Akrotiri, Thera

Hidden under volcanic ash for millennia, the beautiful frescoes in the houses of Akrotiri were recently unearthed.

Frescoes from Akrotiri, on the Cycladic island Thera (Santorini), Greece, 16th century B.C.E., Aegean Bronze Age (National Archaeological Museum, Athens)


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[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:05] The Aegean Bronze Age is made up of three cultures. On the mainland, and slightly later, the Mycenaean. On the large island of Crete to the east, you have the Minoan culture, and then you have a chain of islands called the Cyclades. On an island that in the ancient world was called Thera, we found what seems to be an entire city frozen in time.

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:27] Today the island is known as Santorini. We might be better off saying what’s left of the island, because in the 17th century [B.C.E.], most archaeologists agree, there was a volcanic eruption that basically blew open the middle of the island.

Dr. Zucker: [0:42] Some geologists think that this eruption was perhaps the largest volcanic eruption on the entire earth in the last 5,000 years.

Dr. Harris: [0:49] As a result, just like in Pompeii, a town on the island of Santorini — or ancient Thera — Akrotiri, was preserved under layers of volcanic ash and pumice.

Dr. Zucker: [1:01] But unlike Pompeii, the site was not discovered before modern archaeological techniques had developed, so whereas in Pompeii there was extensive damage by people who were removing art as trophies, the site at Thera is in the process of being systematically studied and uncovered.

[1:19] It’s interesting because archaeologists think that the earliest people in Akrotiri did not have much relationship with either Mycenae or with the Minoans on Crete, but that seems to have changed later. So much so that some art historians think that Akrotiri became a kind of settlement that was directly related, and perhaps directly under the control of the Minoans.

Dr. Harris: [1:39] We also know that they traded with the Mycenaeans, so we shouldn’t imagine these as very separate cultures.

Dr. Zucker: [1:45] What we’ve found are a series of houses of prosperous inhabitants. We haven’t found palaces, but we have found structures that have more than one story. We’ve also found walls covered with fresco.

Dr. Harris: [1:57] We’re looking at a series of frescoes, all of them unusual in their subject matter.

Dr. Zucker: [2:02] Probably the most outstanding feature of the frescoes that we’ve found, and these are true frescoes — that is, this is wet painting over a fine layer of plaster, over a rougher layer of plaster, over straw. But probably the most interesting feature is that these provide for us the very earliest examples of landscape painting.

Dr. Harris: [2:22] It’s hard to call them landscape painting in the way that we might think about it, with fields and trees and sky, because it’s very abstracted, very stylized. We see a lot of curvilinear forms standing for the rocks. We see blues and reds and yellows. These are colors that were very commonly used in their fresco painting.

Dr. Zucker: [2:42] Then we see again abstracted renderings of lilies, of flowering plants that decorate the tops of those rocks, as well as representations of swallows cavorting around the flowers.

Dr. Harris: [2:52] There was a shelf, and above that, the room was painted red. We don’t have a sense of a blue sky. The backgrounds were consistently white. It’s important, as we look at this, to distinguish between the in-painting that the museum has done for us to give us a sense of the whole room, versus the ancient fresco.

Dr. Zucker: [3:11] Modern conservation techniques seek to stabilize and to give us a sense of what the image would have looked like without trying to restore the object to its original state. This is probably most clear, not in this so-called Spring Room, but rather in another fresco known as the Boxing Boys.

Dr. Harris: [3:28] In the same room, we see a pair of antelopes.

Dr. Zucker: [3:31] The antelopes are almost calligraphic. There is this beautiful serpentine line. I’m not seeing any straight lines throughout this entire wall. There’s this feeling of grace in the representation of these animals.

Dr. Harris: [3:42] We have to be cautious about reading into it too much. To us, there’s a sense of almost the pleasure of nature in the scene of animals and also in the Spring Fresco, where we can almost sense a warm day, of flowers blowing in the wind, a sense of colors being intensified by the sunlight, of birds in the air, the pleasures of a spring day.

[4:04] Maybe this had some kind of ritual significance. Maybe it just is a beautiful spring day. It’s impossible for us to know.

Dr. Zucker: [4:11] To our modern eyes, it feels whimsical. It feels like it is all about pleasure, it’s about bringing the exterior world inside. But those are to eyes that have grown up in the 21st century, not eyes that grew up in 1700 B.C.E.

Dr. Harris: [4:24] With the Boxing Boys, we can clearly see that very little remained from the ancient fresco, but enough to give us a sense of a very unusual composition of two boys who have boxing mitts on, whose heads are shaven except for ponytails in the front and back of their heads.

Dr. Zucker: [4:41] You can see that they’re wearing belts. They seem to be nude otherwise, except for their boxing gloves. I see some traces of jewelry around the upper arm and the neck of the figure on the left.

Dr. Harris: [4:51] A lot of the frescoes that were found at Akrotiri seem to have a ritual function. Many seem to be related to religious rituals or rites related to cults around goddesses. It’s impossible for us to understand the iconography and the meaning of those frescoes.

Dr. Zucker: [5:08] We have almost no written records from the Bronze Age in the Aegean and absolutely none from the Cyclades. What we’re forced to look at are simply the physical remains of the architecture, of the vessels that have been found, as well as these extraordinary frescoes.

[5:23] [music]

Cite this page as: Steven Zucker and Beth Harris, "Akrotiri, Thera," in Smarthistory, March 21, 2016, accessed May 18, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/thera/.