Thursday, January 7, 2010

Minoans in Egypt

Although Minoan civilization is a bit before my own period of study (and I even have a fairly wide definition of my period of study), I am often fascinated by examples of intercultural communication and exchange in the ancient world before the Hellenistic period (even though the Hellenistic and Roman periods are more my specialty) when such exchange traditionally seems more common (although as my use of "seems" indicates I tend to think this an illusion--it was always common; thus, my interest in the discovery of Minoan art in Egypt:

One of the most perplexing mysteries that Egyptologists and Aegean
experts are tackling is that of the frescoes of
Tell el-Dab'a, also known as Avaris.

This site was used as the capital of the Hyksos, at a time when they
ruled much of Egypt, from 1640 – 1530 BC. It is on the Nile Delta and
would have provided access to the Sinai, Levant and southern Egypt.

The site appears to have been abandoned for a time after the Hyksos
were driven out. However, by the end of the 18th dynasty (when the
Egyptians were back in control of their land), the site was in use and
sported with three – yes three – large palaces. They were ringed by an
enclosure wall. The whole complex was about 5.5 hectares in size.

There is no question that the frescoes at Tell el-Dab'a are Aegean influenced

Now here’s the mystery –

Two of those palaces were decorated, for a very short period of time,
with Minoan frescoes. These include drawings of bull-leaping scenes –
which are well known from the Palace of Knossos in Crete.

Site excavator Manfred Bietak published a book in 2007 that discussed
these frescoes and compared them with the more famous scenes at the
Palace of Knossos.

There is no question that the frescoes at Tell el-Dab'a are Aegean
influenced, and it seems likely that the artists are from Crete.
Dating them is tricky but from the stratigraphy and pottery they seem
to date to around the time of Thutmosis III.
What are They Doing in Egypt?

Previous theories suggested royal marriage between the Egyptians and the Minoans being the occasion for the frescoes, or perhaps a state visit of Minoan leaders. The newest theory has a current ring to it: artist unemployment:

At a lecture a few weeks ago in Toronto Professor Maria Shaw,of the
University of Toronto, proposed her own theory. Shaw has done
extensive archaeological work in Crete so her background is more from
the Aegean side of the coin.

She believes that the frescoes were drawn by out of work Minoan
artists – who travelled to Egypt as the Minoan civilization was

Professor Shaw’s argument works like this-

Cretan rulers controlled their art extremely carefully. Shaw said that
the bull-leaping scenes are a symbol of the Palace of Knossos and are
found nowhere else on the island. “I stress in no other palaces,” she

Also half-rosettes, the flowery decoration seen on the scenes at Tell
el-Dab'a, are “a sign of royalty... it’s amazing that it was
appropriated and used at Tell el-Dab'a.”

Given that the bull-leaping and half-rosette symbols were tightly
controlled on Crete, it makes no sense that the rulers would let their
artists paint them in a foreign country.

So, again, what are they doing in Egypt?

Shaw believes that the paintings date to a time when the Palace of
Knossos was in decline (ca. 1400 BC). The artists that worked there
would have found themselves out of work and needing a new benefactor.
“Artists must have left from there and went find jobs in Egypt,” said

Also, as the Palace of Knossos declined so did the willingness to
honour its symbols of rule.
“The respect or fear that people had not to imitate Knossos - went
with Knossos,” said Shaw.

It’s also no surprise that Egyptian rulers would sanction the use of Minoan art.

Egypt at that time was open to foreign influences. The Amarna letters
show that Egypt was wheeling and dealing diplomatically in the Near
East. Paintings have been found showing people from the Aegean
bringing gifts to Egypt. Minoan motifs have also been found in
Egyptian tombs.

“There was an interest in Egypt of things Minoan,” said Shaw.

Further backing up her point is evidence from the site of Mycenae in
Greece. Fragments of a bull leaping scene, similar to those found at
Knossos, have been found there as well - further proof that when
Knossos fell, its art and artists travelled far and wide.

In the darkness of our current knowledge of antiquity all is speculation, but the diaspora of Minoan artists seeking employment does sound intriguing.

No comments: