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A new identification of the monkeys depicted in a Bronze Age wall painting from Akrotiri, Thera


Bronze Age Aegean (ca. 3500–1100 B.C.) wall paintings from the islands of Crete and Thera depict monkeys in a variety of roles such as running wild in nature, possibly following (trained) commands, and participating in sacred activities. These images, while stylistically Aegean, are traditionally considered closely related to—and descendant from—Egyptian, Near Eastern, and Mesopotamian monkey imagery. While monkey depictions in the latter regions may provide species-specific characteristics, Aegean wall paintings typically lack this level of detail. In an attempt to better understand the relationships between the monkeys depicted in Aegean wall paintings and the species that were encountered by the Aegean, Mesopotamian, and Egyptian peoples, a collaborative team of primatologists, a taxonomic illustrator, and an art historian/archaeologist identified species-indicative visual characteristics. This collaborative approach led us to identify a new region that serves as a source for monkey iconography: the Indus River Valley. With an emphasis on the primatological aspect and the growing corpus of possible Indus goods and possible species found in the Aegean, a broader iconographic and socioreligious sphere of interaction emerges. In this expanded system, Mesopotamia functions as an intermediary that enables the movement of goods, raw materials, people, and iconography between the east and west. Mesopotamia may have even afforded an opportunity for Aegean peoples to encounter the creatures themselves, first-hand. Of primary importance to the methodology employed for this project is the cooperation of scholars from disparate disciplines—the stitching together of various projects and experiences in attempt to answer both new and previously unanswerable questions. This type of interdisciplinary approach can be applied to other species, sites, paintings, and objects to hone our understanding of period, place, animal, movement, and trade.

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Fig. 1

Image granted from the photo archive of Thera Akrotiri Excavations

Fig. 2

Image granted from the photo archive of Thera Akrotiri Excavations

Fig. 3

Adapted from Google Earth

Fig. 4

Adapted from Klebs (1915), 34, Fig. 21

Fig. 5

Adapted from Robins (2008), Fig. 218

Fig. 6

Image courtesy of Marie N. Pareja

Fig. 7
Fig. 8
Fig. 9

Adapted from Pareja (2017: 54), Fig. 5.1

Fig. 10

Adapted from CMS III 357

Fig. 11
Fig. 12

Adapted from British Museum Object number 115418


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The authors extend their gratitude to the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA) and the Ancient Painting Studies Interest Group (APSIG) for the opportunity to present the preliminary results of this study. Marie Pareja personally thanks Tristan Carter, Anne P. Chapin, Tiffany L. Hunt, Leanna Kolonauski, and Kristine Mallinson for their thoughts, edits, and enthusiasm for this project. Illustrations copyright 2019 Stephen D. Nash/IUCN SSC Primate Specialist Group.

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Correspondence to Marie Nicole Pareja.

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Pareja, M.N., McKinney, T., Mayhew, J.A. et al. A new identification of the monkeys depicted in a Bronze Age wall painting from Akrotiri, Thera. Primates 61, 159–168 (2020).

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  • Vervet
  • Langur
  • Indus
  • Aegean
  • Archaeology
  • Trade