Akrotiri – a Minoan Town
by Cheryl Straffon
The island of Thera (modern day Santorini) lies only 150km north of Crete, and it is there in the SW of the island that in 1967 Spiros Marinatos started excavating the prehistoric settlement of Akrotiri. What he found there was to shake the world of Aegean archaeology. He discovered a complete town that had been destroyed as the result of the eruption of the volcano that lay to the north-west of the town. As the hot ash rained down it covered the town that was then ‘petrified in time’, a similar scenario to Versuvius at Pompeii in Italy in 79CE, though the Theran eruption was at least six times more violent.
However, there was one major difference from Pompeii: no bodies were found in the Theran devastation, showing that the people had time to take their possessions and leave before the eruption came, described by the recent Director of Excavations Professor Christos Douman as “an organised departure”. The likely date of the eruption is now thought to be approximately 1630-1600 BCE (the period in Crete of the Neopalatial). Interestingly, Professor Marinatos thought that the town was already in ruins when the eruption took place, laid low by a previous earthquake that had occured at least a year before the eruption (evidenced by the re-growth of grass on the walls). We now know that there was a major earthquake in the region in about 1700 BCE, that destroyed many of the buildings on Crete and marked the end of the Protopalatial period there, so that earthquake probably did damage to Akrotiri, followed by another minor one nearer to the eruption.
When Marinatos excavated the site, he discovered the ruined, but otherwise intact, remains of what increasingly became clear, was a town with many similarities to those that had been found throughout Crete, 150km to the south. Although the town displayed some cruicial differences to Cretan palacetemple sites in its layout (for example, no central court, etc)1 nevertheless there were also striking parallels. For example, the shrines in the houses were typically Minoan; the pottery was characteristiccally Minoan; and above all, the frescos or wall paintings that were found ‘in situ’ were all Minoan. So, was Akrotiri a Minoan colony, inhabited by colonists from Crete? Or was it an entirely separate state that just adopted some of the Minoan customs and culture?
Christos Boulotis says2:”Influences from palatial Crete were particularly strong during the 16th & first half of the 15th century BCE, when Minoan civilisation was at is zenith, its influences radiating far and wide, and there were intense cultural osmoses within the Aegean region. The flow of Minoan influences, in whatever form, also contained elements of religious expression, which
can be detected almost exclusively in the sacred iconography and symbolism on the one hand, and in vessels associated with cult practice on the other”. Many of these items of religious (and therefore Goddess) belief can be found in the sacred symbols, figurines, cult objects, wall paintings and sealstones found at Akrotiri.
However, to answer the question about the extent of Goddess-celebrating Minoan Crete influence in Akrotiri, we have to go back in time before the destruction of the town to see what existed there before the Minoan culture came into prominence. Akrotiri was founded in the early Cycladic period [3300 BCE – equivalent to the Prepalatial period in Minoan Crete], and finds from this early period include a number of Goddess figurines that have much in common with other figurines discovered on other islands in the Cyclades.
There was evidently extensive contact and trading with both the Cycladic islands and also Minoan Crete, as Cycladic Goddess figurines from this period have also been found in Crete, most notably at the Phourni cemetery.
However, it was in the Middle Cycladic period [1900 BCE onwards – equivalent to the Protoplatial & Neopalatial periods in Minoan Crete] that Akrotiri really began to show striking similarities to the buildings, artefacts, frescos and culture of Minoan Crete. So what happened at this time? Did Minoan Cretans travel the short distance between the islands and take over the Theran town, bringing their own culture with them? Or did the Therans adopt the sophisticated styles and motifs of their neighbours, the Minoan Cretans, and look southwards for their inspiration rather than westwards and northwards towards the Cycladic islands? We may never know for certain, but it is obvious that Thera wholeheartedly embraced this Minoan culture.
Among the finds from Akrotiri showing unmistakable similarities to those from Minoan Crete are an offering table with dolphins and marine motifs, and pithoi illustrated with a bull, goats, dolphin and seagulls, both identical to those shown on Minoan pottery and frescos.
Other examples include jugs and bowls with anthropomorphic heads and breasts. with double axes, and with shields (associated with the Goddess and her divine protection), all motifs that are found extensively in Minoan Crete. Perhaps though it is the symbol and motif of the horns of consecration that so marks out the Minoan culture. The symbol may be found in frescos, on seal stones, in pottery, and adorning public buildings most notably at Knossos on Crete. Since it is usually found in sacred contexts, its meaning is presumed to relate to worship of a deity, the Goddess. Because of the bull cult in Minoan Crete, it has been suggested that the horns originally arose as a stylized version of the horns of the bull. The connection to sacred ritual can be found by the use of horns to crown an altar, and with a space for a bough or double axe placed between them. The depiction of horns of consecration in many wall paintings and frescos is extensive.
Turning to Akrotiri, the symbol has been found there as well. Four horns of consecration, of different sizes, have been uncovered at various points in the settlement: two from Complex Delta, one from the House of the Ladies, and one from the vicinity of the staircase of Building XVI (shaft 66) which is 1 metre high. Depictions can also be found in the frescos from the Akrotiri settlement. All of this goes to show that Akrotiri on Thera not only adopted the symbols and motifs of Minoan Crete, but presumably their underlying meaning as well. Christos Boulotis says3 ”It is apparent from the archaeological evidence, whether sacred places, sacred symbols, figurines and cult paraphernalia, or scenes of rituals and representations of religious character in general [at Akrotiri], that [Minoan] religion had permeated virtually all aspects of life. Indeed to such a degree that it is frequently difficult – especially in the case of Minoan Crete – to draw a clear dividing line between the sacred and the secular”.
Nanno Marinatos adds4 “I cannot accept that Minoan influence was superficial. It is apparent not only in art, architecture, pottery shapes, script, method of administration, but in the religion as well…… The adoption of Minoan religion in the 16th century BCE by the Therans signifies an important event in Cycladic history”. As well as the motifs of dolphins, bulls, goats, double axes, shields and horns of consecration, common to both Crete and Thera, Minoan cult objects found on Thera include offering tables, libation jugs, rhyta, conical cups, shells, animal-shaped rhyta, and stone offering vessels. All of this indicates an adoption by Therans of not only the symbols and motifs of Minoan religion, but the very essence of the Goddess-celebrating religion itself.
Turning to the wall-paintings or frescos found at Akrotiri, again there is much iconography that is identical or very similar to that found on Minoan Crete frescos. For example, from the House of the Ladies at Akrotiri come frescos that illustrate females that are very similar to those depicted on Minoan Crete frescos.
The women have similar hairstyles (long dark hair), and wear loose fitting robes with a deep decolletage which leave the breasts partially exposed. In fact, it has been suggested that the Cretan examples depict priestesses rather than ‘ladies of the court’, evidenced by the necklace worn by one of the women in the Blue Ladies fresco, which is the same as that discovered in the tomb of a queen or priestess at Phourni in Crete. Similarly, the Akrotiri depictions are equally thought to be priestesses.
Nanno Marinatos attempts a reconstruction of a ceremony in Akrotiri:5 “The Ladies House had a shrine in which a ceremony was performed. This can be deduced by the elaborate attire of the women. The ritual involved preparations which included dressing up the priestess in the vestibule of the shrine as well as preparatory offerings which can be inferred from the presence of a triton shell and conical cups in the vestibule. Then the Priestess would enter the Papyrus room where more offerings would take place. The cult Implements for these would have been a kymbe painted with dolphins and horned animals, nippled ewers, rhyta, triton shells, etc, all of which were stored in the magazine (room). Another ritual can be inferred, during the course of which a cult meal would have been consumed. Presumably only the priestess (or at most a very few select people) would enter the main shrine, whereas more of the personnel would take part in the meal.” All of this is very similar to the kind of ceremonies suggested for the palace-temple sites on Crete.
Marinatos adds: “About the nature of the festival nothing can be said with certainty (but) I suspect that it had to do with the cycles of nature, as it is the (frescos of) papyri that dominate the shrine. In addition seeds were found in a jar in the sealed repositories (that) could be the symbol of regeneration”.
This suggestion is given extra weight by the depiction of a priestess (as shown by her heavy garments) on a fresco from the West House at Akrotiri. She is depicted performing an obvious ritual act of burning crocus stamens on the charcoal that she is carrying in a firebox. In addition to this, other frescos at Akrotiri depict scenes of a Goddess and priestesses in nature, very similar to ones found in Minoan Crete. In particular, the Crocus Gatherers fresco and Blue Monkeys fresco from Akrotiri and the Saffron Gatherers one from Crete.
The Crocus Gatherers fresco at Akrotiri was found in Xeste 3 room above the adyton, or lustral basin, of which Marinatos says6 :”It is clear that this was a sacred area designated for some special ritual, perhaps of a mystical nature”. On the upper storey the subject of the composition is the gathering of stamens from the saffron crocuses. Women dressed in festive clothes and wearing expensive jewellery are picking the flowers in a rocky landscape and placing them in baskets. Dominating the scene is a female figure, undoubtedly a Goddess, seated on a tripartite platform and flanked by two exotic animals, a monkey and a griffin. This is clearly a depiction of a festival where the people (priestesses?) are making offerings to the Goddess of Nature, in the form of an epiphany ritual. In the same room on the south wall, other women are depicted: one is carrying a bunch of flowers that appear to be wild roses, and both have costumes on which real flowers are embroidered, in one case crocuses and the other lilies. Marinatos says that the recurring imagery of certain flowers and plants on Minoan frescos and pottery (most notably lilies and crocuses) indicates that they were gathered from rocky terrains specifically as suitable offerings to the Goddess.
Depictions of a griffin (with the body of a lion and the head of an eagle) as attendant to the Goddess are shared in both Minoan Cretan and Theran art. On Crete in the Throne Room at Knossos griffins guard the throne; at the burial site of Phourni a gold ring was found depicting a Goddess and a griffin; and on the Aghia Triada sarcophagus two Goddesses are depicted travelling in a chariot drawn by griffins. On Thera at Akrotiri there is the example above, together with other examples from the Flotilla fresco, on a sealstone (together with a dolphin) and in a clay seal impression.
Monkeys too as attendants of the Goddess may be found on both Crete and at Akrotiri. On Crete the Saffron Gatherers fresco from Knossos depicts blue monkeys gathering saffron, perhaps as gifts to the Goddess. On Thera in the aforementioned Crocus Gatherers fresco, the monkey depicted may be offering crocuses to the seated Goddess.
In addition in Room B6 at Akrotiri is a fresco depicting blue monkeys, which is similar to those depicted on the Saffron Gatherers fresco at Knossos. Other fragments from the Akrotiri fresco were
discovered, depicting myrtles and other plants, together with the waters of a little ford and swallows flying in the sky, indicating that the scene represents a spring scene depicting the natural environment of the Goddess.
Another fragment of a fresco found in area north of Sector A supports this hypothesis. It shows a monkey standing in front of an altar, topped with horns of consecration and supported by columns ending in papyrus capitals. The monkey bends his arms in an attitude of worship. He is thus clearly shown as an adorant of the Goddess. Taken all together, we have a picture in both Cretan and Theran frescos of a deity (the Goddess) depicted in a nature setting, with many flowers and plants gathered as offerings. She is attended by priestesses, and guarded by exotic animals, in particular griffins and blue monkeys. She is a Goddess of Nature who is honoured in the land and the temples.
But was this Goddess depicted in both Crete and Thera the same Goddess? We cannot be sure, but the imagery and motifs in each case would appear to suggest it. There is very little evidence for the names of the Goddess(es) from this period, but one text in Linear A found on Crete suggests a name ‘Assassara’. Other names are found on some Linear B scripts in Crete, but this dates from the Postpalatial period there, after the fall of Akrotiri on Thera. However, two names have been preserved in Linear A script on an eyed ewer and pithos respectively found in Akrotiri, which may have been Goddess names: ‘Aresana’ and ‘Atanaje’. Aresana sounds not too dissimilar to Assassara, and each may have been a local variant in Thera and on Crete for the same Goddess.
There are other examples of similarities between the finds at Akrotiri and those on Minoan Crete (for example, bull leaping features in both places), and some differences too (for example, Theran society seems to have been organised around a system of shrines, whereas Minoan society on Crete was organised around Palace-Temple sites with satellite towns and villas). But the systems and religious observences that underlie both Crete and Thera appear to be of the same order. In both Thera and Crete there is no representation of political history, no portraits of generals, no kings or chieftans depicted. Instead there is the world of nature, the beauty of life and worship of the Goddess shown in the pottery, the jewellery, the ritual objects and the frescos. This was a world of deep love and respect for a Goddess of nature and nurture, and it is sadly ironic that, that world, on Thera at least, was ultimately destroyed by a devastating force of nature – earthquake and volcanic eruption.
So what happened to the Therans after the eruption of that volcano in 1630 -1600 BCE approx.? Evidently the people had time to escape the town and take most of their possessions with them. But where did they go? It has been suggested that they had relocated to another part of the island when the volcano erupted, but no bodies have ever been found. It seems much more likely that they would have gone to Minoan Crete. They left behind what may have been their most precious possession: a gold ibex figurine, that was deliberately buried, placed inside a wooden casket, which was in turn placed inside a clay larnax. This may have been a final offering to the Goddess before they left their homes for ever.
If they did indeed sail to Minoan Crete they would have found that the two cultures spoke the same language, had the same religion, created the same kind of pottery and frescos, and lived the same kind of lifestyles. The Theran people and their priestesses would have fitted easily into Minoan Cretan society, and would have been welcomed into Minoan life. Thera may have been destroyed in the 17th century BCE, but it lived on for at least another 150 years on Minoan Crete.
- But note that the area of Akrotiri so far excavated is only a small part of what remains, so more similarities to Minoan palace-temple sites may yet be found.
- From ‘Aspects of religious expression at Akrotiri’ by Christos Boulotis [ΑΛΣ issue 3, 2005].
- From ‘Art and Religion in Thera’ by Nanno Marinatos [Souanis Bros Co, 1984/2014]