Cosmopolitan Thera

Akrotiri on Thera (Santorini) was home to an economic elite in prehistoric times. It had multi-story buildings, cobblestone streets, a sewer system, large pottery workshops and textile mills. Private dwellings had handsome furniture, judging from the molds produced on the excavation site, and vessels made of stone, metal or perishable materials. The wealth reflected in the art and architecture indicates how prosperous the inhabitants of Thera were. It was a seafaring society with links abroad that brought in wealth, as Professor Christos Doumas, the head of excavations at the site, explained in his report on January 14. The society began as a neolithic village in the middle of the fifth millenium BC and developed dynamically, reaching its peak in the Middle Bronze Age as a cosmopolitan port. «The most striking discovery of all,» says Doumas, «is the dynamism of Cycladic society during the Middle Bronze Age (the first half of the second millennium BC). The wealth and prosperity of Thera’s residents enabled them to maintain the Cycladic tradition of cultivating art.» Finds that are still coming to the surface challenge many earlier assumptions. Among the most impressive are vases with designs of a narrative character, depicting sea birds rising from the water at the sight of dolphins or animals startled, perhaps by a hunter. Images that had been considered purely decorative are now seen as narrative, says Doumas, citing the example of an eagle holding an eagle chick and showing it how to fly. He described this as an initiation scene, of a type which can be seen on other vases. Strictly for the eyes of archaeologists only, so far, are some scenes depicted in frescoes and on other finds that bear witness to contact with Egyptian culture and other civilizations. Ostrich eggs and an ivory scepter handle are examples of exchanges with other cultures that can be seen in many works of art. Images of apes, wild cats and antelopes are incised into pumice stone.

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