The Hunt Frieze - The Wall Paintings of Tell el-Dab'a

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The Hunt Frieze

Lyvia Morgan

The Hunt Frieze from the ceremonial ‘Palace F’, which I am in the process of preparing for publication, consists of a series of small-scale scenes of hunters with dogs and feline predation within a rocky landscape with plants. Preliminary publications appeared in Ä&L, with articles on the lions (Marinatos), leopards and griffin (Morgan). (1) Like the vast majority of the painted plasters from Tell el-Dab'a, the frieze is Aegean in technique and idiom, and is datable to the early Thutmoside period. It was part of an iconographic programme that centered on the physical manifestations of male prowess and animal power, with the now famous bulls frieze, (2) a related scene of acrobats, and the hunt frieze. The fragments were found in a large dump in area H/I, by the entrance ramp to the palace, mixed with fragments of other compositions of large-scale animals (griffin, leopard, bulls) and plants, processional male figures, plaster reliefs, maze-pattern floor, and imitation ashlar masonry. (3) All these must have constituted a unified palatial programme. There is a distinct echo between the large-scale animals and plants, which may have adorned the Throne Room at the inner end of the palace, and the Hunt Frieze, which most likely ran above the windows and doors of the adjacent room or in a room on the floor above. (4)
In total there are some 700 fragments, of which 450 are sufficiently well preserved to be diagnostic. (5) The vast majority are of the landscape in which the action took place. Study began with organization of the pieces into groups according to the background colour of red or yellow and the main subject (hunters and dogs, lions, leopards, deer, goats and bulls, plants, rocks etc.). They are now stored in 16 boxes according to such categories, with their excavation contexts written on the backs. To date, all the fragments have been scanned and catalogued, and some (with more to follow) have been restored on the computer. In the final publication, the fragment will appear next to the restored version (Fig. 1). The process involves detailed study under magnification of technique and layers of paint, and selected fragments were viewed through a microscope. (6) Study is followed by digital enhancement of the colours, using techniques developed by Clairy Palyvou, (7) now skillfully executed by Marian Negrete-Martínez.
Reconstructions, which are still in progress, began in the 1990s with preliminary drawings of the hunters and dogs by Clairy Palyvou, and the now completed and published versions of the felines by Nanno Marinatos and myself. Over the past decade I have been working on the frieze as a whole, integrating predators and prey within the landscape. The process began with establishing associations, according to which plants occurred with which animals, figures etc., how the red and yellow backgrounds were related and how the rocks were integrated. Attention was paid to the top and bottom of the composition, recognizable by the flattened edge of the plaster where it abutted the wooden frame in the wall. Drawings which bring fragments together are executed at 1:1 scale using tracing paper, while colour sketches  provide an overall impression of how the reconstructions are developing. There are at least four or five hunters with six or more dogs, (8) and there are ten lions, six leopards, one griffin, six deer, and at least three goats, two of which are attacked by a dog. There are also many more white animals (goats and bovines), not yet reconstructed and mostly recognizable by their surviving legs. Reconstruction of proportions and postures is drawn from the information available in the fragments, supplemented by comparative iconography. Once the reconstruction drawing is complete, it is scanned, the enhanced fragments are incorporated, and finally colour is added to the reconstructed parts of the scene (Fig. 2).
The hunters and dogs appear on both red and yellow backgrounds, and one fragment indicates how the two colours were divided by an area of banded rocks with pebbles. (9) Ivy, reeds and papyrus are associated with them. The men wear loin cloths and white boots with lacings, while the dogs, pink, white, or black, have red collars and are held by a leash. The lions also occur on red and yellow backgrounds, with red below or above, while multi-coloured rocks lie beneath yellow ground, and blue rock interrupts red above, demonstrating the complexity of the landscape design. Reeds and papyrus are the associated plants. Most appear to be galloping, eight lions to the left, two to the right. A bull is attacked by two of them, blood dripping from the wound. (10) The single griffin is against yellow ground and moves to the left in ‘flying gallop’. (11) In the preliminary publication only the creature is reconstructed, but pinkish-ochre beneath the beak suggests a prey, while grey-blue rocks probably belonged beneath. Of the leopards, all but one moves to the left, three pounce downwards to an unseen prey (Fig. 2), while three prowl, demonstrating the characteristic hunting methods of leopards. (12) All are against a red background, two providing evidence for (mostly) blue rocks beneath and another for plain red at the top. They therefore occupied the entire height of the frieze. Two plants are associated, quite different from those with the lions, a tall stemmed trefoil plant (Fig. 2) and a ground-covering stemless plant with five leaves. The latter also occurs beneath a deer that is upside down, hence stricken, presumably having been attacked by the leopards. Like the leopards, the deer are all on red ground. Spots on their hides and a preserved head with antler establish that they are fallow deer (Fig. 1). One has blood on its hide. Some are associated with plants with lanceolate leaves. One of the goats so far reconstructed is on red ground; two others are on yellow ground with blue rock and plants, one attacked by a dog, the other crumpling to the ground. (13) The largest number of fragments by far belongs to rocks, which must have lined the bottom of the frieze.
In a frieze that ran over two, perhaps three walls, it appears that the hunters and dogs track goats (or antelope), the lions attack bulls, while the leopards hunt deer. The frieze was carefully planned, with large areas destined for blue rock left in reserve when the red and then yellow ground were painted, a technique that was employed in Aegean painting, as noted in particular at Knossos and Ayia Irini, Kea. (14)
The Bulls Frieze and Acrobats are likely to have occupied a single long wall, while the Hunt Frieze ran along the others, each part of the frieze complementing the other in a series of scenes that drew attention to the relative hierarchy of species and the parallel prowess of man and animal, in a palatial programme that no doubt promoted royal power and reflects intercultural relations.


(1) Lions: Marinatos 2010; Leopards and Griffin: Morgan 2010a, 2010b. See also on the Hunt: Bietak & Marinatos 1995; Marinatos 1998, 2000, 2005; Morgan 1995, 1998, 2004, 2006.
(2) Bietak, Marinatos & Palyvou 2007.
(3) Becker, Jungfleisch and von Rüden (animals);  Bietak & Palyvou 2000 (griffin); Becker (plants); Aslanidou 2005 (male figures); von Rüden (plaster reliefs);  Bietak, Marinatos & Palyvou 2007, 43 (maze floor); Palyvou (imitation masonry).
(4) Plan and reconstruction of the palace: Bietak 2005, 88. fig. 3.5. Two stairways either side of the interior of the building indicate that there was an upper storey above the Throne Room.
(5) By ‘fragment’ is meant what is now  a fragment, which in many cases is composed of several pieces (usually between 2–10, occasionally as many as 60–70, albeit small) joined in conservation.
(6) I am grateful to Erico Peintner, the conservator now working at Tell el-Dab'a, for invaluable advice on several of the pieces.
(7) Bietak, Marinatos & Palyvou 2007.
(8) For the hunters and dogs, these are provisional numbers, as reconstruction is still in progress.
(9) Bietak & Marinatos 1995, 59. fig. 14.
(10) Marinatos 2010, 341 fig. 22. 344 fig. 27.
(11) Morgan 2010b, 305 fig. 1.
(12) Morgan 2010a, figs. 2-7.
(13) Marinatos & Morgan 2005, col. pl. 15:1.
(14) Knossos: Cameron 1975, 281–283. 285. Kea: Morgan, forthc.

Fig. 1 Fallow Deer
Fig. 2 Leopard
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