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Thera Gallery - National Archaeological Museum, Athens

Minoan frescoes and a plaster cast of a wooden bed are just some of the extraordinary artefacts in the Thera Gallery of the National Archaeological Museum from Bronze Age Akrotiri in Santorini.

The 'Spring Fresco' from Akrotiri in the National Archaeology Museum, Athens.
The so-called Spring Fresco, one of the most spectacular frescoes found at the archaeological site of Akrotiri, Santorini - and island in the South Aegean.

During the late 18th century the volcanic deposits of tephra on the island of Santorini were being mined for use in the construction of the Suez Canal. It was during this extraction process that antiquities were found in the area near Akrotiri. A few years later in 1870 C. H. Corceix and H. Mamet, archaeologists from the École française d’Athènes, started excavating the Bronze Age settlement.

Systematic excavations of the ancient site of Akrotiri began in 1967 and continue to this day. Artefacts recovered from these excavations are on display in museums in Santorini, but also in the Thera Gallery of the National Archaeological Museum in Athens.

The Thera Gallery in the National Archaeological Museum, Athens.

The Thera Gallery in the National Archaeological Museum.

Akrotiri is one of the most important archaeological sites in the South Aegean Sea. People first settled here during the 4th millennium BC, during the Neolithic period. During the Bronze Age a port developed that became a substantial and well connected urban settlement. Archaeological evidence shows it was not only connected to Crete and mainland Greece, but also further afield to Egypt and Syria.

Sometime between the end of the 17th century and the end of the 16th century a series of violent earthquakes forced inhabitants to abandoned their town. There followed a volcanic eruption during which the town was covered in ash. Hence the extraordinary preservation of the site, and the site being called the ‘Greek Pompeii’.

The Thera Gallery has a small but wonderful collection of finds from Akrotiri, and is definitely worth seeing while in Athens. These are the highlights.

One of my favourite objects is the clay lion’s head rhyton. More often we see spectacular rhyta made of gold and silver. Some of these incredible examples are on display in the Prehistoric Gallery. Rhyta were ceremonial pouring vessels, which were used during funerary rituals to pour liquid, probably wine. These vessels shaped out of the heads of animals have a pouring hole at the mouth. Look closely at the muzzle and you will see the pouring hole.

Ceramic artefacts from Akrotiri, Santorini.

Ceramic objects from Akrotiri: a lion’s head rhyton typically with a spout at the muzzle, a female figurine, and a fragment of a jug’s spout in the form of an animal.

Pottery

Many of the pots found during archaeological excavations are perfectly preserved, and found as they were left by the people who used them. This has enabled archaeologists to learn a great deal about the ceramic traditions on the island, and how the spaces in which they were found were used. The range of ceramic vessels recovered is typical of a village setting: there are practical and ceremonial vessels including storage jars, cooking wares, rhyta, lamps and incense burners. Both the type and decoration of vessels show influence from Minoan Crete, but with a distinctly local interpretation.

The iconography of the polychrome decorated vessels shares many similarities with the frescoes. Polychrome representations of lions, wild goats, dolphins and swallows are common. As are plant motifs, in particular reeds and crocuses.

Imported vessels, from Crete and Mycenean Greece, provide evidence for trade and commercial activities further afield.

Decorated ceramic pots from Akrotiri now on display in the Thera Gallery of the National Archaeological Museum.

Right, a large jar with polychrome decoration, depicting dolphins swimming between wavy lines, perhaps to give the impression of a marinescape. Left, a storage jar with relief decoration.

Metal Artefacts

The metal finds have not fared as well as the ceramic objects. The heat of the volcanic ash greatly disfigured the metal artefacts, from bronze jugs to tools and weapons, left as the inhabitants left with what they could carry.

Decorated bronze pots from the archaeological site of Akrotiri, Santorini.

Bronze jugs with distinct spiral decorations.

Furniture

One of the most evocative artefacts from Pompeii is a wooden cradle for babies (photograph). Beds have also been found at Akrotiri, and other wooden furniture. The cradle at Pompeii is now charred wood, burned from the heat of the volcanic ash that fell there. Unfortunately the wooden furniture at Akrotiri suffered from the extremely high temperatures of the falling ash, and have not been charred or survived.

Archaeologists have been able to pour artists plaster into hollows left from wooden furniture and now we have exact casts of a number of pieces of furniture. Adding to our knowledge of wooden furniture from these times, which until now is based on miniature terracotta models.

Plaster cast of a wooden bed destroyed by the hot ash from Akrotiri, now in the National Archaeological Museum, Athens.

A plaster cast of an undecorated wooden bed, it is possible to see evidence of the cords that would have made up the lattice netting strung from the wooden frame.

Minoan Frescoes

The archaeological site of Akrotiri is particularly well known for its Minoan frescoes. Beautiful and vibrant wall paintings in a range of colours from reds and oranges, to black, blue and purple, and even white. Paints were made from crushed mineral powder and painted on to a wet or dry lime plaster that had been applied to a wall. A chemical process known as carbonation takes places when the plaster dries and the lime reacts with carbon dioxide in the air, fixing the pigment to the plaster. An organic fixative was sometimes applied to the painted plaster ensure the colours did not fade.

Subject matter in the frescoes from Akrotiri focus on the natural world with animals and plants, fish and seascapes being popular themes. Images of naturalistic mammals and mythological creatures were painted, including bulls, antelopes and monkeys, ducks and swallows, as well as griffins. Geometric, abstract shapes are also common as are scenes of everyday life.

That fragmentary evidence of frescoes has been found in many different types of buildings in Akrotiri suggests that this form of decoration was not restricted to an elite class, but enjoyed by all. The exceptional preservation of the frescoes, like the well preserved wall paintings found in Pompeii, Herculaneum and the other Vesuvian sites, is largely a result of the buildings having been covered with volcanic ash.

Building Delta and the Spring Fresco

The so-called Spring Fresco is the only wall painting from Akrotiri that was found in situ, covering three walls of a single room. Above the frescoe level archaeologists found the remains of a shelf. It was in this room that the plaster cast of the bed (above) was recovered.

Covering the three walls of a ground floor room is a typical volcanic landscape, as seen in the use of different colours to portray the colourful rocks. Among the rocks are lilies – red blooms on yellow stems, the flowers are in all stages of growth from new buds to full blossom. Swallows are depicted in flight, as if darting about the lilies as they do. To many the lilies in bloom and the swallows evoke spring, hence the name.

The three walls on which the Spring Fresco was painted in Akrotiri, Santorini.

The three walls of of the ‘spring fresco’ have been reconstructed in the Thera Gallery at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens.

Building beta – Antelope & Boxers

A room in another building dpeicts a pair of young boys boxing with a pair of antelope on the adjacent wall. Running around the room, above the friezes depicting the buck and the two boys, is a decorative feature of ivy.

A reconstruction of the walls in Akrotiri on which the two boxers and the two antelope were painted.

In another room, in another house are the boxers and the antelope, thought by some to have been done by the same artist.

The Antelope

Although a seemingly simple sketch, using thick black lines on a white background, the movement portrayed in the representation of these two antelope is nonetheless highly expressive. It could be there was some symbolic connection between the pair of antelope and the young boys boxing, painted on the adjacent wall.

Beautifully simple sketches of a pair of antelope from Building Beta, Akrotiri.

The antelope sketches were repeated on other walls in the same room.

The Boxers

Two naked boys are seen boxing, this is more likely to have been a representation of a ritual sport rather than a physical competition. For males the skin is painted red, whereas women are painted in white. To depict young boys the artists has depicted their hair with long tresses and partly shaved parts. They both wear loin cloths and only one glove, but the boy on the left is wearing jewellery – a necklace, earrings, bracelets and anklets. This is a convention to show he has a higher social status. Some writers see a parallel between the boxing boys and antelope who are also depicted facing each other off on the next wall in the same room.

A fresco depicting two boys boxing, from Akrotiri and now in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens.

Are the competitive boys symbolically connected with the pair of antelope?