Examining Akrotiri

Sometimes natural disasters prove to be useful for archaeology, the Bronze Age town of Akrotiri offers a change to examine the lives of people from the Aegean Bronze Age, and to help to answer questions about the Thalassocracy of the Minoans.

Akrotiri was a Bronze Age town destroyed by the volcano at Santorini in around the 16th Century BC, the volcanic ash helped to preserve the numerous frescoes on the walls of the house found there. One of the most spectacular was the Ship Procession fresco, it is approximately 12 m long and 43 cm wide and wrapped itself along 3 sides of Room Five of the West House. The fresco shows a town and the landscape that surrounds it, the main part being the procession of ships that are travelling from one town to another. These frescoes have been causing discussion between archaeologists since they were uncovered in the early 1970s, about what sort of picture they paint of life in the Aegean Bronze Age and what can be learned from them.

Akrotiri City Frieze
Figure 1: A section of the Ship Procession fresco, looking carefully you can see the elements of reconstruction. The multi-storey buildings are characteristic for the settlement of Akrotiri leading some people to ask whether this is a representation of the town.

One of the most important aspects of the fresco is its representation of an entire city, with visible Minoan influence (such as the dolphins which are like the ones found at Knossos), and the characteristic elements of Akrotiri architecture, such as the flat roofs and multiple storeys (see figure 1). The actual techniques used in wall painting are the same as those found in Crete, however most of the paintings aren’t true fresco; the paintings were done when the plaster was wet (like in true fresco, and on Crete), but there was no attempt to finish it all in one go, and some of the painting was done on plaster that had then dried (Doumas (1983) 56). The Minoan influence and motifs somewhat vary from the conventions of the paintings in Crete, creating a hybridisation between the Cycladic and Minoan styles of art; something Doumas compares to folk art (Ibid. 124). Doumas asserts that the people of Akrotiri were Cycladic but clearly they had been influenced by the Minoans. He summarises some of the possible ways this could have happened, and the Ship Procession fresco helps provide evidence for one of them – thalassocracy, sea-power.

Akrotiri City Frieze - Flotilla
Figure 2: The most preserved boat is the one in the top left-hand corner, it has 19 oars, and each rower would need 70 – 80 cm of space, allowing us to estimate the length of the boat at 35-49m long.

We know of the Minoan thalassocracy from an unlikely source, Thucydides; “Minos is the earliest known to tradition who acquired a navy … became lord of the Cyclades Islands and first coloniser of most of them.” (Thucydides, 1.4.1-4). As this goes back into myth, a lot of scholars were initially sceptical about whether this was true or whether it was misremembered oral history. Chester Starr, writing twelve years before the discovery of Akrotiri, dismisses the concept of a Minoan thalassocracy due to lack of evidence, particularly on the size of their ships. When he looked at previous representations of Minoan ships he argued they were too small to maintain their power at sea, and that their trading abilities have been exaggerated, since their main trading opportunities were with Egypt, not the Aegean (Starr (1955) 284-285). The fresco from Akrotiri helps disapprove his theory about the ships being too small, as Doumas has calculated that the most preserved ship of the fresco (see figure 3) would be 39-45m long (Doumas (1983) 119). Another way the evidence from Thera makes the presence of a thalassocracy possible is the fact that there was both Minoan material culture present on Akrotiri, including pottery, wall painting (though as previously discussed there is regional variation), and a possible series of weights and measures (a set of lead weights was found was similar to those in Crete) (Ibid. Plate 73) and the most crucial piece of information is that Thera is located north of Crete in the Aegean Sea, within easy access to a seafaring people with strong ships. On its own, it isn’t evidence for direct colonisation, but of cultural exchange between the Minoans and the people of the Cyclades. As Akrotiri is further excavated and its port is uncovered, more evidence will emerge of trade and sea faring, perhaps proving Thucydides right after all. The eruption occurred during the Middle Minoan III Period, which was just before Crete was overrun by Mycenaean Greeks, the eruption preserved the town and allows us to study in much greater depth a prehistoric civilisation.

This is particularly clear with the state of evidence at Akrotiri, since no human remains have been found (Ibid. 134) and precious metals are practically non-existent amongst the finds (Ibid. 115). However, this doesn’t change the fact that buried cities are very important to the study of ancient societies, it means evidence must be carefully analysed in the context of a city that has had prior warning and to an extent been evacuated. In Pompeii, for example, scholars (Berry (2004) 30; Beard (2008) 9) have argued that rather than a ‘city frozen in time’ we are witnessing an uneasy city, looking at warning signs. The fact people were evacuated from Akrotiri suggests that there was a system of government within the town, one that had the power and authority to authorise a town-wide evacuation, raising questions about the complexities of society in the Cyclades in this period.

In archaeology it is always important to consider the context both behind a site and the finds within it. Akrotiri is incredibly useful for learning about how a town would have formed and what it would have been like, the art is both useful for learning about how these people viewed themselves and their society, and it also offers us a chance to look through the keyhole offered to us, to attempt to reconstruct an ancient society. It is important to remember that the site shouldn’t be taken as a standard for all Bronze Age Aegean sites, but the information it offers can be compared and contrasted with that found in other sites, thus building the picture of the differing communities that existed there more than three thousand years ago.

Primary Sources

Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, trans. Warner, R. Harmondsworth: Penguin. 1974

Secondary Sources

  • Beard, M. 2008. Pompeii: The life of a Roman Town London: Profile.
  • Berry, J. 2004 The Complete Pompeii London: Hudson.
  • Doumas, C. 1983 Thera: Pompeii of the ancient Aegean: Excavations at Akrotiri London: Thames and Hudson.
  • Starr, C. 1955. The Myth of the Minoan Thalassocracy. Historia: Zeitschrift Für Alte Geschichte,3(3), 282-291.

Images

  • Figure 1 A section of the Ship Procession Fresco (from Wikimedia Commons – accessed 09/02/2019)
  • Figure 2 The Most Preserved Boats (from Wikimedia Commons, edited by Jameson Minto -accessed 09/02/2019)

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