Examples of Greek Bronze Age art

May 15th, 2018

Disclaimer

The article below was originally written in the form of an undergraduate assignment for the Greek Open University in 2004, during a period when the author’s academic skills were still under development. Although the quality of this article does not match the quality of later examples of the same author’s work, it is written in a thorough manner and contains useful information to nowadays students and other readers with non-specialised knowledge; therefore, it has been proudly included on this website.

The reader needs to be warned that the original assignment, on which this article is based on, was written in Greek and was intended to be read by specialised academic art historians. Despite the author’s best intentions to present this essay in the clearest way possible, some points and arguments might still be lost in translation. The author recommends that for any unknown words or specialised vocabulary, the readers should refer to the web for additional information.

The author admits that the bibliography used for writing this article is limited, matching the requirements of an undergraduate assignment of this level. The author did not include any additional bibliography during the translation of his work in English due to time and access limitations. It must also be noted that the original bibliography for this article was studied from translated copies in Greek; therefore, the page numbers suggested in the citations below match the page numbers of the translated copies and not the original volumes.

In a series of other articles, the author has already expressed his objections and complaints for the ways in which the publication industry abuses and exaggerates anything that has to do with intellectual property rights of photographed artefacts. For this online article, the author decided to play the game by the book and did not include any photographs that could attract negative attention. Still, the article is accompanied by some links from random websites that assist with the visual representation of the artefacts mentioned in this study.

The point the author is trying to make is simple: no matter how much effort authors and publishers put into restricting the circulation of photographs of archaeological artefacts, there will always be websites that will circulate such material for free and out of their reach. What they are trying to achieve is totally pointless!

The Bronze Age man and nature

This short article presents some visual examples describing the relationship between Bronze Age artisans and nature as this was expressed through different forms of artistic creation in Prehistoric Greece. The article discusses three artworks selected from metalworking, pottery and wall painting, and at the same time, it explores the relationships among three major civilisations that flourished in the Aegean during the later Bronze Age: Mycenaean, Cycladic and Minoan.

Metalworking

A characteristic example of advance metalworking from mainland Greece were the inlaid daggers. The artefact examined in this section was recovered from Shaft Tomb 5 of Grave Circle A at Mycenae and is nowadays exhibited at the National Archaeological Museum of Athens.

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The blade is 47mm wide and is decorated with representations of felines hunting birds in a Nilotic scenery (Hood 1993, 221). The term Nilotic refers to a scenery with identical vegetation to the one growing along the banks of the River Nile (Papagiannopoulou 1999,134). On this specific dagger, such representations resemble papyrus plants (Hood 1993, 218).

The interpretations in relation to the chronological and cultural context of this artefact vary. Papagiannopoulou (1999, 86-7) suggests that the dagger is of Mycenaean manufacture and it dates to the beginning of the Late Bronze Age, roughly around the 16th century BC. By contrast, Hood (1993, 220) suggests that the artefact was produced in Crete and not Mainland Greece, and it dates to the Late Minoan Ia period (LMIa), roughly between 1550 and 1500 BC. Hood (1993, 220) argues that such artefacts are typical examples of Minoan art, despite their large circulation in Mainland Greece and their complete absence in Crete. This paradox in the distribution of such daggers is in his view a pure coincidence.

The decoration of the dagger has been produced by infilling of various precious metals on top of the blade, which were later coated with Niello. This decorative technique appears to have been introduced from Syria (Hood 1993, 220). More specifically, thin sheets from precious metals, such as silver, gold and copper, were hammered within concavities that had been previously engraved on the exterior of the dagger’s blade. Then, the entire decorated exterior was coated with Niello, which is a mixture of copper, silver, lead and sulphur, and gives out a distinctive metallic gloss. The different colours of the representations were achieved by combinations of different sheets of precious metals (Papagiannopoulou 1999, 85).

The left side of the blade shows a feline attacking water birds, which are moving towards the opposite direction. It is possible that this animal is a hunting cat similar to those in various contemporary Egyptian representations (Hood 1993, 220). The image is divided in two levels that are used to express the depth of two different scenes: there is a curving water stream, probably identified by the swimming fish, and at its shores there appear papyrus plants at a different depth. The representation of the feline, which traps the two water birds by using its claws and teeth, stresses the brutality of the hunting scene.

In general, all animals are represented in a static manner. The dominant colour is yellow due to the use of gold, followed by silver and orange due to the glossed copper. The details on the animals’ bodies have been probably engraved with a thin chisel.

Decorated pottery

Bronze Age artisans who decorated ceramic vessels from Crete showed a distinct preference in themes associated with nature. A typical example of Cretan Bronze Age pottery with naturalistic decoration is presented below.

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The vessel is a neckless amphora or short-handled pithos, 545mm tall, which was recovered from the Minoan Palace of Knossos and is nowadays exhibited at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. The vessel dates broadly to the Middle Minoan period, although its exact chronology is debatable. Arthur Evans placed the vessel at the end of Middle Minoan II (MMII) while Hood (1993, 42-3) argued that it must be later, dating to the Middle Minoan IIIa (MMIIIa), roughly around 1600 BC.

The pithos is a domestic pot and it has been produced on the potter’s wheel. It is a relatively large vessel that was designed for storing various agricultural products. The potter’s wheel was introduced in Crete during the Middle Minoan period and played an important role in the development of such vessels, known as the Kamara Wares (Hood 1993, 42-3; Papagiannopoulou 1999, 56-67).

The Kamara Wares were characterised by their elaborate painted decoration, which combined multi-coloured motifs and a glossy black font (Papagiannopoulou 1997, 57). This specific pithos is decorated with white palm trees, the details of which are stressed with the use of red colour. The palm trees are drawn on the same level; they appear still and there is no representation of depth. The central palm tree stands slightly higher than the other two palm trees. Its rich and dense foliage is likely to suggest the representation of a warm season. The top leafage of the tree appears in district curves, almost as two circles placed on each side of the trunk, which are symmetric in relation to their position and size. All trunks are rooted into the earth, which is painted on the lower exterior of the vessel.

The vessel’s background is black and glossy, causing a distinct visual contrast with the bright colours of the plants (Hood 1993, 42). Such visual effects characterised the broader Kamara style, the use of which was abandoned at Knossos after an earthquake circa 1700 BC. The Kamara style was replaced by the Floral style, which consisted of the exact opposite effect: is represented black glossy motifs on top of a bright-coloured background (Papagiannopoulou 1999, 57).

Usually, most Kamara Wares are defined as ‘eggshell’ due to their thin walls (Papagiannopoulou 1999, 66); however, the pithos discussed in this section is highly unlikely to be eggshell. The size of such vessels and the use they intended to cover properly required a denser and heavier fabric that would form strong thick walls.

Wall painting

Wall painting was the most typical form of Bronze Age art, which focused on the representation of nature. A characteristic example is the so-called ‘Spring Fresco’, which was recovered at the settlement of Akrotiri at the island of Thera, and is nowadays exhibited at the National Archaeological Museum of Athens.

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The fresco dates to the Late Minoan Ia period, around 1550 BC, and despite its Cycladic origin, its Minoan inspirations are more than evident. According to the interpretation of the archaeological evidence from Akrotiri, there was a precedent earthquake that was a generation earlier compared to the main earthquake, which caused the final abandonment of the settlement circa 1500 BC. This specific fresco is likely to have stood on a reconstructed wall, dating to the period between the two earthquakes (Hood 1993, 64-5).

The fresco is dominated by red, yellow and light blue colours. The artist intended to represent a rocky scenery, possibly the island of Thera itself, by incorporating a variety of shades. The picture shows three large rocks of irregular shape, on top of which are growing red lilies with yellow stems. The lilies are growing in sets of three. The painting is characterised by intense mobility. It appears as the wind is shacking the stems of the plants towards different directions, and on the white background of the picture, which represents the sky, there are three flying swallows. The type of movement of the birds is obvious: two are meeting each other face to face as if they are courting, and the way they are positioned is implying rotation in the air. On the right side of the fresco, the is a third swallow with its wings bent and its head facing upwards, giving the impression that is about to fly vertically in the sky (Papagiannopoulou 1999, 102-3). The scenery, which consists of bloomed lilies and flirting birds, suggests the coming of the spring; hence, the name attributed to the fresco today.

The interpretations in relation to this fresco vary. Papagiannopoulou (1999, 103) suggests that it was probably part of the broader decoration of a worship space and that it bears religious significance. If the room where the fresco was found was indeed associated with religious worship, its image might have associated with a celebration or ceremony connected to the coming of the spring. If this is the case, then there is a clear correlation between the representation and the functionality of the space it was placed in. Furthermore, Papagiannopoulou (1999, 103) suggests that the recovery of a bronze sickle and several cooking vessels from the same room strengthens the fact that the space probably associated with religious cult.

By contrast, Hood (1993, 65) suggests that the sacred/religious spaces of the houses at Akrotiri were isolated and located at the top floors of the buildings. Similar religious facilities have been found in the houses of Knossos in Crete. The room in which the ‘Spring Fresco’ was discovered was a small enclosed space on the ground floor of the building; therefore, it is highly unlikely to have associated with a religious space. Instead, Hood (1993, 65) ties the fresco to every-day decorative themes that were popular in Bronze Age Cyclades and did not associate with any form of religious cult.

The association between the ‘Spring Fresco’ and the wall paintings of Minoan Crete is evident to both scholars. Hood (1993, 65-6) points out that there are common features between the lilies represented on the Thera fresco and those from the frescoes of Agia Triada in Crete, Trianta in Rhodes and the South-East House at Knossos. The representation of lilies in sets of three was already known in Minoan Crete even during earlier periods. More specifically, sets of three lilies have been found on decorated pottery from Knossos, which has been dated by Evans to the Middle Minoan III period (MMIII) (Hood 1993, 64-5).

Bibliography

Hood, S., 1993, The Arts in Prehistoric Greece, translated by Pantelidou, M. & Xenos, Th., Athens: Papadimas.
Papagiannopoulou, A., 1999, ‘Prehistoric times’, in Papagiannopoulou, A. (ed.), The Arts I: Greek Representational Arts, Overview of Greek Architecture and Urban Planning, Volume 1, Prehistoric and Classical Art, Patra: Greek Open University.