Large-Scale Landscape - The Wall Paintings of Tell el-Dab'a

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Large-Scale Landscape

Johannes Becker

A large amount of plaster fragments found during the excavations of the palatial complex at 'Ezbet Helmi/Tell el-Dab'a show large-size plants and elements of landscape. Until now only a few single pieces have been published (1). Therefore, a full study of the representations of landscape in Tell el-Dab'a is still pending. It goes without saying that the study will give us new information about the whole material found at the site, but additionally it offers the possibility to compare the Tell el-Dab'a material with the contemporary wall paintings found in the Aegean; an important task in regard to the far-spread use of the depiction of landscape and flora in the iconography of this region (2). The material will be studied as part of a PhD thesis concerning the depiction of landscape in the eastern Mediterranean in the second millennium BC with a special focus on Egypt and the Aegean. It aims to identify differences and similarities in the way the environment is represented as well as possible interrelations among the iconographic systems of these regions.
Plaster fragments which show floral motifs and elements of landscape were found in different areas of the excavation at 'Ezbet Helmi/Tell el-Dab'a and can be assigned to ‘Palace F’ as well as ‘G’. The material is highly fragmented and the sizes of the single pieces vary from about 40 x 30 cm down to 2 x 2 cm.
The biggest part of the so far inventoried material originates from area H/I and belongs therefore to the smaller ‘Palace F’. About 130 pieces show floral motifs whereas on about 50 fragments elements of landscape are depicted. On the basis of technical observations up to now additionally about 50 mostly monochrome pieces belonging to the background of the scenery could be assigned to this group. Since the registration of H/I is still in progress more pieces belonging to the background can be expected, whereas in areas H/IV and H/V none of the fragments was decorated in this manner.
Because a large part of the wall plaster fragments of the surrounding of ‘Palace G’, found in areas H/II, H/III and H/VI, still needs to be restored, a final statistic of the related pieces remains to be done. Up to now only one piece from area H/II has been attributed to this category of material, but 25 fragments from area H/III and further fragments in the not yet restored material were already identified. The same holds true for the material found in area H/VI of which five pieces are inventoried to date.
Different types of plants were depicted on the walls of ‘Palace F’. In most cases the background is either red or ochre-beige. The most common plant motif has lancet-shaped leaves with curved leafstalks on an either red or black stem. The leaves are executed in blue, greenish-blue, ochre and yellowish-white. The differentiation in the colours of the leaves might well indicate different plant species. A tentative interpretation for the lancet-shaped blue leaves as myrtle is proposed by means of parallels on Aegean wall paintings (3). An ivy branch is depicted on at least one fragment. Its form is very similar to the execution of the ivy motif in Minoan iconography with characteristic heart-shaped blue leaves on a slightly curved red stalk (4). Among other floral motifs that only occur on single pieces, long and narrow blue and greenish-blue leaves could be recognised on different fragments which might be the representation of reed (5).
For a final statement it is yet too early, but it seems as if the floral motifs depicted on the walls of ‘Palace G’ differ from the ones of ‘Palace F’. At least one blue papyrus with a row of white dots on the top edge of the umbel, so far unknown from ‘Palace F’, has been recognised (6). The representation of a plant with oblong oval blue leaves and thin red leafstalks is also missing in the material from the smaller ‘Palace F’.
Regarding the elements of landscape one of the most striking links between the Tell el-Dab'a wall paintings and Aegean frescoes are the so-called ‘easter eggs’ or multicoloured pebbles, a motif that is – apart from Tell el-Dab'a (7) – only known in Minoan iconography (8). Another convention for the representation of natural terrain, multicoloured undulating bands or surfaces in different colours divided by undulations, can also be found (9).
The current work on the landscape paintings is still focusing on the identification of all relevant fragments. Especially monochrome fragments belonging to the background still have to be identified on the basis of technical observations. A bigger part of the major fragments were already described and enhanced with the computer. As a further step tentative reconstructions will be composed with the help of digital drawings. In doing so, the small-scale wall paintings found at Tell el-Dab'a will be of great help since a good part of the motifs depicted in large-scale have good parallels in the smaller sized friezes (10). Due to their small size the layout of the motif can be
easily understood in the latter even on smaller fragments and thus give valuable information for reconstructing the large-sized landscape paintings.


(1) See for example: Bietak 1994, 45f. pl. 14A; Bietak 1996, pl. VIIA–B; Marinatos 1998, 86f. fig. 13–14.
For example the ‘Monkeys and Birds Frieze’ from the ‘House of the Frescoes’ at Knossos (MM IIIB–LM IA), cf. Cameron 1968 . For landscape paintings in the Aegean, cf. Chapin 2004; Schmitz-Pillmann 2006; Immerwahr  1990, 40–50; Morgan 1988, 17–40. For landscape elements in Aegean glyptic, cf. Krzyszkowska 2010.
The same identification has also been proposed by M. Bietak, cf. Bietak 1996, pl. VIIA. Myrtle could be identified on various wall paintings of the Aegean as for example the so-called ‘Fresco of the Goddess’ from Agia Triada (LM IA–LM IB), cf. Militello 1998, 104–107. 271. Moreover, the lancet-shaped leaves in ochre on a red stem on three small fragments from 'Building Gamma' at Akrotiri – Thera (LM IA) have been interpreted as myrtle, cf. Doumas 1992, 19.
Ivy is depicted on Aegean landscape paintings for example on the so-called ‘Cat Fresco’ from Agia Triada (LM IA–LM IB), cf. Militello 1998 , 107–109. pl. G1; as well as on the ‘Monkeys and Birds Frieze’ from the ‘House of the Frescoes’ at Knossos (MM IIIB–LM IA), cf. Cameron 1968, 11. 30. fig. 5a. pl. 5.3. In addition, ivy is also depicted as a repetitive pattern in a frieze from room 1 of 'House Beta' at Akrotiri – Thera (LM IA), cf. Doumas 1992, 110f. fig. 78. Ivy as a repetitive frieze pattern is also known from Tell el-Dab 'a, cf. Aslanidou 2007, 196–199. pl. III.
On some fragments the blue and greenish-blue leaves overlay one another. A good parallel for this could be the ‘Reed Bed Wall Painting’ from 'Xesté 3' at Akrotiri – Thera (LM IA), on which alternate yellow and grey reeds are depicted, cf. Vlachopoulos 2000.
Papyrus was depicted on various Aegean wall paintings. See for example the 'Nilotic Landscape’ from the 'West House' at Akrotiri – Thera, cf. Doumas 1992, 48. 64–67 fig. 30–34; the 'Monkeys and Birds Frieze’ from the ‘House of the Frescoes’ at Knossos (MM IIIB–LM IA), cf. Morgan 2005, pl. 5.2.
Cf. Marinatos 1998, 86f. fig. 14.
The pebble motif can be found on various landscape paintings for example on the ‘Partridge and Hoopoe Frieze’ from the so-called 'Caravanserai' at Knossos (LM IA–LM IB), cf. Shaw 2005, 104.
This convention was used as ground lines for figures and plants or as the rendition of rocky terrain on different Aegean wall paintings. For example on the ‘Papyrus Fresco’ from the 'House of the Ladies' at Akrotiri – Thera (LM IA), cf. Doumas 1992, 33–37. fig. 2–5.
(10) S
ee on this website the 'Hunt-Frieze' by Lyvia Morgan.

Plant Motif with Lancet-Shaped Leaves
Plant with Oblong Oval Blue Leaves
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