Stucco Reliefs - The Wall Paintings of Tell el-Dab'a

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Stucco Reliefs

Constance von Rüden

In contrast to other Near Eastern sites with ‘Aegean Style’ fresco paintings, the material from Tell el-Dab'a is not restricted to paintings on a flat surface. More than 350 fragments of stucco relief have been identified (1). With the exception of one or two pieces from the Argolid, whose original find spots are unknown due to the upheaval caused by the World War II (2), and few examples from Thera (3) up to now reliefs have been detected only on Crete, including the island of Pseira directly adjacent to it (4). Their discovery alone, therefore, at a site in the Eastern Nile delta far away from Crete, is exceptional; additionally, the very wide range of identifiable motifs shows the distinctiveness of the corpus.
As is the case for other fresco paintings in Tell el-Dab'a, the stucco-reliefs have been discovered in the direct precincts of ‘Palaces F’ and ‘G’. Their fragmented state often makes an identification of the motifs extremely
difficult, so that to reconstruct the whole composition is a very challenging, if not in many cases a simply impossible task. In this preliminary discussion of the material. Therefore, I will restrict myself to the identification of some motifs and some technical aspects of the material.
In the north-east of ‘Palace F’, at the foot of the entrance ramp, mostly unpainted, but often highly burnished fragments have been brought to light. Some of them can be clearly identified as extremities of cattle, possibly bulls, while others can only be broadly attributed to the bodies of the same animal. The angle of the leg’s joint suggests that we have depictions of calmly pacing animals rather than, for example, bulls running in flying gallop, as it is the case in the bull-leaping scenes of the site (5) or the famous bull of the ‘North Entrance Passage’ from Knossos (6). The range of motifs from the surroundings of ‘Palace G’, excavated primarily in the south-east of the building, is much wider: for example depictions of at least one lion, possibly a griffin, sections of textiles and architectural elements, as well as human beings. Of the latter, two examples with red skin can be identified as males. Their technical properties suggest that they belong to the same composition, probably facing each other. One holds an ochre pole with his hand, evoking well known compositions in the Aegean, as for example in the Master Seal Impression from Chania (7) or the so-called Chieftain Cup from Agia Triada with a young man in three quarter view also holding a pole (8). Another highly interesting fragment depicts a white-skinned human leg with a blue boot. The boot is corded with an ochre string; it can, therefore, be assumed that tied textiles are depicted here, and, of course, not boots in our modern sense. The white skin of the leg is more puzzling. Traditionally, this would have led us to assume the representation of a woman, but similar boots are more common for acrobats and bull leapers, usually considered to be men. It is perhaps simply our modern tendency towards binary opposition in the imagination of gender rather the material itself which confuses us here. Generally, the motifs themselves and their stylistic execution have parallels in the Knossian reliefs or Cretan iconography, but parallels in the syntax of the paintings are more difficult to assign, and need further research. The same holds true for the embedding of the images into their local context and their possible reception within it.
Reliefs have often been regarded as a simple sub-group of wall paintings on a flat surface (9). This has been criticized by Fritz Blakolmer with regard of their iconography. He has observed that more emblem-like compositional schemes are favoured within this genre (10). This might also
be a result of their shaping in a third dimension, requiring a very sophisticated production technique. The process needs an even firmer planning than paintings on a flat surface, allowing less opportunity for spontaneous experimentation or a more impressionistic ductus.
A brief consideration of the
chaîne opératoire of the relief-production and thus the required skills might illustrate this. Most of the reliefs of Tell el-Dab'a have been recovered without the background plane on which they had been originally attached. This exposes a roughly flat back with thin crossing ridges, around 1-3 mm high, sometimes arranged in a net-like fashion. Additionally, remains of red colour at the edges of the elevated part of the relief can be detected in some cases. These observations give us an idea about the method of planning and execution of the reliefs. Obviously, the outline of the sculptured representation has been firstly applied with a red preliminary drawing on the freshly plastered background plane. Then the interspaces have been incised with thin lines as anchorages for the application of the sculptured plaster. Only after all this preparation did the craftsperson apply the different plaster layers, composing the massive body of the elevated relief. Their heights range from relatively low reliefs of 1-2 cm up to very high and heavy examples of around 6 cm. The damp plaster layers of the sculptured relief then absorbed the colour of the red preliminary drawings on its rear and the ridges of the anchorages are imprinted, traces of which thus helped us reconstruct important aspects of the production process (11).
If we think about parallels in these processes, we necessarily have to take the material of Crete, and especially Knossos, into consideration, due to the lack of similar findings in other regions. There we can often trace a very fine reddish plaster layer between the background plane and the sculptured relief itself (12). At present, it is difficult to say if this layer was restricted to the area where the relief was applied. If this is the case, it might have had a similar function as the preliminary drawings in Tell el-Dab'a, but executed in a different way; here more research is still required. Furthermore, comparable net-shape incision as anchorages of the sculptured stucco can be identified in Knossos (13). The technique is not used exclusively for a stronger attachment of the sculptured material on the background plane; such anchorages are also found between single layers of the relief body. This is observable on the famous wall paintings of women from Pseira, and on two fragments of female breasts from the "Blocked Corridor" in Knossos (14).
The similarities to the Knossos material are thus obvious, but slight differences in the technique can be observed as well. Future research aims on the one hand to complete the full
chaîne opératoire of the production process and give a more holistic picture of the identified motifs and possible compositions, and on the other hand to focus in more detail on their consumption and their visual and haptic characteristics within the local context of the buildings.


(1) For a first identification see Bietak & Marinatos  1995, 54. fig. 5; furthermore  Bietak, Marinatos & Palyvou  2007, 41–42. fig. 40.
(2) It is unclear if the literature which refers to depictions of the hip of, more or less, life-size women, describes two different fragments or the very same one (Kaiser 1976, 306. fig. 473, Rodenwaldt  1921, fn. 152). One of the fragments is today stored at the Apothiki of the Tiryns excavation.
(3) Doumas 1992, 131. I am very grateful to Lyvia Morgan to call my attention to these examples.
(4) An example of a quite low relief of a decorative pattern is additionally found on Thera. Outside Knossos reliefs have been detected in Pseira, Gournia, Palaikastro, Kato Zakro, Agia Triada and Chania (for an overview see Kaiser 1976, 299–304).
(5) Bietak, Marinatos & Palyvou 2007.
(6) Evans 1930, 172–174. fig. 16.
(7) Hallager 1985; CMS V Suppl. 1A Nr. 142.
(8) Fosdyke 1952, 13–16.
(9) See for example Kyrieleis 1968, 16.
(10) Blakolmer 2006, 17.
(11) von Rüden, in print.
(12) Kaiser 1976, 296.
(13) Kaiser 1976, 296. fig. 464 on the right side.
(14) Kaiser 1976, 296. fig. 451b.

White-Skinned Human Leg
Fragment with a Roughly Flat Back with Thin Crossing Ridges, Around 1-3mm High
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