The amazing female drawings of Acrotiri. A female perspective.
Written by: Bianca Ghikas 2010
Acrotiri is an archaeological site of great significance, the diversity of flora and fauna found in frescos during the excavation is awesome, yet what caught my eye was the depiction of women and their attires. Furthermore all men and boys depicted in the frescos were naked or simply attired and were all dark skinned, whereas the females where all white and very richly dressed, even the workers have elaborate dresses and jewelry. I begun investigating and researching the site with the intention to draw the females but the more I read the more I begun to see a true matriarchal society and decided to further my research and write about it.
NOTE: There is a video at the bottom of this article of Christos Doumas, professor of Archaeology at the University of Athens and Director of the Acrotiri excavation site made by my dearest friend Nikos Korakakis owner of
A little about the site and its archaeological discovery:
Acrotiri is located in the Cycladic Island “Thera”, better known as Santorini. As it is typical in Greece, wherever you excavate you find archaeological artefacts and Santorini is no exception to this rule. Being relatively a small volcanic island it is hard to imagine that a great civilization once inhabited it, and yet the most amazing discoveries have been made here. Furthermore, underneath Acrotiri it is said to exist still another more ancient city. The findings of the new site “Raos”, presented by Dr. Marisa Marthsri of the KA Ephorate of the Prehistoric and Classical Antiquities in Greece at the University of Toronto confirms and enhances the Acrotiri findings. RAOS is located at a fairly good distance from the Acrotiri site and has been dated to the pre-volcanic eruption era; the frescos are of similar nature but in addition they found the remains of a gold ring and a courtyard. These findings appear to indicate that they were several cities in the island during those times. The volcanic eruption seems to have occurred 1500 to 1700 BC. From then on this great civilization disappeared leaving no trace. Strong similarities were found in Crete at Knossos and other sites, thereby it is assumed that Acrotiri may have been of Minoan origin.
Excavations at Acrotiri begun in 1967 by the great Greek archaeologist Spyridon Nikolaou Marinatos he recruited a team of local diggers and many archaeologist and the discoveries begun. He died at the site on October 1rst 1974. His work was continued by another great Greek archaeologist Christos Doumas; he was under Marinatos until 1974.
During my research in the Acrotiri peninsula I met one of the diggers during Marinatos time, Trifonas Arvanitis, he is the digger that uncovered the famous fresco of the fisherman he agreed to be photographed and interviewed by me.
Interview with Trifonas Arvanitis
Trifonas was born on Feb 5th 1933 and was born and raised in Acrotiri, a farmer for most of his life until Marinatos recruited him as a digger for the Acrotiri site.
Bianca: While you were digging did you find anything of significance?
Trifonas: Yes I was the one that found the fisherman
Bianca: What happened at that moment?
Trifonas: Marinatos came running together with the others, there was enormous excitement going on and Marinatos was telling me to be very careful. The image was found intact only the feet were missing, they put them together from small pieces found just like a puzzle.
Bianca: Did you dig the whole time you were employed at the site?
Trifonas: No I dug for 7 years; thereafter I got promoted and became a guard, still under Marinatos supervision. I remained a guard under Doumas supervision and retired from office at the age of 65.
Bianca: Where you present at Marinatos death? How did it happen?
Trifonas: they had set up a belt carrying the dirt and Marinatos had to verify by himself that they were doing it right, unfortunately his foot slipped, he tripped and hit his head on a stone, he became unconscious immediately.
Bianca: How was the working atmosphere under Marinatos? Did it change under Doumas?
Trifonas: Marinatos was a great man he loved Acrotiri and its people, he was good to all of us and we all loved him even though he was very tough When Doumas took charge, he kept the same working atmosphere, it was business as usual.
Bianca: Did anything else become obvious during the diggings?
Trifonas: They did not discuss any of their finding with us but it was discussed that there was another city beneath Acrotiri.
Bianca: Thanks so much Trifonas for letting me interview you and photograph you.
Trifonas: The pleasure is all mine. NASE KALA (means be well)
Getting the photos
I had the idea of publishing photos of the original drawings, unfortunately it was not possible because they are not of public nature and there is a fee to be paid in order to have them authorized. I decided to check with local artists that have been doing reproductions, which are quite accurate in form and color.
Local artists were quite cooperative with me; they have their studios and workshops in Megalochori on the road to Acrotiri. All of whom I contacted welcomed me wholeheartedly in their studios and workshops and allowed me to photograph their work. Dimitris Bellos and Aspasia Vovola of “Akron Art Center” they do extremely accurate reproductions of the frescoes and pottery and were the first to do so in the island, Michalis Karamogelos of “Art Studio Michalis K” he does reproductions of the frescoes of Acrotiri, Galatea Pappageorgiou of “Galatea’s Pottery” was touched by some of the spirals and decorations and created a few lines of pottery inspired by them.
Lets meet the artists
In my pursue of the Acrotiri female wall paintings I got to meet the artist on a one to one basis and talked to them extensively on and off the record. With great pleasure I found that a few of these amazing artists shared a somehow similar upbringing with me. In other words I found the soul and inspiration of these remarkable people.
Michalis Karamogelos of “ART STUDIO Michalis K”
I went to meet the cheerful Michalis and he greeted me with a big smile, he is primarily an aquarellist and also does reproductions; personally I loved his aquarelles he uses colour in a very subtle way and I like that. His reproductions are quite nice as well. He does not talk much about himself yet I did manage to get a bit of his personal life. When I asked him how come he decided to reproduce the females of Acrotiri he answered jokingly “I just love women in all forms”
Michalis was born in Santorini in 1949, He left with his parents in 1956 and lived in Athens until 1968 where he resided in Siros, finally came back to Santorini in 1990. His parents were simple people his father was a farmer and his mother a housewife, while being raised the simple and warm environment his artistic vein begun to flourish and begun painting at the age of 22 while travelling through many Greek islands. He further studied technical design and worked in his profession for 35 years. He opened his studio in Megaloxori in the year 2000 and became interest in the wall paintings in 2003. He told me that he begun doing frescoes because he loves working with his hands and using a mixture of volcanic ash and limestone.
Galatea Papageorgiou of Galatea’s “Hand Made Ceramics”
When I first arrived to Santorini a year ago someone told me that there where quite a few Greek-Canadians in the island and that Galatea was one of them. I met her after a little while but we really did not become friends until we both returned this year (2010) from Toronto, we did keep in touch through facebook till then and in a way the internet brought us closer.
Lets meet the soul behind the woman, Galatea was the second of four siblings, her father and architect and her mother an artist they left Greece when Galatea was four and half months old and settled in Columbus Ohio while her father was doing graduate studies. In 1970 Galatea’s father became a Professor at McMaster University in Hamilton Ontario, Canada and the family permanently settled there. Her two younger sisters were born in Columbus and Hamilton respectively. Since she has lived so many years in Canada she feels 60% Canadian and 40% Greek. After graduating from her second degree from University this incredible woman travelled to India and the Far East for eight and half months and on commencement of her adventure she shaved her head, I discovered the photos while browsing through her album. She looked exactly like Sinead O’Connor; this action to me meant that she rebelled and sure enough a few years later became an Artist.
Galatea is a multifaceted individual, she graduated in French Literature in 1990 and received a degree in Mathematics in 1991, both from McMasters University she had a brush with biology and Organic Chemistry however she decided to pursue a different direction. At the age of 28 she begun taking pottery lessons as a hobby and did so for 5 years; thereafter she decided that pottery making was going to be her career, she then decided to study pottery and Art in Greece and attended the art School in Nikea; during the summers she joined a potter in Santorini, Andreas Makaris, and became his apprentice. In 2003 she opened her own studio in Megaloxori and has been there ever since. A few of Galatea’s hand made potteries have details inspired by Acrotiri, these are the spirals and wine leaves.
As I said earlier in this paper Acrotiri is said to have had a civilization of Minoan matriarchal nature, interestingly, Galatia, an extremely sensitive woman, has created a line of pottery of females, all of them with pear shape bodies with the head bent, as in sub ordinance and the spirals that she picked have been found extensively in Acrotiri and many other ancient cultures, the spiral it assumed to represent endlessness, eternity, infinity and many similar things but it is also associated with the bull symbol and as Maria Gimbutas, author of “the language of the Goddess: Zeus, and Dorothy Cameron have explained is to be associated with a life giving organ and they further said that is to be not only associated with the Matriarchal concept but also synonymous with human nature in every religion. It is interesting that Galatea without making the comparison decided to use the spiral in her pottery.
Dimitris Bellos of “Akron Art Center”
I had been to Akron many times in the past year and loved the building’s architecture and the Art displayed but had never met the artists, I found out that Dimitris Bellos is a theatre director as well as an artist and that he produces theatre with average people and convert them into good actors. I visited Akron and introduced myself to him and offered to be in one of his plays. So far so good, time went by and I became interested in the Acrotiri Wall paintings, of course I remembered Akron, thereby I decided to visit them again and request their cooperation to my article. I spoke to Dimitris and explained to him my difficulty in obtaining photos of the actual frescoes and he gave me his utmost cooperation.
The interview was quite friendly and over coffee I discovered Dimitri’s inner self; he was born in 1955 to simple normal parents in Lamia (a city in Central Greece). At the age of 19 he studied theatre and direction at the “Kalitexniki Etairia Athinon (Athenian School of Arts) for six consecutive years. Subsequently, he worked for the professional theatre and television. During this time he had worked with Michail Neoklis in Athens and when Mr Neoklis was hired in 1984 to teach and work at the Vatican School in Rome, he asked Dimitris to follow him, and so Dimitris became his student; there he studied and worked on Mosaic Art. Upon his return to Greece in 1994, Dimitris worked in Painting Workshops in Athens.
At this point I asked Dimitris: When did your artistic talents begun to develop and how? He replied: “An artist is an artist at birth” I could not agree with him more, you can learn techniques at any time but the spirit is inborn that’s what differentiates a true artist from the rest.
Dimitris Bellos and Aspasia Vovola met in 1976 and due to their studies and work they mostly lived in different countries, they married in 1990 and in 1991 their son Alexander was born. They opened the first workshop/store in Plaka in Athens but because Acrotiri was everything they loved and worked on, Aspasia Vovola had studied and taught the frescoes of Acrotiri at Dijon University in France, they decided to move to Santorini in 1993, where their Art, technique and knowledge could be further developed. Once they got settled they opened their first workshop and gallery on April of 1994 and named their business AKRON.
In ancient times AKRON meant castle and I asked how did they come upon that name. Dimitris smiled and told me the story; as it happened was playing a game with his then young son by showing him with a globe how night and day happens on earth, the globe was small and Santorini was just a little dot in the Aegean Sea and Alexander asked: “Dad where are we In the AKRON? Meaning: at the end of the world. Needless to say the name AKRON for the business was born.
Dimitris and Aspasia begun making reproductions of archaic pottery, mosaics and wall paintings, they developed and established the technique behind the frescoes; furthermore, they were the first to do the wall painting of Acrotiri’ s reproductions, since many have tried to copy their work, however, the quality and technique of the AKRON frescoes cannot be imitated that easily and it shows. They remained at their original location until in 2002, where they bought the land and built the Akron Art Center in its current world class location.
The wall paintings reproduced by Dimitris and Aspasia have been sold to businesses and governments of many countries around the world including NASA in the USA, and the American Embassy in Moscow, Russia. These are gigantic frescoes. Dimitris said that 90% of their work is sold and exported to the USA.
Reproductions of Acrotiri’ Wall paintings, ancient pottery painting are not the only talents of Dimitris Bellos, also sculpts marble and reproduces pre historic Cycladic statues. Moreover, his theatrical skills as a director are alive and well, in 1999 he did his first theatrical presentation in Emborio, a small town in Santorini, and since has produced six plays.
I asked Dimitris: What do you envision for the future of Akron? To that he replied: “I would love to see Akron as a major cultural center for all the arts”.
Aspasia Vovola of “Akron Art Center”
During the initial visits to the Akron Art Center I had no idea that Aspasia Vovola was one of the artists involved in the reproductions. Aspasia and I have been friends for quite sometime on Facebook and yet we had never met. The day I went to arrange for the interview only Aspasia was at the Akron I asked for Dimitris and I left him a message with my name she looked at me and said: “Bianca from Facebook?” I said yes and you are? The moment she said Aspasia I knew it was my virtual friend Aspasia Vovola we hugged and immediately we became friends in real life. This remarkable woman lived an incredibly awesome life and lo and behold both her parents were Andartes during WWII (the Greek guerrilla that fought to keep the Germans and the Italians out of Greece with ardor) and so was my father, what a moment!
Aspasia Vovola was born in Lamia in 1960 the only female and the youngest of three siblings, they moved to Athens when she was one years old; Her parents were highly musically inclined and raised Aspasia and her brothers in a highly cultural environment and very politically aware, one of the first lessons she learned was never to belong to a specific party. At a very young age Aspasia became interested in ancient history predominately Greek; between the ages of 10 to 12 years of age Her interest in ancient civilizations increased and begun desiring to visit the Archaeological island “Delos” in the Aegean sea. Shortly there after her mother became asthmatic and due to a medical mistake her condition aggravated; being the only girl in the family she had to take care of her ailing mother until she passed away when Aspasia was only 19. Due to all of the aggravations caused by her mother’s illness and having to mature enough to run the household Aspasia was quite confused about her future; she did not like any particular subject in school until the age of 16, at this point she became interested in Greek literature.
Aspasia Vovola later attended “Kalitexniki Etairia Athinon (Athenian School of Arts) there she met Dimitris Bellos in 1976. At the School she began to learn to do set design for theatre and cinema, drawings and many other forms of art. Under the tutelage of Giorgos Koutlidis, her professor, he was an amazing teacher and managed to instil in her the will to find color Hagiography (painting of Saints). Aspasia Vovola graduated from this school in 1983. For the next three years she assisted Mark Pappas; Mark had studied in the USA and upon his return to Greece he did past life regression through hypnosis, thereafter he became expressionist with Byzantine influence. Mark Pappas taught Aspasia painting in a way that no school had ever taught. When Mark went back to the USA in 1986, Aspasia began studies at the University of Dijon in France where she further her knowledge in painting and theatre.
During Aspasia Vovola’s three years in France one of her professors, Prof. Tomakio, registered her in the theatre without her knowledge when she found out had a big argument with him yet she stayed and the experience led her to the “Theatre of Insanity”, she never really liked this type of theatre and yet the experience led her to be a better set and costume designer. Upon graduation in 1989 she went back to her native country, Greece, married Dimitris Bellos in 1990 and had her son, Alexander, in 1991.
Aspasia Vovola never joined any school of thought in painting or otherwise, she prefers to be individualistic. Her favorite subjects were always faces and flowers; she drew faces without eyes and a series of cards. I was the first person to see her painting and photograph them. Years before she came to Santorini she drew the island in the shape of a woman. Since she began doing reproductions of the wall paintings of Acrotiri she has never really found the time for her other endeavors.
I asked Aspasia Vovola: Do you have any dreams to accomplish in the Future? Her reply was “My dream is to find myself; I lost myself shortly after arrival in Santorini but took me years to realize it.”
With Aspasia we discussed the female figures in Acrotiri and we seem to agree in a few points
Matriarchal societies are common in prehistoric civilizations, yet in Greece it has never been established a true form of Matriarchy. The Minoan Women had high ranking powers presumably only in the religious fields. In the Pre historic Peloponnese similar events have been talked about. However a true form of Matriarchy has never been considered in ancient Greece to this date other than the supposedly mythical amazons.
The Acrotiri wall painting have led to the assumption that the inhabitants were of Minoan Origin and had a Matriarchy similar to that found in Crete. At Knossos in Crete it is obvious that it was a patriarchy with matrilineal inclinations, this opinion is based on the fact that the King had a more sumptuous abode which he had the throne room , therefore it can be assumed that men held the highest posts in politics and women held their high posts in religious activities. It has long been assumed that the primary role of women of Minoan and Mycenaean societies in the Late Bronze Age was that of child bearing and child rearing, however these assumptions have been made based on ethnographic analogies or contemporary ideologies rather than archaeological material as Barbara A. Olsen correctly stated. She further explained that the women of Minoan Iconography were always placed in activities unrelated to child rearing; instead Mycenaean iconography depicts women doing household chores and child rearing activities.
The Acrotiri wall painting of women definitely display similarities with the Minoan societies, all the women activities are far removed from the household, the women are quite well dressed including the so call Saffron gatherers, they are all beautiful, with white skinned, their attires, make up and hair displays a high knowledge of aesthetics. Furthermore, the older females have stoic profiles an indication that they were high ranking women. Now lets take a look at the male figures, they boys and youth are all naked and appear to be sports related and servants the remainder of men are dressed in simple tunics including the soldiers and semi naked sailors, all of these men are invariably of darker skin. Another observation of note is that the women appear to be quite voluptuous and only showing one breast, as it can be seen in the scene of the Adorants and the bear breasted female figure found in the house of the ladies in the north wall of room 1 East section. It has been assumed by Prof. Doumas that the artistic skills of the Artist were not very accurate and in order to cover up the difference of the 2 breast he placed a stole over the right one leaving the left breast uncovered.
In the Acrotiri excavations there are no human remains and it has been assumed that they had been prepared for a catastrophe and fled the island taking with them as much as they could and leaving no trace of their whereabouts. New excavations at RAOS appear to confirm that another town of the same society is located in the island, there they found a gold ring and a home with a courtyard. Excavations are being done at present, I went to speak to the archaeologist on site and she refused to comment on their findings, my information was obtained form a publication by Owen Jarus based on a seminar that was given at the University of Toronto in April 2010 by Dr. Marthari. Acrotiri is closed at the present time and it has been promised to be reopened in 2010, as the say in Greece: “Tha doume” meaning “We shall see!”
Perhaps, further excavations will shed more light as to this pre historic society, but for the time being I would like to propose that perhaps Acrotiri had a true Matriarchal Society meaning that women held all the government and religious posts. In a true matriarchal society men did not hold a significant post and were second to their sons in the family ranks, peace and serenity prevailed and the relationships were strictly monogamous. We know that this Society ended 1700 BC, yet we have no idea when it begun, in order to achieve such greatness including amazing vessels resembling Gondolas and at least three storey high building with highly ornamented wall painting depicting a luscious flora and fauna it could not have been short lived, all the findings indicate in my opinion that it was quite an advanced civilization and that takes hundreds of years to build if not millenniums. I dare to suggest that The Acrotiri Matriarchy was perhaps ancestral to the Minoans and that the Minoans were a transition between matriarchy and the patriarchy that developed later in antiquity.
- Doumas, C. (1992). The Wall Paintings of Thera. Athens: The Thera Foundation.
- Maria Gimbutas. The language of the goddess”: Zeus.
- Christopher L.C.E. Witcombe. Women in the Aegean Minoan Snake Goddess
- Barbara A. Olsen. Women children and the family in the late Aegean Bronze Age: differences in Minoan and Mycenaean construction of gender.
- Owen Jarus. Freelance writer based in Toronto, Canada. He has written articles on archaeology for a variety of media outlets including The Canadian Press newswire (CP), U of T Magazine, The Mississauga News and The Guelph Mercury. Education: BA from the University of Toronto in History, Geography and Near & Middle Eastern Civilization