The art of Ancient Thera
Nowadays Santorini is known for its breathtaking sights of churches and buildings, for its partying and for the thousands of visitors who flock here each year to celebrate and party but 3 and a half thousand years ago it boasted a bustling city with trading links to Europe, Africa and Asia.
Ancient Thera was destroyed by the eruption that created the current caldera in the 17th Century BCE. The eruption spread a thick layer of ash and tephra across the land, still visible either in layers amongst the other rocks or lying on top. The town of Akrotiri was amongst the areas covered and that preserved it until it was rediscovered in the 1960s. Now the archaeological site has been roofed over and it is possible to visit. It is an amazing experience to walk through the narrow lanes of the town and to imagine what life must have been like.
The small museum in the modern town of Fira displays some of the finds from the site. Others are in the Archaeological Museum in Athens. Amongst them are many loom weights, found where they fell as buildings collapsed and looms burned in the catacysm. These tell of the importance of weaving at the time, and pots, some painted with symbols representing their contents. The best however are the fascinating and sophisticated murals, recovered from the walls of the houses in the site and brought back to the museum for restoration and display. These days, restoration does not mean reconstituting the paintings by plastering in the gaps that exist between paint fragments and then repainting as was done in the past. Rather, the fragments are placed and secured before being attached to a substrate and that substrate is then completed with recreations of the original art. This gives a better idea of what has actually been found, preserves the integrity of the original materials and also provides for interpretation and display.
The most interesting for me is the Blue Monkey mural. This two-section wall depicts monkeys swingng through trees or seated, one facing out towards the viewer, the others in profile. Full of life and vitality, this mural would have decorated a large important house and it has long been a mystery as to the type of monkey. While baboons are depicted in other murals and on pots and would have been seen in Africa on trading exchanges, these monkeys are not baboons. Collaborative research has started to prove that these are in fact langurs from Asia, and if it turns out to be case that would mean a rethinking of history. The Aegean could have had trading links that stretched more than 2,500 miles, allowing people to have actually seen these animals in their native habitat!