The Akrotiri miniature Marine Festival Fresco

In one of the rooms in Akrotiri there was a narrow (40 cm, or 12.5 inch) fresco along the top of the walls. The frescos on the four walls displayed different scenes that might or might not have been thematically related. On one wall was the so-called Marine Festival Fresco, which shows a fleet of ships leaving one city and arriving at another. This fresco has had many intepretations, including that it represents a military invasion (on another wall there is a scene of what looks like a naval battle). Some say that the departure city is Akrotiri, or that the destination is Akrotiri. But neither look in the least like Akrotiri would have done then, and I think we can dismiss both possibilities out of hand, though I believe one of the ships is departing from Akrotiri,which is hidden behind the eastern tip of Santorini/Thera.

My current interpretation of the fresco is that it is an accurate representation of a festive trip from Atlantis to Knossos, perhaps for an annual or quadrennial festival akin to the thousand-year later Olympic games. In an extremely speculative mood, I suggest that the Games involved the bull-leaping and related events recorded in Knossos frescos, and furthermore that they underly the legend of Theseus and the Minotaur.

Here is the picture. You will have to scroll across to see it all, or you can click on it to see a really big version you can scroll across in a separate window. I built this as a composite from pictures of parts of the fresco found on several Web sites. Or, if you want to see some discussion of it in the guise of an interactive interface for mission planning, click here.

A small version of the Marine festival Fresco. Scroll across to see the right-hand part of it.

If you want to look at a very big version (1.2 Mb, over 5000 pixels wide) on a separate page, to view and scroll across in conjunction with the text discussion, click on it, or click here

(The big version is recommended only if you have a big screen and a fast connection.
Note: MS Internet Explorer 5 seems to limit the width of an image to less than half of the big version, at least on the Macintosh).

My interpretation of this picture is that it is a festive fleet travelling from Atlantis to Knossos for a special occasion, for example an annual (or quadrennial) games festival such as I speculate underlies the legend of Theseus and the Minotaur..There are so many points of correspondence between the destination part of the fresco and the north Crete coast that I think the Knossos destination is pretty well assured.

Departure from Thera cannot be verified directly from the picture, since the central part of Thera at the time of the painting no longer exists, having been blown to bits in 1650 BC. However, the picture does correspond in many ways to what Plato wrote about Atlantis, and the fresco was found in Akrotiri on Thera/Santorini, so a departure from that island would seem most probable, even if we did not know from other data of the close connection between Akrotiri and Knossos. .I interpret the departure city under the assumption that Plato's story of Atlantis is essentially true (See some of the reasoning here), and that it refers to Thera/Santorini before the catastrophic explosion. Certainly this picture was created before Akrotiri was evacuated, which happened some years before the final eruption in 1650 BC.

The departure city: Atlantis?

Starting from the left of the picture, we see a town open to the sea on one side, from which the fleet is departing. The town has a ring of water separating it from another narrow strip of land and another strip of water separates that from a wider terrain in which lions can chase deer. On the intermediate strip of land, to the left of the main town, is a cluster of houses that seem to be a suburb of the town. The city is shown as being built of red, white, and grey brick with yellow adornment also prominent, particularly on the wall to the right of the city. I intrerpret this city as being Atlantis, the town posited to have been on the central island of Thera that vanished in the explosion and is now distributed in the form of ash all over the Eastern Mediterranean. The view would be from the West, because even now, that is the only direction from which the central caldera and volcano is visible from the sea. The ships are heading South.

The city from which the fleet is departing (Atlantis?).

Plato said of Atlantis that it was built of red, white, and black stone, and the city walls were decorated with brass, tin, and "orichalcum." The wall at the middle right could well be a brass-decorated wall. Plato did not know what orichalcum was, other than that it was the most precious substance after gold. Orichalc did in fact exist, and was used for expensive decoration in Byblos of the same era (1700-1900 BC), but this was not known until the Gublitic script of Byblos was deciphered in the mid-20th century. Orichalcum might have been a gold alloy, which would have been yellow, though Plato refers to its "red glow".

In other words, the red, white, dark grey and yellow colours of the city in the fresco are appropriate for it to be Atlantis. Some commentators have suggested the city might be Akrotiri, but Akrotiri would never have been ringed by water, as Plato said Atlantis was. If this city is Atlantis, the view is from the west, since we know that to be the only direction in which there could have been open sea. From this viewpoint, Akrotiri would have been hidden by the headland to the right (south) of the city in the fresco. The two humps separated by a saddle are correct for the non-volcanic hills now called Profiti Ilias and Meso Vouno. The suburb to the left would have been another town that is probably now part of the ashfall somewhere in the eastern Mediterranean (though it could be somewhere under the ash north of present-day Fira).

The ships

One of the 42-oared ships, with two "sunflowers". On this one, the man by the box in front of the steersman is standing up, looking forward, whereas in the other ships, he is sitting facing the captain in the box at the stern..

There are six large ships, three having 42 oars, two with 36 oars, and one with 46 oars, as well as a couple of smaller ships, one of then a sailing ship. They have long bowsprits, to which are attached what look like sunflower emblems. The 36-oared ships have one "sunflower", two of the 42-oared ships and the 46-oared ship have two, and one 42-oared ship has four. The "sunflowers" seem like insignia of rank and I take this ship to be the flagship of the fleet. Another indication of the importance of this ship is the fact that the passengers are wearing coloured clothes, whereas in the other ships only one has a passenger with coloured clothes, and that person sits alone in the bow of the ship shown just below the "flagship". The four-flower ship also has decorations (lanterns?) strung from ropes hung between the central mast and the bow and stern of the ship. Similar decorations hang from the posts of the passenger cabin (those ones have also been interpreted as military helmets hung on the posts for convenience. But if those are helmets, what are the identical objects that hang on the ropes slung from the mast?)

The ships seem to have been carefully and accurately drawn in many respects. For example, consider the protrusion at the waterline at the stern. The smaller boats do not have this construct. The larger ships do, and in each case the lower bar of this protrusion is extended forward to connect with the steering oar. It is not a central extension to the keel, as some would have it. It is part of the steering mechanism. The small sailing ship does not have this mechanism, and it needs two steering oars. Just how the mechanism works is obscure, but one possibility is that the curved sheet that connects the bar to the hull is a flexible textile sheet that supplements the steering oar. This seems unlikely, but no obvious alternative presents itself.

A further clue to the accuracty of the drawing is in what we might call the "VIP Cabin" at the rear end of the awning-covered passenger area on the big ships. All of them have this special area, but the smaller ships do not.

The "flagship" of the fleet, with its festive decorations. Although it has only 42 oars, like two ot the others, this ship has four "sunflowers", which may be an insignia of rank. The passengers seem to be VIPs, as they are wearing coloured clothing, whereas the passengers on the other ships are dressed in white.

The "flagship" has its hull decorated with lions and dolphins, whereas the other has abstract scrolls (representing waves?). The passengers on the flagship wear brightly coloured clothes, whereas most of the passengers on the other ships wear white.

A small square-rigged sailing ship that has two steering paddles but no oars (though it seems to have positions for 14 oars, .has its hull decorated with birds in flight, suggesting speed.

The small sailing ship from the fresco. Compare it with the Phoenecian ship of about a century later. It even has the wicker fence that protected the cargo (and the passengers) from the sea spray. The rigging looks very similar, though this ship lacks the fore and aft stays shown on the Phoenecian ship, and the ship has a long bowsprit in place of the upright bow and sternposts of the Phoenecian ship.
A Phoenecian merchant ship of about 1500 BC. (From This ship does not have the captain's cabin that is shown on all the larger ships in the Akrotiri fresco. The picture shows only one steering oar, though the accompnaying text says it had two, like the Akrotiri ship.


The ships are shown in a sea full of cavorting dolphins, which have a colour scheme much like that of the dolphins in frescos in Knossos.

Some commentators have said that the departure and arrival city would have to be both on Thera/Santorini, because such ships would not be sea-going. But the ships look very like the Viking longboats that braved the Atlantic two and a half thousand years later, and there seems no reason why these Akrotiri ships should not have been quite seaworthy. Later, smaller Greek ships of 30 oars were used for long-distance trading, so there seems no reason not to credit these shiups with at least equal capability. Ships like the larger rowing craft have been shown to be capable of making a trip equivalent to the Thera-Knossos trip in one day's rowing. Furthermore, these ships seem to have outboard rowlocks, giving the rowers a greater mechanical advantage, which is good for sustained long-distance rowing, as opposed to fast short spurts.

The ship paintings argue that the painter was very precise in his depiction. The accuracy of the ship pictures argues for similar accuracy elsewhere, though obviously in the case of the pictures of towns the accuracy is cognitive rather than photographic, the towns being much bigger than the few buildings shown clearly. The translucency of some buildings is taken to be an indication that they are shown only to provide context for the more important material, but what is shown is probably fairly accurate.

The destination city, Knossos?

The destination is a complex coast, with at least two separate harbours and associated towns, backed by mountains, and with an occupied structure on top of one of the hills in front of the distant mountain. different interpreters have suggested many possible locations. To me it all looks very like Crete, but more detail is required to say that Crete is more probable than any other coast. And more detail is available.

The first construction the fleet approaches.on the destination land
Malia as it is now (May 2000)

This picture is of the first construction the fleet approaches on the destination land. This 5-story red stone construction is on or near the shore, as the boats drawn up on the beach indicate. The palace of Malia was constructed largely of red stone, and despite its "apartment-building" look, I identify this structure with the Malia palace. Modern reconstruction gives the palace only two or three stories with a variety of taller tower blocks, but that reconstruction is highly speculative. The technology of the time would have allowed taller buildings. Malia is on the north coast of Crete, with the Lassithi mountains behind it. The configuration of the mountains, as seen in the photograph I took in May 2000, is strikingly close to the configuration in the fresco. The lower, nearer hill in the photograph is now called Profitis Ilias.

The painter showed the Malia palace as somewhat transparent, which I take as an indication that it was intended more as a contextual element to help the viewer locate the picture than as an item of interest in itself. What was of specific interest was the group of people near the top of this section of the fresco, running up to a building on the nearer hilltop, from which a figure looks out onto the approaching fleet. We can assume that the approach of the fleet caused some excitement, and that these figures were people, perhaps young boys, who wanted to get a good view. Whether military or festive, the appearance of such a fleet cannot have been a frequent occurrence. Perhaps it was like today's parade of tall ships that happens once every few years, for which crowds line the shore.

Ruins of the Peak Sanctuary of Amenospilia (from this page)

I identify the building on the hill as what is known as the "Peak Sanctuary" on Profitis Ilias. This Peak Sanctuary was much the lowest Minoan Peak Sanctuary yet identified on Crete, according to Castleden (Minoans: Life in Bronze Age Crete, London: Routledge, 1990).

I know nothing of the construction of the Profitis Ilias Peak Sanctuary, but I assume it was like the ones at Iuktas or Amenospilia (the latter is shown here). The Amenospilia Peak Sanctuary picture could have served as a template for the construction on the hilltop in the fresco, with a main door opening into a rectangular room, with another room to its right, and possibly a third behind it. If it is indeed the Profitis Ilias peak sanctuary, it would have been a good place to go to see the fleet as it passed Malia on the way to Amnissos (not the most direct route, but a route that a festival convoy might well have taken).

Another possible reason to identify the red building as the Malia Palace is the small harbour just in front of it. Malia had just such a small harbour, and the palace was quite near the shore.

Between the semi-transparent 5-story red building by the shore and the final destination city, the fresco shows protruding segment of coastline, which is easily identified with the shallow cliff-bound point around which the present-day coast road goes between Malia and Amnissos, some 30 km to the west. Since it is obvious at first glance that the fresco has no consistency of scale, the abstraction of the jagged coastline separating the two places into a single promontory is not a problem for the identification. The separation between the two harbours--the small one at Malia, and the large Amnissos port that served Knossos-- is the significant detail.

The next element of the fresco is the final destination, which I interpret to be Amnissos, the port for Knossos. Amnissos was a major port, known to the Byblos traders, whereas (so far as I am aware) Malia was not treated like an international trading port. If the fresco does represent the two ports of Malia and Amnissos, the difference is shown by the nature of the boats in them. The "Malia" boats are small, whereas the "Amnissos" boats are substantial ships, possibly sailing ships (at least the upper one looks like a sailing ship, and both seem to have the wicker fences of the sailing ship in the fleet and of the Phoenecian ship shown above).

The final destination of the fleet, with a welcoming crowd waiting on the wharf and watchers at every tower and window. Is this Amnissos and Knossos? To see the full panorama of the fresco in large size, click here.

What other features might link this rightmost part of the fresco to Amnissos and Knossos? Knossos is about 5 km inland, and would not have been as visible from the sea as is the town in the fresco. Does this matter? Perhaps not. The fresco painter did not paint from a single-viewpoint, even though in some respects the picture does seem to be fairly precise. Many different cultures (and young children sometimes) have painted what the mind sees, rather than what the eye sees. All four sides of a house may be shown in a single picture, for example. The fresco painter could well have shown the palace/temple of Knossos because that was where the people of the ships intended to go after landing at Amnissos. It would have been a cognitively present element of the picture, even if a camera could not have seen it from a sea-borne viewpoint. There is certainly a shift of perspective between the left side of this clip, where the two boats are, and the right side with the people waiting on the wharf. And one would not expect a viewing window to exist under the foot of the wide grey steps in the middle of the picture.

The "Theatral Area" steps at Knossos, at the head of the access road. The main buildings are to the right.

The wide grey steps that lead nowhere are a possible clue to the identification of Knossos here. Such a set of steps is a common feature of Minoan palaces, and occur even in the much later Dorian site at Lato. They have been called "Theatral Areas", but they each are at the head of an entrance road, as if they afforded a place for dignitaries to welcome official visitors. The steps would have been the real destination of the passengers from the fleet, if they were attending festivities in Knossos. As such, the steps would have been cognitively important for the artist. In Knossos, the steps are at the head of the road, to the left of the palace as one approaches along the road, as are the steps in this picture. It may be purely coincidence, but there are 11 steps in the picture, and 11 steps remain at Knossos.

In the fresco, a road seem to be shown between two segments of blue-grey sea-wall. The road seems to be depicted as a route, rather than just as a gap in the wall, suggesting that it is intended that other features should be seen as being in the further distance, down the road. The steps seem naturally to be among those more distant features.

Knossos is a natural destination for ships from Thera. Even if there were no other indications (such as the grey and yellow stone of which Knossos is actually built) it would be natural to assume that Knossos was a likely destination of the fleet. With the addition of the correctly placed and coloured edifice that could be Malia with the Profiti Ilias Peak Sanctuary behind it, the mountain range that backs the whole coastline, and the grey "Theatral Area" steps, the identification seems fairly secure.

The probable route of the fleet, or rather of the ship from Akrotiri. The main fleet would have come from the central city, which I identify with Atlantis. (On the map, note the Island of Anafi just east of Thera. It figures in the Legend of Jason and the Argonauts.)

If these identifications are correct, we can fairly accurately describe the route of the fleet. On the left of the fresco, a ship from Akrotiri (which is hidden behind the correctly shaped headland on the right of the island) is joining the main fleet from the central city, which we identify with Atlantis.

In the days of the fresco painter, there were no GPS satallites or even reliable clocks, so navigation had to be by the sun and by visible landmarks. So long as the ships could see the central volcano of Thera, they could keep a fairly accurate direction by aligning landmarks. By the time the volcano was out of sight, if they were aiming for Amnissos, they could have seen Mt. Ida or Mt Diktas, and steered to either one. Mt Ida is further west of Amnissos than Mt Diktas is to its east. and if the above interpretation is right, the fleet steered past Malia, which they would have done if they had used Mt. Diktas as an aiming point. To pass by Malia woudl in any case have been a natural courtesy for such a festive fleet. Hence, the route on the map is consistent both with the natural route such a fleet would have been expected to take between Thera and Crete, and with the elements depicted in the fresco.

What was the occasion for this fleet?

Although some, including Nanno Marinatos in a popular tourist guide to Santorini, have tried to interpret the fleet as military, there seems to be nothing defensive about the people in the destination city, and nothing military about the ships. Some have interpreted the objects hanging from the posts of the flagship as helmets. and what I see as an awning as being spears resting on high supports, but to me neither interpretaion makes sense. The hanging objects look pretty well identical to the objects hanging from the ropes strung from the masthead, and I take them to be lanterns or something like that. The passengers on the "flagship" are clothed in vari-coloured cloaks, not armour, and there is no sign of a weapon anywhere, whereas weapons are much in evidence in a companion fresco on another wall of the same building. It seems much more likely to have been a traditional festive event, much like the annual Marriage of Venice with the Sea, which continues to the present day with a parade of decorated boats.

Detail of the flagship, showing the "lanterns" (or helmets?), and the coliured clothing of the passengers.

The configurations of both the departure city and the arrival shore are unusual, but are compatible with the departure being from the central city of pre-explosion Thera (i.e. Atlantis) and the arrival being at Amnissos, the port of Knossos, after passing by Malia. Nothing about either the departure or the destination city is at all reminiscent of Akrotiri.

If we accept my (totally speculative) interpretation of the legend of Theseus and the Minotaur, there were regular, perhaps annual, games in Knossos, to which people came from all over the Aegean. Atlantis was a much richer place than most of the Mycenean cities, including Athens, and much closer to Knossos. It is not unreasonable, then, to suppose that Atlantis would send several shiploads of competitors and spectators, and that the ships would be festively decorated. For the people of mainland Crete, the annual arrival of the Atlantean fleet would have been a spectacular occasion, worth coming to the dockside and other vantage points to observe, much as people now come out to watch the parade of tall ships.

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