Acrotiri is an archaeological site of great significance, the diversity of flora and fauna found in frescos during the excavation is awesome, yet what caught my eye was the depiction of women and their attires. Furthermore all men and boys depicted in the frescos were naked or simply attired and were all dark skinned, whereas the females where all white and very richly dressed, even the workers have elaborate dresses and jewellery. I begun investigating and researching the site with the intention to draw the females but the more I read the more I begun to see a true matriarchal society and decided to further my research and write about it.
A little about the site and its archaeological discovery:
Acrotiri is located in the Cycladic Island “Thera”, better known as Santorini. As it is typical in Greece, wherever you excavate you find archaeological artefacts and Santorini is no exception to this rule. Being relatively a small volcanic island it is hard to imagine that a great civilization once inhabited it, and yet the most amazing discoveries have been made here. Furthermore, underneath Acrotiri it is said to exist still another more ancient city. The findings of the new site “Raos”, presented by Dr. Marisa Marthsri of the KA Ephorate of the Prehistoric and Classical Antiquities in Greece at the University of Toronto confirms and enhances the Acrotiri findings. RAOS is located at a fairly good distance from the Acrotiri site and has been dated to the pre-volcanic eruption era; the frescos are of similar nature but in addition they found the remains of a gold ring and a courtyard. These findings appear to indicate that they were several cities in the island during those times. The volcanic eruption seems to have occurred 1500 to 1700 BC. From then on this great civilization disappeared leaving no trace. Strong similarities were found in Crete at Knossos and other sites, thereby it is assumed that Acrotiri may have been of Minoan origin.
Excavations at Acrotiri begun in 1967 by the great Greek archaeologist Spyridon Nikolaou Marinatos he recruited a team of local diggers and many archaeologist and the discoveries begun. He died at the site on October 1rst 1974. His work was continued by another great Greek archaeologist Christos Doumas; he was under Marinatos until 1974.
During my research in the Acrotiri peninsula I met one of the diggers during Marinatos time, Trifonas Arvanitis, he is the digger that uncovered the famous fresco of the fisherman he agreed to be photographed and interviewed by me.
Interview with Trifonas Arvanitis
Trifonas was born on Feb 5th 1933 and was born and raised in Acrotiri, a farmer for most of his life until Marinatos recruited him as a digger for the Acrotiri site.
Bianca: While you were digging did you find anything of significance?
Trifonas: Yes I was the one that found the fisherman
Bianca: What happened at that moment?
Trifonas: Marinatos came running together with the others, there was enormous excitement going on and Marinatos was telling me to be very careful. The image was found intact only the feet were missing, they put them together from small pieces found just like a puzzle.
Bianca: Did you dig the whole time you were employed at the site?
Trifonas: No I dug for 7 years; thereafter I got promoted and became a guard, still under Marinatos supervision. I remained a guard under Doumas supervision and retired from office at the age of 65.
Bianca: Where you present at Marinatos death? How did it happen?
Trifonas: they had set up a belt carrying the dirt and Marinatos had to verify by himself that they were doing it right, unfortunately his foot slipped, he tripped and hit his head on a stone, he became unconscious immediately.
Bianca: How was the working atmosphere under Marinatos? Did it change under Doumas?
Trifonas: Marinatos was a great man he loved Acrotiri and its people, he was good to all of us and we all loved him even though he was very tough When Doumas took charge, he kept the same working atmosphere, it was business as usual.
Bianca: Did anything else become obvious during the diggings?
Trifonas: They did not discuss any of their finding with us but it was discussed that there was another city beneath Acrotiri.
Bianca: Thanks so much Trifonas for letting me interview you and photograph you.
Trifonas: The pleasure is all mine. NASE KALA (means be well)
Getting the photos
I had the idea of publishing photos of the original drawings, unfortunately it was not possible because they are not of public nature and there is a fee to be paid in order to have them authorized. I decided to check with local artists that have been doing reproductions, which are quite accurate in form and colour.
Local artists were quite cooperative with me; they have their studios and workshops in Megalochori on the road to Acrotiri. All of whom I contacted welcomed me wholeheartedly in their studios and workshops and allowed me to photograph their work. Dimitris Bellos and Aspasia Vovola of “Akron Art Center” they do extremely accurate reproductions of the frescoes and pottery and were the first to do so in the island, Michalis Karamogelos of “Art Studio Michalis K” he does reproductions of the frescoes of Acrotiri, Galatea Papageorgiou of “Galatea’s Pottery” was touched by some of the spirals and decorations and created a few lines of pottery inspired by them.
Matriarchal societies are common in prehistoric civilizations, yet in Greece it has never been established a true form of Matriarchy. The Minoan Women had high ranking powers presumably only in the religious fields. In the Pre historic Peloponnese similar events have been talked about. However a true form of Matriarchy has never been considered in ancient Greece to this date other than the supposedly mythical amazons.
The Acrotiri wall painting have led to the assumption that the inhabitants were of Minoan Origin and had a Matriarchy similar to that found in Crete. At Knossos in Crete it is obvious that it was a patriarchy with matrilineal inclinations, this opinion is based on the fact that the King had a more sumptuous abode which he had the throne room , therefore it can be assumed that men held the highest posts in politics and women held their high posts in religious activities. It has long been assumed that the primary role of women of Minoan and Mycenaean societies in the Late Bronze Age was that of child bearing and child rearing, however these assumptions have been made based on ethnographic analogies or contemporary ideologies rather than archaeological material as Barbara A. Olsen correctly stated. She further explained that the women of Minoan Iconography were always placed in activities unrelated to child rearing; instead Mycenaean iconography depicts women doing household chores and child rearing activities.
The Acrotiri wall painting of women definitely display similarities with the Minoan societies, all the women activities are far removed from the household, the women are quite well dressed including the so call Saffron gatherers, they are all beautiful, with white skinned, their attires, make up and hair displays a high knowledge of aesthetics. Furthermore, the older females have stoic profiles an indication that they were high ranking women. Now lets take a look at the male figures, they boys and youth are all naked and appear to be sports related and servants the remainder of men are dressed in simple tunics including the soldiers and semi naked sailors, all of these men are invariably of darker skin. Another observation of note is that the women appear to be quite voluptuous and only showing one breast, as it can be seen in the scene of the Adorants and the bear breasted female figure found in the house of the ladies in the north wall of room 1 East section. It has been assumed by Prof. Doumas that the artistic skills of the Artist were not very accurate and in order to cover up the difference of the 2 breast he placed a stole over the right one leaving the left breast uncovered.
In the Acrotiri excavations there are no human remains and it has been assumed that they had been prepared for a catastrophe and fled the island taking with them as much as they could and leaving no trace of their whereabouts. New excavations at RAOS appear to confirm that another town of the same society is located in the island, there they found a gold ring and a home with a courtyard. Excavations are being done at present, I went to speak to the archaeologist on site and she refused to comment on their findings, my information was obtained form a publication by Owen Jarus based on a seminar that was given at the University of Toronto in April 2010 by Dr. Marthari. Acrotiri is closed at the present time and it has been promised to be reopened in 2010, as the say in Greece: “Tha doume” meaning “We shall see!”
Perhaps, further excavations will shed more light as to this pre historic society, but for the time being I would like to propose that perhaps Acrotiri had a true Matriarchal Society meaning that women held all the government and religious posts. In a true matriarchal society men did not hold a significant post and were second to their sons in the family ranks, peace and serenity prevailed and the relationships were strictly monogamous. We know that this Society ended 1700 BC, yet we have no idea when it begun, in order to achieve such greatness including amazing vessels resembling Gondolas and at least three storey high building with highly ornamented wall painting depicting a luscious flora and fauna it could not have been short lived, all the findings indicate in my opinion that it was quite an advanced civilization and that takes hundreds of years to build if not millenniums. I dare to suggest that The Acrotiri Matriarchy was perhaps ancestral to the Minoans and that the Minoans were a transition between matriarchy and the patriarchy that developed later in antiquity.
· Doumas, C. (1992). The Wall Paintings of Thera. Athens: The Thera Foundation.
· Maria Gimbutas. The language of the goddess”: Zeus.
· Christopher L.C.E. Witcombe. Women in the Aegean Minoan Snake Goddess
· Barbara A. Olsen. Women children and the family in the late Aegean Bronze Age: differences in Minoan and Mycenaean construction of gender.
· Owen Jarus. Freelance writer based in Toronto, Canada. He has written articles on archaeology for a variety of media outlets including The Canadian Press newswire (CP), U of T Magazine, The Mississauga News and The Guelph Mercury. Education: BA from the University of Toronto in History, Geography and Near & Middle Eastern Civilizations