BMCR 2006.12.18

Aegean Wall Painting: A Tribute to Mark Cameron. British School at Athens Studies 13

, , , Aegean wall painting : a tribute to Mark Cameron. British School at Athens studies ; 13. London: British School at Athens, 2005. 250 pages, [1] folded leaf of plates, 64 pages of plates : illustrations (some color), plans ; 31 cm.. ISBN 0904887499 £79.00.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

The late Mark Cameron’s well-known contributions to the study of Aegean wall painting have dominated the field for nearly twenty-five years. This volume, published as a BSA Studies volume, and edited by Lyvia Morgan is a fine tribute to his inquisitive and exacting mind, bringing together a number of well-known scholars to re-examine materials and themes that Cameron himself had investigated. In addition to their thoughtful and timely remarks, the volume is beautifully illustrated with several fragments not previously published and 90 color plates along with an additional 135 black and white plates. It is a welcome addition to an ever-growing field.

Lyvia Morgan’s lengthy introduction traces the various discoveries and trends that have affected the study of Aegean wall paintings, from the earliest days of the Knossos excavations to the recently discovered wall paintings from Egypt at Tell el Dab’a. Her review of some of the most important frescoes that remain preserved to us today — those from Knossos, Mycenae, Thera, Pylos, and Avaris in particular — provides a useful backdrop to the chapters that follow, which are wide-ranging both geographically and chronologically. The artistic crossovers between and among these areas mark one of the major underlying themes of the volume.

The chapters following the introduction are arranged in five thematic sections that reflect Cameron’s interests: “Palatial Images,” “Nature and Culture,” “Ideology and Belief,” “Image and Reality,” and “Technical Studies”. They vary widely in length, from Hood’s 37-page chapter on the date of the Knossos frescoes to Morgan and Marinatos’ three-page chapter on the iconography of hunting scenes.

Sinclair Hood’s excellent chapter on the chronology of the Knossos frescoes begins the section devoted to “Palatial Images,” which continues his earlier research into the problem.1 His engagement with the Knossos material stems from his many years of excavation and access to Evans’ and Mackenzie’s notebooks, all of which he brings to bear in a close analysis of the stratigraphical contexts of thirty-four of the frescoes from the palace and surrounding town. The successive destruction horizons at Knossos have made the understanding of the palatial frescoes difficult, and Hood adjusts some of Evans’ assumptions about how the ceramic periods and new fresco constructions should be related to these destructions. This new set of assumptions, which places construction of each new set of frescoes at the very beginning of a later period, rather than the end of an earlier one, seems to better reflect the nature of the evidence, although in effect it appears to push back the chronology. Hood takes great pains to suggest not only when each fresco was painted, referencing the work of Evans, Cameron, and Immerwahr, but also how long it likely remained on the walls. Especially useful for those working with the Knossos frescoes is the catalogue at the end of the chapter with detailed investigations into their excavation contexts, style, and likely date.

Manfred Bietak’s chapter continues to address issues of palatial context with a discussion of the setting of the wall paintings from Tell el Dab’a (Avaris). Since their first publication, the study of these frescoes has been hampered by considerable confusion as to their date and context,2 which this chapter helps to clarify. After a thorough discussion of the stratigraphy and context of the fresco dumps, he shows that the painted structures should be dated slightly later than was originally thought — to the time of Thutmosis I or II as opposed to Ahmose or a late Hyksos ruler. This new chronology (1500-1450 C.E.) brings these frescoes more in line with the period of increasing contact between Minoan Crete and Egypt as depicted in the Theban tombs of Hatshepsut and Thutmosis III, and helps to broaden our understanding of Creto-Egyptian relations at the time.

In the fourth chapter, which begins the section devoted to “Nature and Culture,” Maria Shaw returns to a project left unfinished at Cameron’s death and proposes a new reconstruction of the façade and painted pavilion of the Caravanserai, based on the re-study and re-publication of the wall paintings. During the 1970’s Cameron had discovered that fragments belonging to the famous hoopoe and partridge fresco from the Caravanserai had been mistakenly stored in the trays containing material from the neighboring House of the Frescoes. Shaw’s new reconstruction re-includes these fragments into the frieze, and she provides a catalogue of each major fragment, including those previously published and those that are published here for the first time. Her excellent stylistic interpretation of the artistry of the fragments themselves calls into question the traditional assumption that the more naturalistic Cretan frescoes chronologically preceded the more stylized ones. Instead, it appears that on Crete, as on Thera, these two artistic styles co-existed, sometimes even within the same building. The date of the frescoes from the Caravanserai has generated disagreement among scholars for many years, but Shaw’s new study suggests eloquently that an LM IA date would not be inappropriate at all.

Iris Tzachili turns to Thera in an effort to use the representation of the crocus-gathering scenes on the walls of Xeste 3 to illuminate possibilities for the ancient economic processes involved in harvesting saffron. She argues that the equally-sized baskets, the collection of crocuses depicted in the Goddess scene, and the evidence for textile production throughout the town point towards a social organization that might have operated like a guild system. Specialization and structured cooperation among women on the island might have been aimed at creating a surplus of textiles, which then could have been used for trade, a situation that finds parallels both in the Linear B tablets from Pylos as well as in Homer. This is the only paper in the volume that uses ethnographic models as a stepping off point for discussion, and, although Tzachili’s arguments must remain inconclusive, they are fresh and a unique addition to the book as a whole.

In a short, two-part chapter, Nanno Marinatos and Lyvia Morgan each examined the visual trope of the dog pursuit scene in Aegean art: Marinatos discusses a dog-hunt scene from Tell el Dab’a and Morgan investigates the similar scene from Ayia Irini. Among their initial remarks is the apparent fact that dog-hunt scenes such as these were part of a broad Mediterranean iconography shared by the Minoans as well as the Egyptians and Mycenaeans. When placed side-by-side, the comparison of these fragments leads them to note the flexibility of Aegean artists when working far from Crete in being able to incorporate the artistic conventions of the area in which they were located. Although brief, the chapter provides a fine addition to the study of the transmission of artistic styles during the Late Bronze Age.

Anne Chapin turns her attention to a re-examination of the Pylian wall paintings from the Northwest Slope Plaster Dump. She argues that the fresco of the Multi-Colored Rocks and Olive Branches, which was originally published by Lang as a single fresco, in fact should be reconstructed as two separate paintings. She provides a new reconstruction that is iconographically preferable to the old one, in that it does not require the olive branches to be depicted upside-down, as they were in the past.

Peter Warren’s publication of the frescoes from the North Building at Knossos begins the section on “Ideology and Belief” by presenting an intriguing contribution to the study of religious themes in Aegean painting. Published and catalogued here for the first time are some twenty-eight fragments which Warren interprets as belonging to a well-dressed woman (or women) surrounded by a natural landscape and a constructed element, possibly a building or a raised seat. Not only the iconography of the frescoes, which he argues depict an offering of flowers to a divinity, but also their context — in a paved room adjoining a chamber filled with the bones of children — leads him to speculate on a possible relationship between floral offerings and child sacrifice on Crete.

Continuing the theme of ideology and religion in Minoan art, Nanno Marinatos’ chapter focuses on the ideals of manhood represented through paintings, seal impressions, and carved rhyta. Initially she traces the depictions on Minoan rhyta, which she argues display an all-male iconography that deals with athletics, hunting, seamanship and possibly religious ritual. Her observation that this class of iconography appears also on seal impressions and frescoes suggests to her that such representations reflect an “official ideology,” or a culturally constructed ideal male persona. These images convey a sense of Minoan society quite different from the “matriarchal utopia” found in popular literature and possibly point to an avenue for male prestige that has not been duly recognized in past interpretations of Minoan culture.

Turning from Minoan to Mycenaean art, Lyvia Morgan investigates an apparent duality in Mycenaean religious thought between life and death that is expressed in the decoration of the shrines of the Cult Center at Mycenae. In particular, she argues that the Shrine of the Idols and the Shrine of the Frescoes are linked by their architectural and iconographic features and thus served different facets of the same cult, rather than two different cults as had been previously believed. She suggests that the figurines and spatial relationship to Grave Circle A argue for chthonic associations for the Shrine of the Idols, whereas the frescoes from the Shrine of the Frescoes can be associated both with death (the goddess with the sword) as well as fertility and life (the goddess holding sheaves of grain). Throughout Mycenae, she argues that there is a “symbolic package” of associations that point to a duality in Mycenaean cult: goddesses are associated with both symbols of fertility (grain, vegetation) as well as war (swords, armor). Her cogent and compelling argument has intriguing implications for the understanding of Mycenaean religious thought, especially the cult of the dead.

The two chapters that form the “Image and Reality” section revolve around questions of Minoan perceptions of the world and how those perceptions are translated into art. In her chapter, Sara Immerwahr enters the long-standing discussion about the degree to which Aegean painters worked from a stock repertoire of images versus nature. Through the analysis of dozens of hands and feet from the Aegean painted repertoire, she addresses the apparent confusion of right and left in many of these depictions. Her careful observations provide an interesting insight into the workings of the Minoan painters by suggesting that details such as these were likely based on life, but that the apparent confusion stems from the artist’s use of his own hands and feet as models. This research suggests that the problem of working from life versus working from set patterns is perhaps one of degree rather than being mutually exclusive approaches to art and painting.

Architecture and art went hand in hand in Aegean art, and Clairy Palyvou addresses the degree to which architectural reality was and could be represented through wall paintings and seal impressions. She suggests that representations of towns and architecture more generally were based more upon the “idea” of a town rather than upon observation with an eye to pictorial accuracy. Instead, architecture tends to be represented in art as an amalgam of “dismembered constituent parts.” She illustrates a number of ways that the Minoans might have condensed images to provide a sort of perspective and that these condensed depictions might be interpreted in a number of different ways. These flattened images, however, were likely readable to the Minoan audience for whom they were made.

“Technical Studies” is represented by the final chapter in the volume, by Richard Jones. The author revisits several aspects of Cameron’s previous work on the subject, including the composition of lime plaster, the raw materials for pigments, the problematic absence of lime kilns in the Aegean, and painting techniques. An Appendix by Effie Photos-Jones follows the main article and examines several fragments of Cretan plaster, including material from Chania, with the scanning electron microscope. This work shows more or less conclusively that wall painters throughout Crete worked both a fresco and a secco, a technological matter that has garnered recent attention deriving from the finds of Aegean-looking paintings from Tel Kabri and Tell el Dab’a.

As a whole, the volume presents a well-rounded overview of the state of Aegean fresco scholarship at this time and also reflects the diverse interests of Mark Cameron. The work presented here is solid and some of it thankfully introduces completely new material into a corpus that is small to begin with. In general, however, the volume tended to be under-theorized — a complaint that might also be leveled at the study of Aegean wall paintings more broadly. The methodology employed throughout the volume, with the exception of Tzachili’s and perhaps Morgan’s chapters, remained strongly based in the tradition of stylistic, architectural, and chronological analysis and reconstruction, at which Cameron himself excelled. In a book dedicated to the memory of a great scholar it is perhaps only to be expected that the chapters so often follow his own research interests rather than break new ground, but the result is somewhat unsatisfying. Issues of reception, conspicuous consumption, elite ideology or any of a myriad avenues for thinking about the relationship between art and society are strangely lacking throughout the book, and this absence leaves out some of the most interesting and colorful ways of thinking about Minoan and Mycenaean art.

As a volume dedicated to the memory and detail-oriented scholarship of Mark Cameron, however, this book succeeds admirably. The space given over to colored plates, both photographs of individual fragments and reconstructions, is especially valuable. As a scholarly reference, the catalogues included in several of these articles are a welcome addition, although their very thoroughness might make this volume somewhat less accessible or useful for more casual reading. Both in theme and content, however, this volume stands as an impressive tribute to a man whose scholarship continues to loom large in the minds of those who followed after.


Lyvia Morgan, “New discoveries and new ideas in Aegean wall painting”

Sinclair Hood, “Dating the Knossos frescoes”

Manfred Bietak, “The setting of the Minoan wall paintings at Avaris”

Maria C. Shaw, “The painted pavilion of the ‘Caravanserai’ at Knossos”

Iris Tzachili, ” Anthodokoi talaroi : the baskets of the crocus-gatherers from Xeste 3, Akrotiri, Thera”

Nanno Marinatos and Lyvia Morgan, “The dog pursuit scenes from Tell el Dab’a and Kea”

Anne P. Chapin, “The Fresco with Multi-Colored Rocks and Olive Branches from the Northwest Slope Plaster Dump at Pylos re-examined”

Peter Warren, “Flowers for the goddess? New fragments of wall paintings from Knossos”

Nanno Marinatos, “The ideals of manhood in Minoan Crete”

Lyvia Morgan, “The Cult Centre at Mycenae and the duality of life and death”

Sara A. Immerwahr, “Left or right? A study of hands and feet”

Clairy Palyvou, “Architecture in Aegean bronze age art: facades with no interiors”

R. E. Jones, “Technical studies of Aegean Bronze Age wall painting: methods, results, and future prospects”

E. Photos-Jones, “Appendix: The examination of some Minoan fresco fragments with the scanning electron microscope (SEM)”.


1. See also Hood, S. 2000. “Cretan Fresco Dates,” In The Wall Paintings of Thera: Proceedings of the First International Conference, Vol. I, edited by S. Sherratt, 191-208. Athens: The Thera Foundation.

2. Cline, Eric H. 1998. “Rich Beyond the Dreams of Avaris: Tell el-Dab’a and the Aegean World — A Guide for the Perplexed,” BSA 93, 199-219.