Museum of PrehistoricThera
To the north and south ends of Chora, and equidistant from the centre, are the island’s two museums of archaeology. In the south is the Museum of Prehistoric Thera– (open 8–7.30 except Mon), which opened in 2000 and occupies the new building just below the southeast corner of the church of the Metropolis. It is an exceptional and beautifully displayed collection, essential to the proper understanding of the prehistoric site at Akrotiri (see p. 78 ff). The exhibits are arranged in chronological order around three sides of a closed, central court. If you go early in the morning as it opens, you will probably have the museum to yourself for a good half an hour.
A number of the most striking pieces displayed— pieces of furniture, in particular—are plaster ‘positives’ taken from the negative impression in the lava left by the disintegrated object. The Bronze Age city at Akrotiri was destroyed by the volcanic eruption of the island, and the objects of organic material in its buildings were slowly incinerated by the heat of packed volcanic ash. The ash then hardened with subsequent rainfall, bearing the ex act negative impression of the incinerated objects in its form, while the objects themselves slowly disintegrated into dust. The archaeologists were therefore able to re construct accurately the forms of many domestic objects, by injecting a plaster-cement into the negative space left by the disintegrated object and then clearing the ash from around it.
Right-hand wing: In the first alcove to the right of the entrance, following the rare examples of fossilised olive leaves– (Case 1, nos. 1–6) from c. 60,000 bc, which are the earliest such examples from the Mediterranean area, are objects (Case2) of Neolithic Cycladic marble-work—cups, lamps (collared jars), querns, and figurines—showing that settlement was already well-established on the island by the 3rd millennium bc. The obsidian tools used to work the marble are also exhibited. In Case 3, we see the characteristic forms and pure designs of Theran pottery emerging in the Early Cycladic period: jars with the pulled-back neck, decorated with simple, confident, abstract designs. In the Middle Cycladic pottery, we begin to see the first ‘nipple jars’ with exquisite decoration of swallows– (nos. 101, 102 & 138)—a kind of domestic pottery decorated with symbols of the returning cycle of seasons and the fertility they bring. opposite, against the wall, is a very fine, shallow marble basin– dating from c. 2200 bc.
The model of the site of Akrotiri provides a bird’s eye view of the small area of the city so far excavated: the plan of the streets and the small squares, such as the triangular public space in front of the West House, can be appreciated in their similarity to Cycladic villages of today.
Beyond (Case 4) are dis played finds from Bronze Age Thera, including the remarkable reconstitutions of pieces of furniture– (nos. 144–45) taken from the negative impression left by the piece in the hot volcanic ash at the time of the eruption. The ornate design of the table legs (uncannily reminiscent of French 18th-century furniture) is striking. Also exhibited are intriguing domestic items—standing lamps, a portable cooking oven, clay firedogs and andirons in the form of oxen, for the cooking of meat over embers, all dating from the 16th century bc. Case 5 exhibits large bronze dishes and weapons, including a dagger with gold decoration applied to the surface. There is another reconstitution from the negative impression left by a burnt woven fruit basket. Beside, is a fine clay bathtub—pre cursor to a long tradition of such objects in early Greece.
Rear Wing, First Bay: In the centre of the back wall are three magnificent storge pithoi, with different designs on their front faces which perhaps denote the contents: the impressionistic barley-shoot for stored grain, the splash for stored oil, and the circle and cross for wine (the latter appropriately has a spout at its foot). To either side (Cases 6 & 7) are lead weights and measures for commerce; fragments of inventory tablets in Linear A; and Late Cycladic, spouted jars. In Case 8 (opposite the pithoi) a large collection of seal-stones gives an intimation of the organisation and extent of trade contacts which the city had.
Rear Wing, Second Bay: In the central case is a beautiful ceramic tripod-altar with designs of dolphins– (no. 253). The fact that this was found by Spyri don Marinatos in one of the upper rooms of the West House at Akrotiri, at exactly the point where the trajectories of two pictorial narratives of the walking boys carrying fishes for offering meet, confirms its ritual nature as a portable offering-table. The exhibits around are dedicated to painting fragments and examples of pigments— ferric oxides, earth colours and an imported, Egyptian frit (copper silicate and calcium). The mastery and confidence of line and form, enhanced by bold colours, are striking. The corner is occupied by a reconstruction of a room from the House of the Ladies: the paintings re of papyrus plants and female figures– dressed in fine-coloured clothes with make-up and jewellery. The sense of an easeful and prosperous society is conveyed through an artistic maturity and admirable simplicity of design: there is no hesitancy, but utter confidence in the sweeping lines and bright colours.
Opposite, are more storage pithoi with dolphins and lilies– (nos. 271–72) in designs of particular beauty (perhaps suggesting ritual rather than commercial use). No. 360, which is of more elegant shape, bears depictions of gulls and dolphins on one side, and goats and bulls on the other, images which may have related to the wall-paintings in the room where it was found.
Left-hand wing: This area (Case 9) exhibits a magnificent array of Theran pottery of the 17th and 16th centuries bc, with its unflagging repertoire of decorations with both abstract and floral motifs, swallows and marine animals: good examples of both form and brilliant decoration are nos. 345 and 346. note also theenious flower-pots (nos. 350–51) designed so as to prevent the soil from dehydrating, and a kind of strainer, no. 357, elegantly decorated with swallows in flight. note also the fine ritual vessels beautifully modelled in the forms of conch shells or the heads of boar. Case 10 gives a clear picture of the geographical extent of Thera’s trading links, through the imported objects found in the excavations, which come from mainland Greece, Crete, Egypt and the Middle East: note especially the Syro Palestinian pieces, the Canaanite jar, and the beautiful Egyptian, ostrich-eggrhyton. Such trade could only have been possible in a prevailingly peaceful environment in the Eastern Mediterranean in the 18th to 16th centuries bc.
In the final corner (to left of the entrance) the painted frieze of the Blue Monkeys from House B has been reconstructed and ‘completed’ from dozens of fragmentary pieces. Once again the chromatic range, and a confident, simplicity of form, worthy of Matisse, are striking: there is a constantly varying gamut of poses of this lithe and expressive animal, which here, as in Egypt, may have been considered a sacred animal and ministrant of the divinity. Even if monkeys were not native to Thera, the Theran merchants will have seen them in Africa (the surprise at finding them in Cretan painting had led Arthur Evans erroneously to restore a monkey as a child in one segment of painting at Knossos). The last showcase exhibits the only object of precious metal to have been found so far at Akrotiri: a gold ibex (hollow-cast in the lost-wax method) found in 1999 in side a wooden box, within a clay chest close to a pile of goat’s horns. The piece may have been an import from the near East.
Santorini Island is part of the Cyclades Island Group, Greece.