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Quite simple – or is it?

Quite simple – or is it?

A conical vase of simple shape. Along with some stripes near top and bottom, a few flowers are the only decoration. Apparently painted quite casually and simply in white, they produce a striking contrast with the reddish-brown hue of the clay itself. Altogether, quite a modest object, at a height of just 27cm (10.6”).

That’s it, basically. But, as is so often the case with even the simplest archaeological artefacts, some stories can be told about this object – and in this particular case, it also seems to tell one by itself!

The vessel is from Akrotiri, the famous prehistoric settlement on the island of Santorini in the Cyclades. Akrotiri was a thriving town in the Middle Bronze Age, let’s say after 2,000 BC, its population engaging in various crafts and in maritime trade with its neighbouring islands, nearby Crete, Mainland Greece and Asia Minor, and also Egypt and the Middle East further afield. Its prosperous existence came to an end at some point around 1,600 BC (the date is hotly disputed), when it was destroyed – and preserved! – by being covered in many metres of ashes from an enormous eruption of the volcano to which the island owes its existence and appearance. What happened to Akrotiri (the town’s ancient name is unknown) was quite similar to the events at better-known Pompeii in AD 79.

3600 year old houses around a small square in the Bronze Age town of Akrotiri on Santorini

3,600-year-old houses around a small square in the Bronze Age town of Akrotiri.

The site, rediscovered in the late 1960s, is nothing short of an archaeological miracle. Along the lanes and streets of the ancient settlement, the walls of houses built 36 centuries ago stand preserved to the height of the second floors (third if you’re American). Ongoing excavations have revealed countless fascinating objects and works of art, including the famous Akrotiri frescoes decorating many of its houses.

Among the finds are lots of painted vases. The people of Akrotiri seem to have felt a need to decorate – most usually by painting plant or animal motifs – pretty much everything around them, including even every-day life objects such as cooking pots or storage jars.

An ancient storage jar or pithos painted with tall lilies

Exuberant decoration on a mundane object: a storage jar or pithos, painted with tall lilies.

And flower pots!

That’s what our object is: a flower pot. Its neck is closed by a disk-shaped insert with a large central opening surrounded by 16 smaller holes, all probably meant to hold flowers. So, we are looking at a flower pot painted with flowers.

Lilies, to be exact. They are a common motif in Akrotiri, but also in Crete, at the time. Some scholars think that they convey some specific symbolic meanings, others point out that they are common as an actual plant in the region and thus make for a familiar image. The truth may be somewhere in the middle, as we see lilies depicted on pottery, but also in wall paintings, including sometimes in fairly prominent positions. On our vase, they are highly stylised, reduced to a simple but compelling shape, the essence of lily, so to speak, painted in bold and clearly well-experienced brush-strokes.

But then there’s something more to it: the artist or craftsman who painted the lilies, whoever he was, made a slight modification to the image, making it much more than a generic motif! On a closer look, what we see is not just a few stocks of lilies. From left to right, we have one stock with smaller flowers, followed by a second with larger ones, dominating the vase. And to the right, we see the flowers floating in the air and drifting away, as if they had wilted and finally fallen off the plant, to be carried away by the summer winds that are so typical of the Cyclades.

Detail of the lily-painted flower pot from Akrotiri

All good things… A detail of the lily-painted flower pot.

And thus, even within this seemingly simple and casual scene, we have the makings of a short but familiar narrative: the essential story of how things grow, flourish and perish. Maybe it is a metaphor for all life, or maybe an observation of the seasonality of lilies in particular, or maybe it is meant to remind us that all good and beautiful things must end – as did the existence of Akrotiri and its splendours! But then, the flower pot is round, so we can continue around it to return to the starting point and enter a tale of renewal, a concise version of the cycle of life!

The Akrotiri flower pot is just one of many astonishing objects in the Museum of Prehistoric Thera, devoted to that extraordinary site., The site and museum, in turn, are just one day of our Cruising to the Cyclades, a tour on which you can discover many more wonders, large and small!

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