Architectual Imitations from 'Palace G' - The Wall Paintings of Tell el-Dab'a

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Architectual Imitations from 'Palace G'

Johannes Jungfleisch

Since the unexpected discovery of thousands of lime plaster fragments executed in the ‘fresco’-technique near the modern village of 'Ezbet Helmi/Tell el-Dab'a during the 1990s, research focused mainly on the wall paintings from the excavation sites H/I and H/IV, the area of the so-called small ‘Palace F’. But there is also evidence of fresco paintings from the areas H/II, H/III and H/VI, just 200 m south of ‘Palace F’, generally associated with the so-called large ‘Palace G’. Although in recent years some of these wall paintings, especially the ornamental scenes, were subject to thorough studies, the major part still has to be restored and examined.
Amongst the vast number of paintings found in the surroundings of ‘Palace G’ there is a significant group of fragments showing motifs well known in the Aegean for simulating architectural elements and building materials in large scale. Up to now, this kind of mural treatment was almost unknown within the corpus of wall paintings from Tell el-Dab'a. Not for that reason alone, but also because of the special importance of the architectural simulations within the local ‘Egyptian’ context, a closer examination of this group looks promising. Bearing in mind that access to building materials like stone and timber was restricted in the Nile delta and the actual mud brick architecture of the palatial district follows rather ‘Egyptian’ models, a wide range of questions arises from this group of paintings: How was painted and real architecture interrelated? What effects did the specific combination of local architecture and innovative wall decoration have on social interactions taking place in these buildings? What are the political, cultural and social conditions causing the architectural and technological change reflected in these fresco paintings?
The same holds true for the appearance of similar architectural simulations and other innovative features apart from wall paintings within the traditional architecture of several other sites in the ancient Near East. Therefore, the study of the architectural simulations from Tell el-Dab'a will be imbedded in a PhD project exploring this phenomenon in the context of Near Eastern palatial architecture of the second millennium BC.
Up to now about 450 fragments of varying size, including tiny pieces as well as enormous plaster patches, could be assigned to the architectural imitations. At first sight, the plaster pieces of this group originate mainly from the area on both sites of the second entrance gate, leading through the enclosure wall of the palatial district directly to the base of ‘Palace G’.
Based on technical and iconographic observations, it was possible to recognize different groups, belonging to the architectural simulations: The fragments of the following group are characterized by patterns, which are well known in the Aegean for reproducing the appearance of variegated stone slabs normally used as dados. The veining of the stone was rendered by fluent s-curved or scalloped lines executed in red on a white ground as well as by irregular undulating black bands on a greyish-white background. In the case of the latter group, there is some evidence for narrow red vertical bands.
Both manners of representations find close parallels in the Aegean: s-curved and scalloped lines, reproducing the varied hues of veined stone, are known from Crete (1) and Mainland Greece. (2) Undulating black bands on a greyish ground decorated the walls of a lustral basin in Chania (Crete). (3) In addition, red or yellow vertical bands were used in Aegean wall paintings for dividing the painted dados in different panels. (4) Usually, these vertical stripes are considered as imitations of wooden uprights, which fastened in real architecture the stone slabs of the veneer to the wall. (5) Nonetheless, it should be noted here that reproductions of the material appearance of variegated stone and grained wood is also known from ancient Egypt, (6) which will be taken more into account in future.
The aforementioned types of stone imitations are linked to fragments, which show either a linear pattern consisting of intersecting, narrow red stripes on blue ground or a sequence of red rectangles on ochre-beige ground. Because of their fragmentary condition and large-scale representation it is difficult to give an interpretation of these pieces at this early stage of research. The red rectangles are reminiscent of similar motifs known from the wall paintings of a Late Bronze Age building at Alalakh. Here, the reddish rectangles represent the timber of transverse beams and form part of an architectural simulation reproducing the structural arrangement of a wall in real architecture (7). Furthermore, according to a first tentative explanation some fragments showing narrow red bands on white ground might have given the appearance of a stone masonry façade. (8) But before a definitive statement regarding the architectural simulations can be made, further research is needed.
In addition to that, one group of fragments consists of pieces showing rows of alternating red and black circles on white ground, usually interpreted in Aegean iconography as representations of ‘beam ends’. (9) The solid circles vary in diameter from approximately 13.5 to 14.0 cm.
Although ‘beam end friezes’ are prevalent in miniature and small-scale architectural representations, depicting either floor or transverse beams, (10) there are only a few examples in large-scale in Aegean iconography. (11) The most notable examples, showing black and brownish circles with a diameter of 32.0 cm and a wooden beam imitation with knotholes, were found in the ‘Palace of Nestor’ at Pylos. (12) Usually, the circles were depicted in alternating red and blue colour, (13) but some examples differ from this convention, showing other colour combinations like red and black. (14)
Comparing the architectural simulations of ‘Palace G’ with the motif repertoire of ‘Palace F’ it becomes apparent that imitations of variegated stones as well as ‘beam ends’ are completely missing in the latter. As opposed to this, Clairy Palyvou could recognize many fragments belonging to the depiction of a possible ashlar façade among the wall paintings of ‘Palace F’.
The processing of the wall paintings from ‘Palace G’ in general and the architectural simulations in particular are still at the beginning. The following study season will concentrate mainly on the identification and conservation of diagnostic pieces, which can provide new information, especially in regard to the transitions between the different (architectural) motifs. Apart from conservation and inventorying, work will continue on image processing of single pieces. Because of the fragmentary state of preservation and the large-scale depiction, it is equally important to evaluate all available information about architecture, representations of architecture and the reproduction of material appearances in the Aegean, Western Asia as well as Egypt. This approach provides an important basis for future digital reconstructions and a better understanding of the architectural simulations of Tell el-Dab'a.


(1) For s-curved lines, cf. Fyfe 1902, 109 fig. 2 (Loom Weight Basement, Palace of Knossos, Crete – MM IIB); Evans 1935, 920f. fig. 894. 895 (Throne Room, Palace of Knossos, Crete – LM II–LM IIIA); for scalloped lines, cf. Evans 1921, 356 fig. 255 (Marbled Dado’, Corridor 94, Palace of Knossos, Crete – MM IIIA); Brysbaert 2000, 54 fig. 3b (Building 6, Roussolakos/Palaikastro, Crete – MM IIIA).
(2) For s-curved lines, cf. Rodenwaldt 1912, 23f. no. 32. fig. 2. 3. (Tiryns, Argolis, Greece – LH IIIA?); for scalloped lines, cf. Rodenwaldt 1912, 24 no. 33. pl. III, 11–13 (Inner Forecourt, Tiryns, Argolis, Greece – LH IIIA?);  Lamb 1919-1921, 198 no. 28. pl. X, 28 (Ramp House Deposit, Mycenae, Argolis, Greece – LH IIIA–LH IIIB).
(3) Cf. Andreadake-Vlasake 1988, 67f. fig. 9. 11; Evely 1999, 134. 250 (Lustral Basin 5, Splantzia/Daskaloyannis Street, Chania, Crete – MM IIIB–LM IA).
(4) Cf. Evans 1921, 356 fig. 255 (‘Marbled Dado’, Corridor 94, Palace of Knossos, Crete – MM IIIA); Doumas 1992, 50f. fig. 14–17. 56 fig. 24. 86–91. fig. 49–56. (Room 4 and 5, ‘West House’, Akrotiri, Thera – LM IA); Rodenwaldt 1912, 23f. no. 32. fig. 2. 3. (Tiryns, Argolis, Crete – LH IIIA?);  Lang 1969, 177f. no. 25D46. pl. 106 (Hall 46, ‘Palace of Nestor’, Pylos, Messenia, Crete – LH IIIB).
(5) Cf. Palyvou 2000, 425.
(6) See for example Gander 2009.
(7) Cf. Woolley 1955, 231f. pl. XXXIX, c (Room 6, House 39/A, Alalakh, Turkey – Alalakh IV, LBA I).
(8) Cf. Bietak, Marinatos & Palyvou 2007, 42.
(9) Cf. Bulle 1907, 73; Evans 1921, 221; Lang 1969, 145; Morgan 1988, 75–77; Immerwahr 1990, 145; Palyvou 2000, 249f.
(10) For a general discussion of ‘beam end friezes’ in miniature paintings, see Morgan 1988, 75–77.
(11) Two LH II tombs, one at Kokla and one at Mycenae, show painted lintels with the characteristic row of circles. Cf. Demakopoulou 1990, 113. 115f. fig. 3. 4 (Tholos I, Kokla, Argolis, Greece – LH II–LH IIIA1); Tsountas & Manatt 1969, 133f. fig. 49. 50 (Chamber Tomb 81, Mycenae, Argolis, Greece – LH II).
(12) Cf. Lang 1969, 145. 153f. no. 14F45. 207f.: M. Lang and S. Immerwahr note that there are no immediate antecedents for the pylian ‘beam end frieze‘ from Crete, but C. Palyvou mentions a fragment of a stone frieze from Akrotiri/Thera, which shows on the plastered surface a row of blue circles, as possible architectural prototype. Cf. Lang 1969, 28; Immerwahr 1990, 145; Palyvou 2000, 430.
(13) Cf. Evans 1921, 445f. fig. 321 (‘Pillar Shrine Fresco’, West Magazine XIII, Palace of Knossos, Crete – MM IIIB); Bulle 1907, pl. XXVIII, 1 (Orchomenos – LH IIIA/B?); Lang 1969, 138f. 6A5. pl. 78. I (Room 5, ‘Palace of Nestor’, Pylos, Messenia, Greece – LH IIIB); Immerwahr 1990, 191 MyNo. 6. pl. 59 (Room of the Frescoes, Mycenae, Argolis, Greece – LH IIIB).
(14) Cf. Militello 2001, 97 F GF.2 (‘Grana Frana’, Phaistos, Crete – MM II–MM IIIA); Lang 1969, 138 4A20. 5A20 (Room 20, ‘Palace of Nestor’, Pylos, Messenia, Greece – LH IIIB).

Fragment with Simulated Stone Slab
Fragment of the Beam-End-Frieze
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