Leading a life of luxury

Dominic Green reports on what the discovery of fragments of Aegean-style frescoes and an extensive wine cellar can tell us about life in the Bronze Age palace being excavated at the Tel Kabri site in the Galilee region of Israel


No ancient civilisation was an island – and certainly not the remarkably civilised Aegean islands of Minoan Crete and Thera (Santorini) during the Middle Bronze Age (circa 1900-1600 BC). The Minoans, as Thucydides wrote in the 5th century BC, thrived by thalassocratia, ‘the power of the seas’. Yet we are less certain of how the Minoans used that power and of the relationship between economic exchanges and cultural influence. The search for a deeper understanding of the relationship between the Minoans and their Near Eastern neighbours has now directly led to a Canaanite palace at Tel Kabri in north-western Israel.

More than a century of excavations, notably by Sir Arthur Evans at Knossos, have demonstrated the wealth and artistic sophistication of Minoan civilisation. Textual evidence confirms the presence of Minoan traders on the Syro-Canaanite coast. An inventory from Mari in modern Syria, dating from the 18th century BC, describes an allocation of tin to an interpreter working for the chief Caphtorite (Cretan) merchant at the port of Ugarit. Yet until recently, little archaeological evidence could be found outside the Aegean Islands for the most familiar of Minoan exports, those instantly recognisable, colourful elegant frescoes from Knossos in Crete and Akrotiri on Thera.

Aegean Ship Procession fresco from the West House, Akrotiri, late 17th-early 16th century BC. Photograph: courtesy of Biblical Archaeology Review.

The first sighting of Minoan imagery was a bull’s horn and a possible double-axe, reconstructed by Sir Leonard Woolley from fragments discovered in 1937-39 and 1946-49 at Alalakh (Tell Atcharna), on the southern coast of modern Turkey. Woolley also confirmed Comte du Mesnil du Buisson’s discovery in the 1920s of Aegean-style wall-paintings in imitation of marble at Qatna (Tell Mishrifeh), in modern Syria.

Half a century passed, however, before a series of remarkable discoveries confirmed a wider Minoan presence in the region. During the 1990s at Tell el-Dab’a in the Nile Delta, the Austrian archaeologist Manfred Bietak found Aegean-style fragments of a fresco depicting bull-leapers like those at Knossos, painted over a maze pattern evoking the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur. Then, between 2000 and 2004, Peter Pfälzer of Tübingen University uncovered more than 3000 fragments at Qatna, with running floral motifs and also dolphins familiar to us from the frescoes in the palace of Knossos.

Reconstructed fragment showing a bull-leaper, from Tell el-Dab’a, Egypt, circa 15th century BC. Photograph: courtesy of Manfred Bietak, Austrian Academy of Sciences.

But earlier, back in 1986, Aharon Kempinski of Tel Aviv University and Wolf-Dietrich Niemeier of Heidelberg University had begun to excavate at Tel Kabri, five kilometres east of the Israeli coastal town of Nahariya. There, in 1989, they discovered a ‘ceremonial hall’ with an Aegean-style painted plaster floor. A grid of red lines formed a red-and-white chequerboard-style pattern with plants, such as irises and crocuses, depicted within its many squares. There were also marbling effects painted in red, brown, yellow and grey. These designs are similar to those found in Aegean palaces.

At the threshold between the hall and an adjoining room, several thousand fragments were packed together: the remains of a small wall fresco, which appears to have been removed and reused as material for later construction.

Reconstruction of finds, circa 17th-16th century BC, to show how an Aegean-style fresco would have looked in the palace at Tel Kabri. Courtesy of Nurith Goshen.

Kempinski and Niemeier retrieved around 2000 of these fragments and deduced that the fresco had once shown a landscape of hills and sea, not unlike the miniature fresco discovered in 1972 by Spyridon Marinatos at the West House at Akrotiri on Santorini.

These were significant discoveries, but Tel Kabri’s extent and potential only became apparent after 2005, when digging resumed under Dr Eric Cline of George Washington University and Assaf Yasur-Landau, Associate Professor of Mediterranean Archaeology at Haifa University. Kempinski and Niemeier had estimated that the palace covered about 2000 square metres, a respectable size for a Canaanite palace of the Middle Bronze Age. But Tel Kabri turned out to be much larger, and much richer in Minoan-linked findings.

‘We call it the palace that keeps on giving,’ says Cline. The 2005 excavation was followed by further digs in 2009, 2011 and 2015. ‘Each time we think we’ve reached the limits of the palace, we turn out to hit another wall, and then the next room. First we went to 4000sqm, then to 6000sqm; now, we’re thinking it’s closer to 8000sqm. That makes it one of the largest Canaanite palaces around.’

Aerial view of the site of the palace at Tel Kabri in 2011: the wine cellar is the dark area in the centre. Photograph: courtesy of Eric Cline.

The sheer scale of Tel Kabri suggests that it must have had links with Hazor, the largest city in the Galilee region, and one of the largest in the Fertile Crescent. Tel Kabri’s inhabitants would have been socially and economically influential in northwestern Galilee. The political structure of northern Canaan is on Cline and Yasur-Landau’s research list.

‘We want to investigate how a Canaanite palace formed and developed in this period, how it utilised the Mediterranean landscape to consolidate its economy, and what connections the palace had to other Mediterranean elites,’ Yasur-Landau explains.

The palace does not appear to have been built by an invader. ‘We don’t see any destruction, only construction,’ says Cline. He and Yasur-Landau may have identified the origins of at least one of the palace’s builders. Towards the end of the Middle Bronze II period (circa 1600 BC), a large and expensive building was constructed abutting the palace’s western wall. The new walls were lined with orthostat blocks, large slab-like stones measuring up to five feet in length. Each block was drilled with a square dowel hole, probably so that a wooden façade could be hung on the exterior of the wall, like a modern window blind. Cline and Yasur-Landau note the similarity between these blocks and those in the Minoan palaces at Phaistos and Malia in Crete.

Dr Eric Cline, Professor of Classics and Anthropolgy at the George Washington University, on site in Israel in 2013. Photograph: courtesy of Eric Cline.

‘It wasn’t just the ceremonial hall that was painted,’ adds Cline. ‘There were Aegean-style paintings scattered in several different areas of this Canaanite palace.’ As the dig expanded, fragments of another Aegean floor and fresco came to light. The second set of fragments was also painted in the Aegean style, in red, orange, yellow, brown, black, white and blue – this is the first time that blue paint from this period had been discovered in Israel.

Half a dozen of the fragments fitted together to depict part of a white animal, outlined in black against a blue background. Cline and Yasur-Landau interpret this partial image as a fish’s fin or a griffin’s wing. They suggest parallels between this figure and the flying fish fresco at Phylakopi on the Cycladic island of Milos, or the griffin from Mycenae.

The extent of the palace is still to be defined: the archaeologists have yet to locate its perimeter. Already, though, it has been established that the ancient ‘wine cellar’ – discovered in 2013 to the west of the palace’s central courtyard – is the largest known in the Near East. ‘When we found the original wine cellar in 2013,’ says Cline, ‘we thought that we had 40 jars, each containing 50 litres. That’s a substantial amount. In today’s terms, 2000 litres would equate to about 3000 bottles.’

Excavating the palace’s extensive wine cellar, with its large amphorae, at Tel Kabri in 2013. Photograph: courtesy of Eric Cline.

Stored next to a ceremonial room suitable for staging banquets, this would have supported the household for a year. But further analysis soon expanded the economic significance of the cellar. ‘It now turns out that we underestimated the capacity of the jars by half or more,’ reports Cline. ‘Each jar will actually hold 113 litres. So instead of 2000 litres, we’re now looking at more than 4000 litres, just in that one cellar. Then, in 2015, we found another three rooms, with another 70 jars and we suspect that there may be another row of storerooms, immediately to the west of these three rooms.’

The volume of wine held in the cellars increases the likelihood that it was not only reserved for the ruler, his household and his guests, but that some of it could have been stored for commercial purposes. ‘Maybe there was enough for them to be distributing it,’ opines Cline.

Wine was a staple of Bronze Age palace life, and viticulture was vital to the extra-palatial economy. Storage rooms are known to have existed at Mari in Mesopotamia, and large jars have also been found in the Aegean palaces at Knossos and Pylos in the Peloponnese. Cline and Yasur-Landau suspect that the palace and its estate played a role in the regional economy comparable to that of a Greek oikos (an Ancient Greek household unit).

The jars found at Tel Kabri were the first to have their contents empirically confirmed by Organic Residue Analysis. Testing conducted by Professor Andrew Koh at Brandeis University, near Boston, Massachusetts, revealed traces of honey, storax resin, terebinth resin, cedar oil, juniper and, perhaps mint, myrtle and cinnamon. These additives are attested in texts from 18th century BC found in Mari and the Ebers Papyrus (an Egyptian medical document concerning the use of herbs, dating from circa 1550 BC).

Fragments of a mural from Mycenae showing a griffin on a characteristic blue background. Photograph: courtesy of National Archaeological Museum, Athens.

‘This wine may have been valued not just for its complex taste, but also for its fragrance,’ Yasur-Landau suggests. ‘It included exotic scents like cedar oil and storax, which was also an ingredient of incense.’

The wines, like the clay that made the jars, were a local vintage. Then, as now, the Upper Galilee was a wine-growing region. In the Zenon Archive from Ptolemaic Egypt, a papyrus dating from 257 BC refers to 80,000 vines on the Bethanath estate (near modern Karmiel), which was only 15km southeast of Tel Kabri. The animals consumed by the palace’s inhabitants were similarly local. ‘The palace elite hunted game such as aurochs (wild cattle), deer and wetland birds,’ says Yasur-Landau. ‘These were eaten along with domesticated sheep and goats at large-scale banquets.’ The origins of the food and the scale of its consumption suggest that the palace was a large estate, with an extensive household.

The Zenon papyrus also mentions that wines from Bethanath grapes were purportedly indistinguishable from the celebrated wines of Chios. If Tel Kabri’s wines were exported to compete with the best Aegean wines, that might explain an anomaly in jar capacity.

‘The type of jars that we found in 2015 were slightly different from the jars that we found in 2013,’ Cline says. ‘We found two different sizes in the same location. One was the large 113-litre jar, and the other was smaller. Not much smaller: the small jars are around 80cm tall, as opposed to 100cm tall. But the small jars do seem more readily transportable. It’s possible that the wine came into the palace in the small jars and was then decanted into the large jars, which stayed in place. It’s also possible that the wine was decanted from the large jars, and exported in the small jars.’

An aerial view of the expanded site of Tel Kabri in 2013 with the archaeologists spelling out its name. Photograph: courtesy of Eric Cline.

The interactions between Aegeans and Levantines must be framed by the wider context. Culturally, the traffic ran in both directions. In Ugaritic myth, Kothar wa-Khasis, the god of handicrafts, comes from Caphtor (Crete) and the Aegean, to build a palace for the god Ba’al in the Levant. The later Minoans exported pottery, wine and food, and imported precious goods, such as ivory from Egypt and copper from Cyprus, for refinement in Crete. In Cretan myth, Europa, the mother of King Minos of Crete, is a noble Phoenician, abducted from the coast of Phoenicia by Zeus in the form of a white bull, and carried to Crete. Early Minoan art bears traces of Levantine and Egyptian influence, to the extent that Sir Leonard Woolley posited Levantine origins for Minoan culture.

The direction of wine exports does not dictate the movement of artistic styles. Nor does the direction in which artistic styles first travel dictate the subsequent movements of their practitioners. Radio carbon dating is crucial to our understanding of Tel Kabri’s aesthetics. Testing suggests that the frescoes date to the 17th century BC. That makes the Tel Kabri frescoes much older than the Qatna frescoes, which date to the 14th century BC, slightly older than those at Tell el-Dab’a, and about the same age as the Alalakh frescoes. It also dates the frescoes to a period when Minoan civilisation was stable and affluent. This in turn supports hypotheses for the presence of skilled Aegean artisans in Canaan.

‘There was a destruction at Knossos, probably an earthquake, and usually dated to around 1700 BC,’ says Cline. ‘But the Minoans picked up and carried on, until the Myceneans came in around 1350 BC. So we are looking into the gap between those two events. This is interesting, and complicating.’ There was also the eruption at Thera, around 1628 BC. ‘It is certainly a possibility that our Minoans may have been fleeing the eruption,’ Cline allows.

Excavated storage rooms of the palace with members of the team to show scale, 2013. Photograph: courtesy of Eric Cline.

Yet, although the frescoes at Tel Kabri resemble those at Akrotiri, their artists might not have been refugees from the Cyclades, or even freelance itinerants, as Cline explains: ‘They could also have been sent as a gift exchange. We have the Amarna Letters from the 14th century BC which describe craftsmen, artists, surgeons and sculptors being sent between royal courts.’ If this is true, the frescoes would have shown their owner’s wealth and sophistication, and would also have indicated the kind of Mediterranean connections that a Canaanite king might have envied.

But a further mystery surrounds the fate of Tel Kabri’s frescoes. Around 1500 BC, the palace fell from use, for reasons still to be ascertained but, curiously, the frescoes had already been taken down. This also happened at Alalakh and at Tell el-Dab’a. Only at Qatna were the frescoes still on the walls when the palace was destroyed. Why did Aegean-style wall-painting fall from favour, and why did the inhabitants bother to remove a fresco when it was cheaper and faster to whitewash over it? Further carbon- dating may give us answers to some of these questions.

Cline and Yasur-Landau are planning to accelerate excavations, with digs in 2017, 2018 and 2019.

‘We’re really the only accessible Canaanite site for the Middle Bronze Age in the region,’ Cline says. ‘There’s almost nothing built on top of it. You start digging, and you’re right there. This presents an opportunity unlike any other to really get to the heart of what it means to be Canaanite at this time.’

And that, it appears, will also take us closer to the heart of what it meant to be Minoan in the Middle Bronze Age. n

• For further information about past and future digs at Tel Kabri visit www.digkabri2015.wordpress.com.