Signs of sacred or just decor?

Proceedings of the First International Symposium
October 19, 2001

Famous for its preservation by debris from an enormous volcanic eruption on the island of Thera or Santorini in 1628 BC (although the date is disputed), the site of Akrotiri has come to be known as the "Pompeii of the Aegean". Excavations there began in 1967, and this symposium marked their 30th anniversary, the fourth in a series of conferences sponsored by the Thera Foundation presenting information and debate about the island's archaeology, chronology and volcanology.

Unlike its predecessors, the meeting was devoted exclusively to the series of wall paintings on plaster that offer a brightly coloured window into the physical and conceptual environment of the Aegean Late Bronze Age. The Thera paintings are extraordinarily well preserved by the unusual circumstances of Akrotiri's destruction; not only are they substantially complete, they can even be assigned to the particular walls on which they originally stood. Their quality and degree of preservation can be assessed in Christos Doumas's The Wall Paintings of Thera (1992), the first comprehensive presentation of all the paintings restored to date and not only a stimulus to the present symposium but also an essential visual complement to a full appreciation of the detailed references in this volume.

A second stimulus came from beyond the Aegean. In 1991, reports appeared of the discovery in the Egyptian delta by Manfred Bietak of Aegean-style wall paintings - including scenes of bull-leaping, characteristic of Aegean art - at the site of Tell el-Dab'a (ancient Avaris) in a context roughly contemporary with that of Thera's destruction. These wall paintings, together with similar examples unearthed in 1989-91 by Wolf and Barbara Niemeier and the late Aharon Kempinski at the Israeli site of Tel Kabri, have begun to transform our conception of artistic interaction between the Aegean and the wider eastern Mediterranean. They have also led to the re-evaluation of Aegean elements in paintings revealed in the 1930s and 1940s at Alalakh in Syria and Mari on the upper Euphrates. All these discoveries appear frequently here both in the papers and the discussion.

The published format - two text volumes with 57 papers by 59 scholars - closely mirrors that of the symposium: opening and closing addresses appear with the papers, arranged under their session headings along with much of the following discussion.

There were six sessions, each conceived as a "dimension" of interpretation. First is the "Technical dimension" - six papers on scientific analyses or practical studies of how Aegean and Egyptian paintings were made. "Modes of representation" contains 14 papers on the style of representation, some confined to the Thera paintings, others comparative, ranging from the obvious Egyptian representations through Etruscan and early Roman parallels, to narrative murals in 19th-century Greek houses. "Architectural/ functional dimensions", six papers exploring the relation of paintings to the architectural spaces and what might have gone on in those spaces, closes volume one.

Thirteen papers on the "Environmental dimension" open volume two, which concerns the wall paintings as windows on to the natural world of Thera. The "Social dimension" contains a rather diverse series of ten papers linked by their emphasis on the people behind the paintings, including the most sustained discussion of the implications of the east Mediterranean discoveries. Finally, the "Religious or social dimension" contains four papers, surprisingly few given the prominence of religious interpretations in the existing literature, with an emphasis on coming-of-age rituals.

It is impossible to summarise all 57 papers and invidious to single out a mere few for comment, especially when Robert Laffineur summarises them all so well in his closing address. Context and comparison within and beyond Akrotiri itself emerge as major issues among the contributions. How do we construct meanings for wall paintings from a culture separated from us by space and time? We need first to examine them in their local context. Perhaps 5 per cent of the total settlement at Akrotiri has been excavated, so we cannot say whether this quarter of town was typical or atypical in its iconographic elaboration. Even within the area excavated to date, the existing paintings came from only a dozen rooms out of more than 100 and, even then, not all excavated buildings have equally extensive decoration. Wall paintings in Akrotiri presumably adorned "special" rooms.

But "special" in what way? Most contributors agree that the paintings did not function simply as purely decorative "wallpaper", but their precise meanings within the architectural spaces in which they were painted is much debated. Were they commissioned, for example, to recall aspects of the owners' biography? How can we answer when our reconstruction of such biographies depends on elements in the paintings themselves? A popular interpretation is that most paintings depict religious rituals carried out in the rooms where they appear or, because some clearly depict alfresco activities, allude to such rituals. Some are rightly sceptical of such a global interpretation, pointing to the varied architectural contexts or challenging the notion that rooms had a single function. The fact that Akrotiri was evacuated before its final destruction means that the artefacts preserved in its rooms cannot assist in a definitive interpretation of their function.

A single interpretation is unlikely to hold for all, and I find attractive the notion that some at least are narrative in content - a view developed by some participants - while others reflect the performance of ritual activities. Crucial is the scale of the images, of which the Thera wall paintings employ two: life-size (or nearly so) and miniature. Representation at these different scales inevitably has a different effect on individuals within the spaces concerned. Life-size paintings place us "among" the figures, especially when they stand in doorways or accompany us along corridors or up staircases, mirroring the bodily movements of participants in the architectural space. With miniatures, however, we see a whole scene synoptically from outside, suggesting a verbal relationship to the subject matter. The impossibility of experiencing the paintings on site in their original structures hinders such an appreciation, but computer reconstructions offering the next best thing are on the horizon.

Context is also crucial in comparing similar paintings beyond Thera, namely those on Crete and in the eastern Mediterranean. Whatever the nature of the structures in which Akrotiri's wall paintings appear, they were not palaces in the way the term is understood elsewhere. In this respect, a significant absentee from the Theran repertoire is the use of wall painting as focalising device.

What of the Aegean-style paintings created in palatial structures in the Levant and Egypt? The wall paintings at Tell el-Dab'a, Tel Kabri and Alalakh stand out in their local context, and the fact that they all lie within a century or so suggests this is more than mere chance. Detailed comparisons, however, reveal subtle differences in style and technique between Aegean and east Mediterranean examples, placing scholars in a quandary: are these painted by local craftspeople appropriating Aegean themes or by Aegean craftspeople influenced by local techniques? Were the Aegean craftspeople itinerant "artists for hire", or were they part of the retinue of, for example, an Aegean princess married to an Egyptian ruler? We cannot (yet?) answer such questions definitively, but the fact that the eastern Mediterranean depictions are distinctive within their local styles of wall painting indicates that, whoever painted them, they were deliberately different and alluded to Aegean styles. They may well reflect other archaeologically invisible transferences of valuable materials, such as cloth or people, complemented in the Aegean by the appearance of non-local materials, features of a cosmopolitan culture emerging among elites in the Late Bronze Age eastern Mediterranean.

This is a book by professionals for professionals, much of it of detailed interest primarily to Aegean archaeologists, but rewarding nonetheless for those curious about the interpretation of prehistoric art or the cross-cultural transmission of artistic styles. If you want just to admire the images, Doumas's book is where you should turn; if you want to get a flavour for the ongoing debate about their meaning, you will find it here. The papers adhere to no unified position, but the inclusion of discussion reflecting differing opinions not only enlivens the book, but also gives an insight into the way in which scholars interact on such occasions.

John Bennet is lecturer in Aegean prehistory, University of Oxford.

Proceedings of the First International Symposium: The Wall Paintings of Thera

Editor - Susan Sherratt
ISBN - 960 86580 2 0
Publisher - Thera Foundation
Price - £130.00
Pages - 1,013

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