By Maggie Easton
In my final term at the University of Victoria, I had the exciting opportunity to research previously unexamined fragments of painted plaster found during excavation at the site of ancient Eleon as part of GRS 482A. These fragments offer small glimpses of the wall paintings that likely decorated the walls of a predecessor to the Northwest Complex in LH IIIB1 and provide insight into the social status of Mycenaeans living at ancient Eleon in the 14th century BCE. In this post, I will give a brief background on the significance of Mycenaean frescoes and describe the fragments found at Eleon that I worked on throughout the spring semester. When studied with their associated finds, these fragments provide evidence that the local elites of Eleon maintained close ties with Mycenaean Thebes and participated in a shared elite Mycenaean culture of architectural adornment documented across central and southern Greece during LH IIIB.
In the palatial period of Late Bronze Age Greece, frescoes became a staple of the Mycenaean cultural koine. Fresco is a technical term, referring to paint applied al fresco to wet plaster. Although the technique of the fragments found at Eleon is not yet known, the term fresco is used throughout this piece as a non-technical term encompassing all wall paintings.
The majority of known frescoes come from palatial contexts, where iconographical similarities between centers can be seen in hunting scenes at Mycenae, Tiryns, Orchomenos, and Pylos, and in the religious procession scenes at Knossos, Thebes (Figure 1), Pylos, and Tiryns. Many frescoes have been suggested to be religious in nature, perhaps depicting the actions that were expected of palatial visitors during religious festivals and ceremonies. Other pieces, particularly in the Cyclades, depict ornate natural scenes with a variety of identifiable plants and animals.
A smaller number of non-palatial sites have also produced remnants of frescoes. On the island of Thera, Akrotiri is well-known for its distinctive and extensive fresco program in a variety of structures, some apparently domestic in character. In mainland Greece, frescoes have been found at the non-palatial sites of Iklaina in Messenia and Gla in Boeotia. Though frescoes are canonically a piece of palatial decoration, they are certainly not unprecedented in other contexts. In almost all cases, however, frescoes are associated with the Mycenaean elite – buildings which produce frescoes during excavation are typically wealthy and also produce a number of other prestige goods. The frescoes found at Gla are one of very few exceptions to this, which will be explained below.
At the site of ancient Eleon, two pieces of painted plaster that may be fresco remnants were found in the Northwest Sector (Figure 2). Both fragments are small: one preserves monochrome blue decoration with possible overpainting in black while the other is white and yellow. Based on mendable pottery found in the same stratigraphy, the fragments all appear to date to LH IIIB1. The stratigraphy suggests that they may have been part of a fill consisting of levelled destruction debris.
Although the iconography of the frescoes which these fragments belonged to remains a mystery, it is worth pointing out that monochrome blue is a frequent background colour in Mycenaean frescoes, as seen in the Bull-Leaping Fresco from Knossos. This scene also includes sections of yellow and white separated by a straight line. Besides backgrounds, blue and yellow often appear alongside each other in clothing or wall borders, exemplified by the Procession Fresco from Thebes (Figure 1). It is impossible to guess at iconography of the wall paintings from Eleon, but the colours of these fragments certainly reflect the larger Mycenaean tradition within Boeotia.
The exact mineralogical composition of the plaster material or pigments is unknown. Further investigations might include non-destructive microscopy and reflected light microscopy to better understand the general composition and state of the plaster and pigments as well as their application technique. X-ray diffraction methods could be used for mineralogical identification. These methods have been used on Theban fresco fragments to determine that blue pigment is frequently composed of calcite and cuprorivaite (Egyptian Blue), and yellow pigment of calcite and goethite in combination with either quartz or dolomite. White pigment at Thebes is always composed of calcite, the basic mineral component of lime plaster. Replicating these investigations for the fragments discussed here could be used to compare the composition of wall paintings at Eleon to those elsewhere in the Mycenaean, Minoan, and Cycladic worlds.
Besides the fragments, the LH IIIB1 layer contained much fragmented pottery, blue glass artifacts, and even a stone jewelry mold. This mold shows a close relationship between Thebes and Eleon, which likely produced luxury goods for Theban consumption during LH IIIB. The presence of all of these goods in the NW Sector suggests the presence of palatial agents at Mycenaean Eleon, perhaps overseeing craft production. This aligns with what is known about frescoes as indicators of social standing in Mycenaean Greece and supports the idea that the LH IIIB predecessor to the NW Complex was an elite space decorated with frescoes.
Researching these small fresco fragments has been an exciting and challenging opportunity to engage directly with material culture. I have certainly gained a new appreciation for the creativity and resourcefulness that scholars must employ when considering newly excavated material, especially when, as in the case of these fragments, only a small part of the deposit has been excavated. Working on previously uninvestigated material has been very rewarding though and I hope further work can be done on the frescoes from Eleon in the future to further our understanding of the lives and social roles of the inhabitants of Mycenaean Eleon.