How to ‘Tell Time’ in Aegean Art
BA MPhil University of Dublin
The measurement and conceptualisation of time is a large cognitive step and one that is a foundation of all complex civilisations. This paper will highlight the complexity of depicting temporal progress through art from the Bronze Age Aegean. Without a written record or intimate knowledge of cultural and artistic conventions at this time we cannot present an argument of certitude detailing how time is represented in this art. However, we can hypothesize how a temporal shift is likely to have been depicted and what conventions bring narrative to life in both mono-scenic and multi-scenic artistic representations at this time. This paper will illuminate possible depictions of time firstly in the Isopata ring, and also in a similar mono-scenic depiction in the Taureador Fresco from Knossos. Furthermore, an examination of the miniature frescos from Room 5 in the West House of Akrotiri will demonstrate how time may have been depicted in multi-scenic images from the Aegean. Firstly, it is necessary to set the basis of this examination by clearly defining what we mean by ‘time’.
Time and its Conception in Aegean Art
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, time is ‘the indefinite continued progress of existence and events in the past, present and future regarded as a whole.’ In light of this, this paper will infer that any depiction of time in Aegean art must constitute coalescence of any of the three temporal spheres. This will be termed the ‘temporal shift’. However, it is not enough to simply understand one broad concept of time and apply it regardless of the society. Time, as a concept, is culturally specific. Ideas of how to conceptualise time, how it is measured and how one places oneself within that temporal framework vary from culture to culture. For example, the cycles of the Mayan calendar depicts time as continuing through a series of eras. This type of temporal cognition offers the possibility that human affairs can and must fall within the structure that has already been set out for the future. Similarly, the conscious demarcation of time through the space of the pier-and-door partitions from the throne room at Knossos signifies one conceptualisation of time according to the natural calendar of seasonal change. Whether or not these changes in time were used as a guide to expect weather change, the shift of economic activities or for ceremonial purposes we cannot be certain of currently. Nevertheless, knowledge of how time is conceptualised by a specific culture offers us a keyhole view and a further understanding into that culture. This point can be both a blessing and a curse whilst examining the art of ancient civilisations. As archaeologists, we hope to understand upon reading this paper how cultures from the ancient Aegean depicted time through art and as such partake in their conception of time. However, as human beings from our own culturally specific context we have our own conception of what constitutes time and how it functions. As a result, we need to deconstruct our own views of time and temporality in order to non-discriminately reflect on its possible use in Aegean art. According to McClade, there is a persistent view in western society that that construction of time is linear and that all past, present and future events travel on one path. This is true to a large extent of film, literature etc. and in such cases an author often creates a narrative by temporally shifting from the beginning right through to the end. In light of this, whilst examining the Isopata Ring, the Taureador Fresco and the Miniature Frescos the modern viewer needs to be aware that a temporal shift may be creating a narrative in the image, but that that narrative may not elucidate a linear component.
Narrative and its Conception in Aegean Art
Depicting a temporal shift in art introduces a narrative element in which the viewer becomes the narrator. The human conception of time is story-like and so narrative is often used to convey temporal progress. Single scenes cause the greatest difficulty for understanding a narrative sequence as only one moment in time is portrayed and ‘readers’ are reliant on iconographical hints to clarify the temporal shift. The mono-scenic narrative depiction is often used when space is limited and one synoptic scene is chosen to depict a significant moment of the event, or the most important action in the story sequence. The choice of scene or image is entirely deliberate and, as the only signifier to reconstruct a sequential order, it is essential that an efficacious image is depicted. At once we move into the area of semiotics for this process to function properly. According to the principals of semiotics, human culture is composed of signs, each one signifying something other than itself. These signs are thus interpreted by us, the ‘reader’, as a code to create a satisfying narrative. Chandeler states that narratives fashioned by societies in which written communication is absent, such as Minoan Crete, tend to be highly formulaic, involve high numbers of signs and involve standardized themes.
Leading on from the above section on the conception of time, our cultural knowledge aids us in interpreting these signs. Our cultural setting proves difficult for our understanding of pictorial narrative from the ancient Aegean. As our assumptions leads us to often think that time is linear, we reflect on narrative in the same way. Ideas that narratives read from left to right, on one plane, from beginning to end, may not fit in with Aegean artistic conventions. Without the written record which Chandeler refers to, the highly formulaic narrative may include the interspersing of different times within different orders, in different directions and reverting from one back to another. An example of such an effect may be a mono-scenic narrative depiction in medias res. Used by Homer in his epic poem The Odyssey to create a poetic narrative, it is not a far leap for the mind to imagine that conventions of narrative worked similarly throughout both poetic and visual forms. As such, narrative in modern times is depicted using the common conventions throughout our literary, film and visual arts.
Without the ‘code’ to unlocking the signs in Aegean art, our ideas about how narrative is depicted are largely conjecture. With this in mind, Cain justifies the comparative approach of looking at narrative artistic conventions in other cultures from this time within a relatively close geographical sphere. As other conventions such as the use of skin colour to denote gender has been borrowed between Aegean and Egyptian art during the Bronze Age, she concludes that the use of Egyptian art as a comparative case study is valid. A clear example of narrative conventions differing from our own is the Narmer Palette (ca. 3000 BCE) from Early Dynastic Egypt. This artwork depicts a victorious King or chieftain from Upper Egypt. In order to create the narrative, the viewer must flip the palette from side to side and zone to zone, entering different physical and conceptual areas back and forth. Considering this, it is possible that art from the Aegean also depicted narrative in a non-sequential order.
Therefore, in order to consider what conventions are at play in Aegean art to signify time this paper will examine specific examples whereby a temporal progression is thought to be depicted.
Mono-Scenic Depictions of Time Narrative
The Isopata Ring is an example of what scholars believe to depict a temporal shift in a mono-scenic setting. Found on a floor in the western part of one of the chamber tombs at Isopata near Knossos, this gold ring is now displayed in the Herakleion Museum (Fig. 1). Stylistically the ring is dated to ca. 1550-1450 BCE. This ring depicts four women with bare breasts wearing long flounced skirts of varying design. They are standing in what appears to be a circular position and are enacting very clear gestures using their arms. From the left, two females in profile have their arms raised in a similar position with flattened palms stretching out. A central figure facing partly to the front has one arm bent at the elbow and placed to the side near the head while the other is hangs down alongside the body. The figure on the far right is partly frontal and has both arms raised and bent up and outwards with palms flat. The final figure in the scene is a smaller female figure above the central figure. It is depicted with a flounced skirt and is positioned to the left of the scene. Throughout this scene there are depictions of plants denoting the ground. In addition, a number of unidentified floating objects are present. These include dots over the heads of some of the figures, a thick segment and a wavy line, a profile eye and an oval blob. These objects among everything else in the image are carefully rendered and are seen on other rings. This deliberate rendering in such a small space hints that their inclusion is relevant to understanding the event depicted. Therefore we have these signs, or ‘codes’, to signify what event is being depicted in the Isopata Ring: figures, pose, gesture, costume, scale, figure interaction plus any heretofore unidentified objects.
Fig. 1. The Isopata Ring (Herakleion Archaeological Museum, Crete)
This scene has been commonly regarded as an ecstatic epiphany scene. If we apply what has been discussed regarding semiotics, this image can be read from a temporal perspective. In this case, the individual components of the image and the specific gestures made by the figures act as our signs. However, debates about the specific ritual content of epiphany in Minoan religion disrupt our ability to create a clear idea of narrative as a modern reader of this scene. Unlike the Classical Period for example, our knowledge of a myth depicted may also be supplemented by other literary or iconographical sources. On Minoan gold rings however, a large proportion of scholarly knowledge surrounding Minoan ritual comes from this ring and others. And so, to place this information back on the image to extract more information from it creates a hermeneutical circle. Without this composite narrative in our minds of the stage of ritual and epiphany, demarcating any signs from such an image is an extremely difficult task.
Firstly, Niemeier interprets the scene as a dancing scene enacted as part of a rite where the dance replaces the tree grasping and boulder hugging in other imagery to call upon a ‘goddess’. This deity has thus been identified as the smaller figure in the background of the image. Rehak concludes that this is a depiction of the goddess at a different stage. The figures depicted in the one image show the early and later stages of epiphany and thus a temporal shift is created within the same scene. Secondly, the placement of the plants are multiple and also specifically brought attention to in the scene. If we were to infer that a time is being denoted, the plants may indicate a specific time of year or season. A link to the temporal shift of the environment was clearly an important factor due to the attention taken to depict it in the Throne Room at Knossos. As a result, we may conclude that this reference on the Isopata ring may have been a sign to the ancient reader that the ritual was one commonly known to have taken place a certain time of year. Thirdly, unidentified objects almost always appear as isolated entities in the upper portion of Aegean imagery and are thought to represent the religious nature of the event depicted and some form of change to the scene. If these items infer a hallucination experienced by the figures or the actual presence of a deity, then a narrative is being created again by inferring the absence, coming and eventual arrival of the deity. As a result, a temporal shift is portrayed. In addition, the ancient reader of this piece of art may give us clues to the temporal interpretation of the unidentified floating objects. We can comfortably state that the wearer/owner of the ring would have been familiar with the actions depicted on the ring. As such, we can infer that the wearer may have taken part in such actions. As stated, the unidentified objects such as the blobs or dots may have denoted a change to the scene. This change was possibly the experiential nature of the epiphany process in the form of hallucination. As a result, the wearer may have seen these images and taken part in an experiential temporal shift, both by remembering this event or ones like this, or by recreating the narrative in their head from these signs.
However at this point our difficulties with interpretation prevent the certainty of establishing a depiction of a narrative on the Isopata Ring. Cain argues that a manifestation of the deity in consecutive stages in this image is flawed as the gesture and costumes of the two main figures, the smaller ‘deity’ and the central figure do not remain constant. Furthermore, Minoan and Mycenaean glyptic ware usually depicts a heaven line to define boundaries separating earth from sky, which is not present in this case. Therefore, if the figure in the background is merely another dancer in the distance, we are looking upon one scene without a clear temporal shift. What is clear is that the lack of ground line and topographic detail allow us to be more free without conception of the scene in space and time and that the artist was intentionally using the internal signs of the image to signify a specific event to their Aegean audience.
A second example of a mono-scenic image where it is possible to apply signs to elucidate temporal progress is the Taureador Fresco (Fig. 2). This image depicts a bull and three figures. The bull appears to be charging to the left with one male figure mid-leap and mid-air above his back. One figure stands at the back end of the bull posing with his two hands in the air as if to direct the bull or catch the leaper. The third and final figure is positioned at the head of the bull clasping its horns. The two figures on the ground have light skin and the one figure mid-leap has dark skin. Can we extract a narrative and thus a temporal shift from this one scene? Again we must examine our available signs, which in this scene are the figures, pose, positioning, gesture, colour etc. In other depictions from Aegean art, colour conventions were thought to denote gender with dark skin as male and light as female. However, in this image, the light skinned figures, although with some female attributes such as long hair, appear to have male characteristics according to their costume. The figure which is depicted mid-leap also appears to be male and so colour, in this instance, may have been used to designate something other than gender. Damiani-Indelicato hypothesizes that the colour denotes a temporal shift. She states that this is not one scene but a narrative which depicts three different stages involved in bull leaping. The darker colour of one of the figures may indicate the individual who has accomplished a leap. With this in mind, this image may not be one event but a narrative depicting many stages and a temporal shift.
Fig. 2. Reconstruction of the Taureador Fresco (Herakleion Archaeological Museum, Crete)
Therefore, in mono-scenic depictions, although we assume our gaze is upon a single scene or moment in time, the specific choice of certain elements within the scene may act as signs indicating the passage of time. Why the specific moments depicted were chosen is unknown. We can only assume that the answer not only lies in the artist’s personal choice and reflects on the ancient viewer who needed to understand the image.
Multi-Scenic Depictions of Time Narrative
The frieze from Room 5 in the West House on Akrotiri provides the best preserved example of miniature frescos. Therefore, these images may provide the most adequate example of discerning temporal shifts throughout a multi-scenic depiction in Bronze Age Aegean art. Firstly, a clear description of these very detailed scenes is necessary (Figs 3-5).
Fig. 3. North Wall Frieze: Gathering on the hill, soldiers and figures drowning in the sea from Room 5, West House, Akrotiri (Athens National Archaeological Museum)
Fig. 4. East Wall Frieze: Nilotic depiction, subtropical flora and fauna with hunting griffin from Room 5, West House, Akrotiri (Athens National Archaeological Museum)
Fig. 5. The South Wall Frieze ‘Flotilla Fresco’: three divisions depicted one above the other from Room 5, West House, Akrotiri (Athens National Archaeological Museum)
The miniature frescos were located in the North West corner room on the first floor of the West House. The period of occupation of the house was Late Minoan 1A. The frescos were placed high on the walls above the windows and niches and continue along all four walls. More than eighty human figures are represented, though women are less frequently depicted than men. According to costume, priests/officials and soldiers are depicted and the women are not depicted in typical Minoan dress. Animals including dolphins and a griffin are also present. The landscape is carefully depicted throughout, with particular attention made to differentiate locations.
The West Wall has no clear remains of what was depicted as it did not survive the blast from the volcanic eruption.
The North Wall depicts a common Aegean environment. This frieze is divided into two planes, the lower concerned with the sea and the upper with the land (Fig. 3). At the lower left corner of the lower plane the fresco is thought to have depicted at least two warships. One is manned and appears to be travelling towards the right. Others are near a rocky coastline beside a harbour that appears to be a fortification wall. Between the ships and the wall are three male figures in the water. They appear to be twice the size of all other figures in this frieze and they are depicted as if they are falling. Their strange postures of their limbs bent and at varying angles indicate that they are dead or drowning in the sea. In addition, these figures are surrounded by shields and grappling hooks in the water. The upper plane depicts a single storey building beside which a man clad in a dark cloak directs his gaze towards a detachment of warriors. These warriors are marching in single file and are thought to be Mycenaean as they are wearing Amyntorian boars’ tusk helmets with ox hide shields. The background scene in this plane depicts a peaceful countryside area where shepherds appear and women are bearing large water jugs and seem unperturbed by the warriors depicted. A group of men are viewing something going on in the distance.
The East Wall is a Nilotic Frieze and depicts a river travelling through a subtropical environment (Fig. 4). The flora depicted is not native to the Aegean and a griffin posed for hunting is also present.
The South Wall encompasses two towns and at least eight ships travelling what is thought to be from left to right given the direction of their bows from town to the other (Fig. 5). Dolphins are present in the sea surrounding the ships. The front ship appears to have emphasis placed upon it as it is decorated with garlands. It has a special seating area in the back where a male figure is seated; this male figure resembles the man in the dark cloak from the top of the hill on the North Wall quite closely. The arrival town has its inhabitants awaiting the ships and the architecture of this space appears to be Minoan in style, especially the large building at the extreme right end which includes horns of consecration and ashlar masonry.
This frieze as a whole is thought to represent a temporal shift, with each individual wall frieze creating a meta-narrative. Focusing on the north and south walls for this point, it appears more evident to the ‘reader’ that activities have been telescoped through time and space in order to depicted a temporal shift within a small space. This is a less complicated action than in the Isopata ring as such a large number of signs are not necessary while we can more easily construct a narrative from a group of episodic scenes. However, the difficulty lies in identifying the various scenes which are portrayed within the same space. In the upper plane, the nonchalance of the meeting on the hill, shepherds and women may be one of our signs. Their location near to the marching soldiers and their decidedly calm demeanour may reflect that these two events are occurring at different times. In addition to the lower plane where a sea battle is indicated by the drowning soldiers, it may be inferred that the actions of the casual figures above are occurring either before or after this violent event. One would expect a scene involving a battle or invasion to be wholly chaotic. Though, with the absence of this type of imagery, it may be presumed that this frieze involves a telescoping of time and that the scenes side by side are not positioned side by side in time. Morris views this wall frieze as a narrative created by an episodic array of images, as opposed to the synoptic version we have previously viewed on the Taureador Fresco.
Meta-narrative also functions efficiently within the South Wall frieze by creating a vivid sense of journey. Firstly the chaotic element of the scene, which strikes the viewer as both departure and arrival, immediately ignites ideas of a narrative. The depiction of two communities and their specific renderings creates a time collapse which tells us that although depicted closely together, they are in fact geographically distant and a journey is taking place. The distinct topography and natural elements of the two towns vary greatly; the first is thought to depict a more tropical location and not deriving from the Aegean. If the second is indeed a ‘Minoan’ town, wherever it may be, the movement from the initial town to this landscape would infer a large geographical distance and would constitute a journey as part of the visual narrative. Similarly, if we take the image at face value, it appears unlikely that two towns of varying topographical detail would be placed merely the length of eight ships apart and that such an expedition would signify spatial and temporal distance. Signs from the decoration of the ship itself may also be used to designate the passing of time. The reaction of the population of the second town and the detail given to the decoration of the ships indicates the celebratory nature of a homecoming. It appears evident that only a significant journey would be in need of such celebration and so the passage of time created by this final stage of the expedition can be understood. Lastly, the depiction of dolphins in the sea may be a surprising indicator of the passage of time. Their introduction into the frieze indicates that the location of the ships was not always by the coastline but out to sea where they naturally reside. This therefore further adds to the consensus that a distant journey and a temporal shift from one town to the other is taking place.
In addition to the meta-narratives detailed, the linking of imagery throughout the friezes in the room may also create a temporal shift between the different walls. Unlike the mono-scenic depictions of narrative, the diversity of the frescos translates the idea of narrative to the viewer’s mind immediately. Cain makes note that the most compelling argument for this type of on-going narrative throughout the four friezes is the reoccurrence of characters across the walls. As noted, the man playing a principal role in the meeting on the hill on the North Wall occupies the Ikria on the main ship from the South Wall. Weapons reoccur through the images which may be another sign to link the frescos. However, if we are to read these images as one overall narrative, where should we begin? One interpretation of this temporal shift was put forward by Marinatos. She begins the narrative from the West Wall, leading on to the North and so on. The North Wall is thought to depict a moment of crisis on the hill before the ensuing battle where an invasion is about to occur. The fleet are thought to be colonising an area in North Africa, most likely Libya. The invaders then settle the newly colonised area. The East wall ties in as the exotic nature of the flora and fauna create a North African setting. The narrative ends with the last stop at a Theran town on the South Wall, where the ships are rewarded with a sumptuous homecoming. Whether these scenes depict a colonising fleet or an alternative interpretation is somewhat irrelevant regarding the temporal interpretation. What is clear, in my opinion, is that we naturally infer a sense of narrative from thematic elements throughout. On this point scholarship is divided. According to Morgan, the frieze is not a true narrative but thematic, and as such would not represent a temporal shift. Conversely, Marinatos and Cain both subscribe to the idea that the frescoes combine to create a continuous narrative and that narrative and theme are not mutually exclusive. As a result, we ‘readers’ of this room as a whole can illuminate a sense of narrative.
Although we have established that a temporal shift was the concern of the artist, some questions may still arise with the difficult nature of this topic. Although a number of time sequences are implied, the temporal relations or direction are not as clear. On what wall does the narrative begin? Does this narrative run left to right? Does it move up or down within the different planes? Does the meta-narrative move from one wall to another and back again in a similar process to the Narmer Palette? Our conception of a linear time is once again put to the test. Speculation about the temporal shift has arisen over the seemingly unfitting inclusion of the Nilotic Frieze on the east wall. If an invasion or even merely a sea journey is being depicted, this temporary ‘time-out’ for a natural depiction creates a cognitive break in the narrative. Morgan holds the position that this frieze has a symbolic and metaphorical relationship with the rest of the narrative. The idea of aggression and hunting occurs as such both in the animal and human world and the juxtaposition of the hunt of the Griffin with the other scenes intensifies the emotion of the human actions. Furthermore, how was the frieze meant to be viewed? The height and positioning of the fresco would have created a difficult accurate reading of anyone not holding intimate knowledge of the details of the frieze. This begs the question that if the temporal shift appears to be an important component of the fresco, would the viewer have easily understood the artistic conventions at this time frequently incorporated a temporal shift given that it was difficult to view?
Therefore, from the miniature frescoes in Room 5 of the West House, we can infer that narrative is working on a number of levels within this multi-scenic setting. Although it is clear that a temporal shift occurs both within and throughout the friezes, how exactly the artist has rendered this shift and in what direction is something which our current cultural context does not allow us to understand.
Narrative throughout Multi-Media
Until this point throughout the paper the nature of temporality and its designation in Aegean art has been focused on within one medium at any given time. Time however may also be depicted through varying forms of media and may be highlighted with examples already used. Rehak first discusses this multi-media narrative in relation to the sequence of activities thought to be involved in female ritual. The image from the North Wall of the House of the Ladies of a female robing scene, as per our understanding of Minoan ritual, would logically occur before the epiphany event depicted in the Isopata ring. Similarly, events involving human interaction with bulls can be tracked. Beginning with the Vapheio Cup, we are presented with the capture of the Bull, the Taureador Fresco may depict the bull-leaping events and an image such as on the Ayia Triadha Sarcophagus represents the fate of the Bull. Accordingly, this may represent a convention of depicting time in Aegean Art which differs from our own. Furthermore, the limited number of types of iconographical depictions from the Aegean Bronze age further clarifies the thematic and temporal unity between depictions throughout different media. However, as with contemporary art, there is a possibility that this is merely a coincidence and a conscious effort to create an inter-narrative was not the goal of the rendering. Although it seems a large leap to assume that there was a conscious effort between many artists or an individual to collaborate in this effort, the temporal link exists throughout the art whether it was intended or not.
To conclude, the ‘temporal shift’ is depicted in synoptic, mono-scenic representations of Bronze Age Aegean Art: firstly with the use of unidentified objects in a scene, secondly by the size relations of different figures within an image creating snapshots of the same figure, thirdly through the gestural system for human figures used to denote an event occurring creating a narrative in the mind of the viewer, and fourthly through the use of colour differentiation. In multi-scenic depictions a temporal shift is detected from the close quarters of seemingly disparate scenes of active and peaceful figures, by the addition of surprising elements, and through the differentiation of topographical detail denoting distance, journey and an on-going narrative. Narrative as a way in which to depict a temporal shift can occur within one scene due to episodic images or throughout different depictions and media.
As we analyse without a written record, our ability to offer clear interpretations on events depicted is hindered. Narrative creates a group identity whereby the inference of a narrative and our ability to understand its signs via artistic conventions creates a common knowledge in which we partake. Similarly, our modern cultural context lacks the signs and codes necessary to completely understand art from the Aegean. However, although at times we may not know exactly what is going on in a scene, we may still retain the ability to define a collapse in time and a depiction of a temporal shift. At times the analysis of depictions of time in Aegean art offers up more questions than answers. Thus, although varying ways of detecting narrative have been touched upon, there is the strong possibility that our modern eyes are completely oblivious to signs which were naturally consumed by the ancient viewer.
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