Flotilla Fresco, Plaster
44 × 400 cm
National Archaeological Museum, Athens
So was the eruption of this supervolcano the cause of the collapse of Mycenaean civilisation? Probably not. Recent radiocarbon dating has shown that the eruption most likely happened around the end of the 17th century BCE, a good four hundred years before the evidence for widespread fire begins to show up in the archaeological record at the Mycenaean palaces. But the eruption had another important side-effect, at least for us today as historians of the classical world: because it buried the Bronze Age town of Akrotiri for thousands of years, perfectly preserving an entire city to an unprecedented level of detail – including its wall paintings.
Akrotiri has been called the Pompeii of the Aegean, and it's no secret why when you look at the brilliant, vibrant wall paintings like the one above. The flotilla fresco is almost four metres long and forty-four centimetres high: a scene in miniature, it depicts a flotilla of seven large ships, six canoes and one rowing boat. The colours, painted on white lime plaster using mineral-based pigments, are still remarkably bright: on the close-up detail above, you can see a Minoan town by the shores of the sea with a hill rising up behind it; a pair of stags run through the trees, chased by a lion. The depiction of the ships in the foreground, in particular, provides rare evidence for an artefact which rarely survives the test of time. For a Cycladic island, ships must have lain at the very heart of their culture, and it is remarkable here to see details which we have described in Homer's Odyssey, for example – rigged masts, steering paddles, raised steering decks, and a combination of oars and sails – corroborated in a three and a half thousand year old painting.
So what does this scene depict? Previous theories have suggested that it shows a naval voyage within the Aegean from a "Departure Town" (on the left) to an "Arrival Town" (on the right: often assumed to be Akrotiri itself). But a recent article has put forward the idea that, in order to understand the painting, we have to reconstruct the island of Santorini as it would have looked before the eruption. Mapping the landscape depicted onto the geography of the pre-eruption island, we can, in fact, imagine this as a nautical procession between two headlands on the island: a recreation of Thera as it might have looked, before the volcano erupted and this civilisation disappeared beneath the ash forever.