes in variety and perfection. These too were employed to cover all kinds of surfaces. Rosettes, often combined with rhomboid motifs were also painted on large surfaces, as is the case in Xesté 3. The ivy branch is an ideal motif for framing the Antelopes from Room B1. The "starry sky" harmoniously covers the ladies from the Room of the Ladies. In Room 5 of the West House the "marble" dado underneath the windows is a well-chosen architectural element. The pithoi plant pots on the jambs of the window and the "cabins" on the walls of Room 4, again in the West House, are examples of the inventive imagination of the artists.

Even greater and more impressive is the diversity exhibited by the narrative scenes. Such is the artist's predilection for variety that he even makes the landscape narrative through the insertion of some animals. The rocky terrain with lilies is fixed in time by the presence of the swallows flirting and flying in daring formations. There must have been some reason why the Monkeys in Room B6 scrambled hastily upon the rocks. The Landscape with the River and Subtropical Vegetation from Room 5 of the West House is further enlivened by the presence of wild or mythical beasts. A wild duck flies to the left, while on the right bank of the river, almost in flying gallop, a goat runs to the right. Both seem to have rushed startled from a cluster of palm trees. From the other, the left bank of the river, a griffin flies to the right in a flying gallop, while a wild cat stalks the unsuspecting wild ducks sitting on the river's edge. All this movement, all this activity indicates the artist's intention not merely to paint a landscape but a wild landscape, far away, yet full of life. The same ruggedness of nature is to be seen in the landscape above the left city in the Miniature of the Fleet. In the wood three terrified deer flee the predatory claws of the lion which pursues them.

In the narrow Frieze from Xesté 3 the narrative is even more vivid. In a landscape, again rocky, full of crocuses, swallows fly to their nests bearing food for their chicks who await with open beaks. Blue monkeys complete the scene. These monkeys are not inert; one of them has drawn his sword and holds the scabbard in his left hand. Another monkey clasps a harp and is perhaps the musician of the company.

More narrative, of course, are the scenes in which humans participate. The two Fishermen from the West House proudly display their catch, holding the bunches of fish. The so-called Young Priestess from the same house wears a long, heavy, perhaps woolen, chiton and holds a brazier with glowing charcoal while sprinkling it, more than likely with incense. Perhaps she passed from room to room censing it or perfuming the air of the house. This is why she is depicted on a door jamb. [p. 35]

More animated is the movement displayed by the Boxing Children from Room B1. Each wears a glove on the right hand and the children are portrayed in a momentary phase of the game. One has already thrust his gloved hand in an attempt to strike his opponent. He in turn avoids the blow by shielding with his bare hand and prepares to strike his own blow with the other.

In the wall-painting of the Ladies the scene is not quite so clear since many of the pieces are missing. Certain, however, is the movement of one woman of a somewhat advanced age who stoops slightly to the right and offers both her hands in an attitude which is not comprehensible. Another figure stood in front of the bare-breasted one; unfortunately only a part of her skirt is preserved. A third one, with her breasts covered, is illustrated in an opposite movement towards the left. She also presents her hands but does not stoop like the first. All these figures are drawn beneath an arch which delimits the upper surface of the wall and is filled with stars.

The Miniatures from Room 5 of the West House are narrative too. Unfortunately we have only fragments from the frieze of the north wall; and yet in these pieces one can not only observe the technical dexterity of the artist but also his conception of space and the third dimension. In one group of these pieces we have scenes which are enacted at three different levels. On the first level, that nearest the spectator, a rocky seashore is shown and in the sea are three naked men, apparently drowned. At least so their unnatural attitude would suggest. Also in the water are three rectangular shields, perhaps one from each drowned man. Only sections of three ships are shown in the pieces which have survived: the stern of one and the prow of the other two One prow, however, is in a strange position, reinforcing the view that the whole scene illustrates a shipwreck, the victims of which were the three drowned warriors. On the second plane of the painting there are warriors who, clutching their oblong shields, long spears and wearing the characteristic Mycenaean helmet of boar's tusks, march towards the right. The tasselled end of their scabbard projects beyond the back of their shield. On the third plane, high up, various scenes are taking place. Two shepherds are trying to gather their different coloured sheep and goats into the pen which is depicted as an elliptical fence. Two trees at the entrance to the fold ensured shade for the flock from the summer heat whilst their trunks serve as sturdy gate-posts. Perhaps it is midday and the shepherds are gathering the flocks into the pen to water them. For, next to it, on the left of the entrance is a well whose presence is marked by two upright water pitchers on top of its mouth. Some men are conversing in front of the well while two women who have already filled their pitchers walk away: one has balanced the jug on her head and treads lightly with arms outstretched to keep her balance. The second, [p. 36] who comes from close by steadies the pitcher with her hands while trying to set it on her head. The scene is not very different from what happens today in many mountain villages where the well or water tap is the common meeting place for the villagers. "When you go for water my Malamo, I loiter at the tap . . ." says a folk song which aptly fits this scene at Akrotiri.

The best preserved piece from the miniatures from the West House is the Frieze with the Fleet. Large sailing boats are depicted sailing from one harbour on the left to another one on the right. Much discussion has taken place concerning this scene with opinions which differ considerably. Some maintain that these two ports are in the Aegean where the fleet is traveling. For others, one city is in the Aegean and the other is in Libya. Some, indeed, even identify specific Minoan cities in this miniature painting. Regardless, however, of the opinions of each scholar, there are certain elements which are difficult to refute. First of all, the representation is narrative, irrespective of whether it portrays a specific event or not. It states clearly that the ships depart from one city on the left and arrive at the harbour of the other on the right. The architecture in both towns resembles that we find in the excavation: multi-storeyed buildings built of ashlar blocks and at different levels. The Minoan character of the town on the right is further emphasized by the "horns of consecration" which crown one of the buildings. These elements, however, are not sufficient to support the view that specific towns are illustrated. For even if the artist wanted to draw imaginary places he would incorporate elements with which he was familiar. The scene, however, has a festive flavour. This is evidenced by the bunting on the large boat, the "Admiral's" and confirmed by the numerous dolphins which frolic along the route of the craft. The inhabitants of the left township bid farewell to the fleet either from the roofs of their houses, or down at the shore, or escorting it in their little boats. At the end of the voyage the population came out to welcome the fleet. Here too there are people on the roofs, at the water's edge and in boats which leave the harbour to meet the fleet.

Certain other elements indicate some uniformity among the sailing ships of this wall-painting. Firstly it would appear that the passengers on board are warriors. They have hung their helmets on the pronged pole intended to hold the lowered mast and lateen yards of the sails. On these same prongs the warriors have placed their spears too. The captain is also a warrior who sits in his cabin astern. His helmet hangs high up while his spear projects a long way behind. With the warriors on board the boats acquire a somewhat martial aspect. Perhaps the wild beasts which are depicted, sometimes carved on the stern and sometimes painted on the bows of the ships, are also aimed at expressing this character. The relatively small sailing boat, the only one depicted with sails unfurled, has a swift-flying bird painted on its sides. Did the artist perhaps wish to show through the bird that the ship is a fast-sailing one? [the messenger boat of the fleet?] It is, anyway, the only boat with two paddles at the stern end, essential for controlling the movements of a fast boat. Each paddle is operated by a paddler.

All the above elements [the single direction of the fleet, the martial [p. 38] character of the ships, the messenger vessel] bolster the opinion that the boats comprise a specific unity, in which case the whole scene may perhaps refer to a particular event. However, in addition to its narrative character this wall-painting is also a rich source of unique information. For, apart from information concerning the architecture, the fauna and flora and the people's apparel, we have for the first time information concerning the art of ship-building in the prehistoric Aegean, as well as the manner in which the various parts of the boat operated [raised masts, sails, paddles, oars, cabins, etc.] Also we gain, indirectly, an idea of the dimensions of the ship. This is the first time we have representations of prehistoric ships in a scale which permits the rendering of such details. A most significant piece of information of historical importance is the armoury depicted on the boats. Not so much the shields and spears as the helmets, make us wonder whether the warriors who were using them were not Mycenaeans. Boar's tusk helmets are usually counted among the accessories of the Mycenaean armoury. If, however, the warriors in the miniatures of Thera are Mycenaeans then certainly many of our views on the prehistory of the Aegean around the middle of the 2nd millennium B.C. will have to be revised. The fact that Mycenaean warriors could come, even in paintings, so close to Crete means that even in the 16th century B.C. Crete had begun to lose some of her power and sovereignty in the Eastern Mediterranean.

The realism which characterizes the wall-paintings of Santorini, in addition to the diverse information it provides, also verifies that the artists--for many artists worked at Akrotiri--did not paint abstractly. They depicted specific personal experiences. Perhaps they themselves had travelled to other lands. Thus it was not difficult for them to paint convincingly not only the immediate environment but also exotic animals such as the antelopes. monkeys, lions, wild cats, deer etc. [p. 39]


External Relations
Even though we have no tangible indications of the external relations of Akrotiri we are able to infer these. The prosperity which the ruins reveal, the large luxurious buildings, could not be attributed to the sources of wealth on the island. The wealth, therefore, must have been derived from elsewhere.

The first, nearest and most important place with which Akrotiri had close connections was Crete. This is evidenced both by the imported Minoan products [pottery, stone vessels etc.] and the Minoan character of the art. Perhaps a section of the population, albeit small, which lived at Akrotiri was Cretan. There are also indications [mainly through the pottery] of communications between Thera and Mainland Greece.

Two rhytons of ostrich-egg shells and faience bear witness to relations with Egypt, even if these were indirect. Further evidence of these contacts are the wall-paintings showing monkeys. The species of monkey portrayed at Akrotiri, Cercopithecus, is indigenous to Ethiopia and has diffused throughout the Mediterranean via Egypt. The Syrian amphora, which was probably not brought empty, is further evidence of relations with the Eastern Mediterranean.

Of course, we cannot as yet demonstrate that the Therans themselves journeyed to these far-off lands. However, the miniature "fresco" of the fleet obliges us not to dismiss this possibility. [p. 56]

The island of Santorini casts a magic spell on those who visit it whatever their interests or preferences may be. The specialised geologist will find in the walls of the caldera a unique stratigraphical museum of volcanic provenance. The vulcanologist and the curious find interest in the dormant volcano. The archaeologist, the archaeophile and art lovers in general cannot but admire the archaeological wealth of the island which spans virtaully the entire cultural history of the Aegean . . . .


Geography and Geology
Santorini is located in the southern part of the Aegan and is the southernmost island of the Cyclades. Its surface area is 73 sq. km. and its population, distributed among thirteen vilages, just exceeds six thousand souls. . . . [p. 9]


Historical Outline
Even though some scholars have considered certain sherds from vases as being Neolithic, it remains a fact that not a single certain sign has been observed so far which confirms human presence on the island prior to the Bronze Age. The earliest pottery found in the deepest levels of the quarries does not seem to be older than the middle of the 3rd millennium B.C., that is belonging to the second phase of the Early Cycladic civilization [c. 3200-2000 B.C.].


The Catastrophe and the Myth of Atlantis
This happy society of Akrotiri as we know it from its monuments had an unhappy end. In about 1500 B.C. a terrific eruption of the volcano buried the whole island beneath a very thick mantle of pumice and pozzuolana. The stratigraphical observations made in the excavations give us the following picture concerning the successive phases folloeed by the eruptive process.

Minor earth tremors first surprised the island and warned the residents to abandon their homes. On leaving they took their valuable with them. This is why neither victims nor precious possessions have been found in the ruins. More serious earthquakes followed which caused considerable damage to many buildings. Then ensued a fairly long period of quiescence during which the people plucked up courage and returned to the settlement which, meanwhile, had suffered quite considerable damage. Different teams set to work, some clearing away the ruins from the streets, others demolishing shaky walls and others repairing and rebuilding the town. It was during this phase of operations that the actual eruption commenced. Again, however, the inhabitants had time to evacuate and were not interred within their city. Fine pumice, about the size of rice grains, fell and created a thin layer [2-3 cm.] over the entire island. Even though calm prevailed once again for a considerable period, sufficient time for this layer of pumice to undergo oxidation, the inhabitants did not return. Perhaps they had left their island for good. A second paroxysm of the volcano brought forth more pumice, coarser [4-5 cm. Diam.] which covered the city. This layer reaches a thickness of 50 cm. in the area of the excavation. The next paroxysm produced a greater quantity of pumice and of bigger size. The depth of this layer varies from 1-6 metres depending on the distance from the volcanic crater which is estimated to have been about 10 km. north of Akrotiri. But it was the final paroxysm which was the most devastating. The eruption was such that immense quantities of material exploded from the crater of the volcano in the form of droplets. These solidified in the atmosphere and fell like dust on the island creating a mantle which nowadays exceeds 30 metres in thickness in places. Together with this dust, huge boulders of basalt were hurled forth. Some of these boulder-bombs reached as far as Akrotiri and damaged many houses. We find them today inside the ruins, witnesses of the destruction they wrought. The enormous quantities of material vomited forth from the bowels of the earth created a vast hollow. All that remained of the earth's crust collapsed into this void forming a huge caldera whose extent exceeds 83 sq. km. Into this void surged the sea transforming what was left of the island into islets, the present-day Santorini, Therasia and Aspronisi. The consequences of the eruption must have been terrific, not only for Thera but also for the whole of the Aegean and for Crete. [p. 60]


[Doumas, Christos, Santorini, A Guide to the Island and its Archaeological Treasures. Athens: Ekdotike Athenon S.A. 1995. [Christos Doumas is Professor of Archaeology at the University of Athens, Director of Excavations at Akrotiri.]




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