(All images in this post, unless otherwise indicated, are from the Greek Ministry of Culture’s official press release and thus image rights are © ΕΦΑ ΚΥΚΛΑΔΩΝ / Archaeological Eforeia of the Cyclades).
Two weeks ago, the Greek Ministry of Culture announced “important new finds from Akrotiri”, the celebrated Bronze Age site on Santorini in the Cyclades, sometimes described as the Pompeii of the Aegean. The settlement was destroyed and preserved by the “Bronze Age eruption” of the Santorini volcano, probably around 1,600 BC, in the same manner that Pompeii was destroyed and preserved in AD 79. Akrotiri can certainly be described as one of the most important archaeological discoveries of the twentieth century; it is a major highlight on our Cruising to the Cyclades.
The new discoveries result from recent excavations conducted by Professor Christos Doumas, under the auspices of the Greek Archaeological Society (supervised by the Archaeological Eforeia of the Cyclades and sponsored by Kaspersky Labs). Although the news, widely reported in Greek and Greece-focused media, has also reached the international online press, it has not had much of an echo so far.
Having observed the ongoing work during three visits this year (in May, June and September), I was thrilled to read the press statement and to admire the excavation photographs, at least one of which is rather sensational. The new finds are fascinating and even at this early stage it is clear that they are not just thought-provoking, but that they have a potential to modify some of the prevailing ideas on Bronze Age Akrotiri and its identity.
The find situation, (it is described in Greek in the press release and most competently translated by our friends at the Archaeology News Network) is, in short, as follows.
The excavation took place within the confines of a previously known building, the “House of the Benches”, located at the southwestern edge of the excavation. My understanding is that the house extends beyond the excavated area, so its full ground plan and extent remain unknown, but it includes a room with built benches that has been visible for decades and that is the source of its conventional name.
The remains of the “House of the Benches” are just south of, and separated by a lane from, Xeste 3, one of the most elaborate and best-preserved structures in Akrotiri. Xeste 3 is fully excavated and is noted especially for its complex architecture and its rich fresco programme, with narrative scenes that are often suggested to illustrate aspects of female and male initiation, or more generally are thought to be concerned with female and male roles and identities in society. To add a little detail: one famous fresco composition shows females of three ages (child, adolescent, woman) picking flowers near a blood-splattered altar, while another shows a young man catching or training a bull. If Xeste 3 is likely to be connected with the religious or at least ritual life of Akrotiri, that may also reflect on its immediate neighbourhood.
The new excavations revealed a new internal space (in short, a room or courtyard) within the House of the Benches, that space not being well defined in the available report. What is remarkable about that room (so far) is its contents, buried under rubble, most likely from the collapsed superstructure of the house itself, either due to the eruption or to an earthquake that is assumed to have happened months or (less likely) years earlier. It contained a series of rectangular clay boxes (larnakes), set on the ground. Several of them were still covered with flat clay lids. In 1999, a similar box was discovered in the same area, containing a golden figurine of a goat or ibex, the only such object known from Akrotiri and now an important exhibit in the Museum of Prehistoric Thera at Fira. Another box, discovered in the area in 2017, contained a small marble figurine.
To understand what was found in 2018, we have access to a press release, the photographs it includes, as well as a blog post by Eugene Kaspersky, offering extra description and extra photographs that we cannot reproduce here. Judging from these sources, the new clay boxes, at least seven in number, were found in two groups (of four and three), one of which was accompanied by some (at least six) upturned clay vessels nearby. Excavation revealed the content of the boxes. The available report is not sufficiently detailed to be very analytic, but it seems clear that one (large) box contained two upside-down marble vessels, known by archaeologists as collared jars, and an alabaster vessel. The contents of several other boxes remain a little unclear so far, although Kaspersky reports and illustrates a fascinating double clay box containing the shadow of a long-decayed third box made of an organic material (wood?). For us, however, a box in the northwestern corner of the excavation, part of the group of four, is the most intriguing.
That box contained, first of all, another clay box (this appears to be the case for several of them). The inner box, in turn, contained a typical Cycladic figurine, a stylised depiction of a female human in marble, with crossed arms and simplified features. These figurines are well-known from the Cyclades and much has been written about them. I am, like any Aegean archaeologist, aware of many similar figurines, but I am not aware of any having been found in such a context outside Akrotiri. It is, incidentally, reasonably clear that the box it was found in was not specifically made for it, since it had to be placed diagonally within it. It is also noteworthy that the figurine had to be excavated within its box: apparently, it was covered in what appears to be pumice before the box was closed (or rather the boxes were closed).
Cycladic figurines and Cycladic marble vessels are commonly believed to be objects of symbolic character and thus of ritual use (some would use the term “religious” here). All available reports and discussions respect that view and thus conclude that the “House of the Benches” may have been a place of public significance and one where rituals might have been performed.
Personally, I would take that with a grain of salt. So far, it looks like the new room or space in the “House of the Benches” appears to be one where important objects were stored, but not necessarily where they were used. Ritual is a performative practice usually, and it could have taken place elsewhere in the House of the Benches, or in adjacent Xeste 3, where the frescoes appear to refer to elementary aspects of human roles, and perhaps to rituals expressing them. It could also have taken place elsewhere in the vicinity, including outdoors.
That said, I need to admit that the previous paragraph is speculative and based on many unverifiable ideas about the ritual life of Akrotiri. It also, along with all reports published so far, misses a major point: dates.
Cycladic figurines, mysterious as they remain, are by now a quite well-studied phenomenon, having been a focus of research for a century or so. Their meaning and function is more or less totally unclear and remains controversial, but they are nonetheless reasonably well-dated. The new figurine is broadly typical, but its detail reveals it to be of a slightly unusual type. It is commonly accepted that such figurines (but also vessels like the ones held in another clay box in the House of the Benches) were made during the period when the Cycladic islands, to which Santorini belongs, were the cultural centre of the Aegean, in the middle of the third millennium BC, and until about 2,200 BC. That is 600 years or more, in other words at least 24 generations, before the destruction of Akrotiri. Even if we allow that the newly-discovered deposit of larnakes may predate the destruction of Akrotiri somewhat, the figurine, so deliberately placed and even buried within its boxes, must have been of great age at the time of its final use and careful deposition, not to mention whatever future use was intended for it. The same dating applies for the aforementioned marble vessels.
Until now, we knew that levels buried far beneath the final phase of Akrotiri contained such items, indicating that the Akrotiri destroyed by the huge eruption was the final phase of a long-lived settlement that had used such objects (perhaps also produced them) when they were current. Now we know that some of them remained relevant and in some kind of use long after. This does not necessarily imply full continuity: it is not a given that the inhabitants of Akrotiri just before its destruction fully understood the background and meaning of their Early Cycladic heritage and of the then-ancient objects they so evidently respected.
As regards just one object, the figurine, there are many obvious questions: had it been in continuous use, was it an heirloom, or had someone dug it up and re-entered it into some kind of new use? Did the people of Akrotiri in the seventeenth century BC realise they were dealing with an object from centuries earlier? If so, did they understand its original meaning? For now, we cannot answer such questions, but we can tell that the object was treated with great care and thus was considered significant.
All of this impinges on a major question, that of the cultural identity of Akrotiri, which is controversial. To cut a long story short, some scholars since the 1970s see Akrotiri as essentially “Minoan”, as a settlement in full harmony with the then-prevailing culture of nearby Crete, even as an offshoot of that culture, or a “colony” of it. It is indeed true that Akrotiri includes many elements known from Minoan Crete, contains Cretan imports and is geographically relatively close to the big island. It is also, however, true that the Akrotiri houses are of an architectural style and design unknown in Crete, that the locally-produced pottery uses Cretan influences selectively while mostly staying within a distinct Cycladic tradition, and that the all-important Akrotiri frescoes, often hailed as Minoan, are quite obviously different from the known Cretan wall-paintings, the vast majority of which are centuries later. Still, the jury’s out on the important question whether or to what extent Akrotiri is Cretan/Minoan or whether its culture is essentially home-grown, Theran (Thera being the ancient name for Santorini) or Cycladic.
The new finds are significant in this regard. They indicate that the inhabitants of Akrotiri, in an explicitly ritual and thus symbolic context, quite actively referred to their distant Cycladic forebears. The double-boxed figurine, an eminently Cycladic object to the modern scholar’s eye, and most certainly not an eminently Cretan one, might already have carried such regional significance at the time, many centuries after it was first made and used. If the House of the Benches turns out to be a building of ritual significance after further excavation, it will suggest that the people of Akrotiri celebrated or commemorated or worshipped their local and/or Cycladic background there quite deliberately. That is an exciting thought.
Akrotiri is a celebrated site, and a well-studied one, currently in the hands of an excellent team of experts, engaged in an exemplary effort of patient long-term study. It is also very much work in progress, as new finds are coming to light and as important material (especially frescoes) from earlier excavations are still undergoing studies, awaiting publication and (hopefully) display. The site is a source of endless fascination and it is one that still opens a lot more questions at every turn of enquiry than it can easily answer. Its identity, local, Cycladic, Cretan or a mix of all the above, is just one of those questions, but one that is of utmost importance for our understanding of the Aegean Bronze Age – and the new finds potentially affect its answers.
You can see Akrotiri for yourself on our Cruising to the Cyclades, including the site itself and its site museum at Fira. You can also explore Cycladic figurines on Naxos and Paros on the same cruise, or in various museums in Athens, where you can also see some frescoes from Akrotiri. To encounter the remains of Crete’s Minoan civilisation, you can join us on Exploring Crete.