HEADS UP! A LATE BRONZE AGE BONE ARTIFACT FROM ELEON

By Ben Watts-Wooldridge

In this past semester at UVic, GRS 482A gave me the unique opportunity to study archaeological material from the site of ancient Eleon. For my research, I studied a carved head made of bone, found in the destruction layer of a structure in the southwest quadrant of the site (Figure 1). The bone head appears to be an import, with facial features consistent with Late Bronze Age sculpture of the eastern Mediterranean. It therefore raises several questions, not only about its use at Eleon, but also about Eleon’s participation in eastern Mediterranean exchange networks. Where did it come from? Who was using it, and what were they using it for? This blog post will summarize my research and focus particularly on the purpose and origin of the bone head, using clues from the excavation context and Near Eastern comparanda.

Figure 1: The bone head from ancient Eleon (Eastern Boeotia Archaeological Project).

The bone head was found among the floor deposit of a partially-excavated structure. The purpose of the building is unclear, but objects found within it serve as helpful clues. The bone head was recovered from a deposit that also included a full range of domestic pottery, a copper fibula, and fragments of bovine figurines. These bovine figurines are well attested throughout the Mycenaean Aegean in sanctuaries and funeral contexts: the presence of these fragments, along with the domestic pottery assemblage, may indicate that the head was used for domestic cult activity.

The bone head’s flat backside shows that it was likely fixed to another object. Plaque/composite figurines, a style of figurine with a flat backside that is meant to lay flat or be attached to another surface, are found throughout the eastern Mediterranean and are often associated with ritual contexts. If the bone head was indeed meant to lay flat or be inlaid in another surface, its use as an object of ritual significance would make sense. The findspot does not feature an altar, or any other typical identifiers of a ritual space, but perhaps further excavation will shed more light on this question of the structure’s ritual importance.

In order to find out where the Eleon head came from, and how it might relate to wider systems of exchange between the Aegean and the Eastern Mediterranean, I searched through various excavation reports for sites in both Anatolia and the Levant. The most appropriate comparanda come from cities and settlements located on the Levantine coast.

The site of Megiddo, located in modern day Israel and well-known for the large hoards of Late Bronze Age worked ivories found in its Late Bronze Age levels, holds several interesting parallels to the bone head from Eleon. An ivory cosmetic container, carved from an Elephant tusk and featuring a figurine head at one end, is especially compelling (Figure 2). Not only are the facial features similar, but the head also features inlaid glass beads used for the eyes. Other objects from Megiddo similarly share this feature of inlaid glass, a theme which I was hard pressed to find elsewhere. Although there is no reason to believe that the Eleon head was used as a cosmetic container, this shared characteristic of glass eyes on worked bone/ivory makes the Levant a strong candidate for a region of provenance.

The site of Ugarit, located on the Syrian coast, furnishes additional parallels. Bone and ivory carvings are found throughout the site, including some examples similar to the Eleon head (Figure 3). It is notable that Ugarit has also produced a vast array of Mycenaean ceramics and figurines. With well-documented trade in Aegean ceramic wares (and perhaps their contents) flowing into the region throughout this period, it’s not hard to imagine how our bone head may have found its way to Greece as part of a return cargo.

Figure 3: Ivory figurine from Ugarit (Musée du Louvre, Département des Antiquités orientales, AO19930 – https://collections.louvre.fr/ark:/53355/cl010144639https://collections.louvre.fr/CGU).

In the future, further analysis could be helpful in determining a more precise provenance. Analyzing the isotopic data of the bone collagen would provide us with information regarding the ecological environment of the animal from which the bone was taken. The same isotopic analysis could also be done on the glass eyes. When compared with the isotopic data of glass assemblages from around the Mediterranean, we may be able to narrow in on specific centers of glass production, perhaps in Mesopotamia or Egypt. A greater understanding of the bone’s background, as well as the production of the glass, would be a helpful next step in further understanding the bone head’s story.

The mystery of the Eleon bone head remains just that: a mystery. While its provenance is still somewhat unclear, it does appear to have origins outside of the Aegean – at the very least, this can tell us about the role that trade and imports played in the lives of individuals living at Eleon. Some of the evidence points towards its use as an object of ritual significance, but more excavation and analysis will be needed to prove it. This mysterious nature of the bone head made my research challenging, but the opportunity to study such a unique object in the world of Aegean archaeology made it worthwhile. I gained new experience working with materials from an active excavation, and it taught me how inspiring and rewarding placing an artefact within its historical context can be. I am leaving the bone head with more questions than answers, but I hope that further analysis and excavation can provide us with more clues as to the production of the bone head and its use at Eleon. Hopefully I can have a part in the next steps of this research, and perhaps I will even get to meet the bone head in person one day!

PIECING TOGETHER THE EVIDENCE FOR PAINTED PLASTER AT MYCENAEAN ELEON

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.

Figure 1: Procession Fresco from the so-called House of Kadmos at Thebes on display in the Archaeological Museum of Thebes (orientalizing/Flickr), CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

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.

Figure 2: Details of fresco fragments from Eleon showing preserved colours (Eastern Boeotia Archaeological Project).

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.