Dr. Ute Günkel-Maschek - Projekte


Gestures in the Art of Late Bronze Age Crete

Gesten und Gebärden in den Bildwerken der minoischen Kultur


Minoan art depicts a broad range of gestures. From images on signet rings, gemstones, stone vases and clay vessels to figurines through to wall-paintings, the importance of gesture-making male and female, human and superhuman beings permeated a variety of contexts of cultural and social life in Minoan Crete. As written sources do not provide us with any information about related purposes, meanings and circumstances, these images, their formulaic nature notwithstanding, offer the most promising body of evidence to address the who, when and where of Minoan action and interaction. However, a systematic study of all gestures across the pictorial media has not been undertaken in Minoan archaeology until this day.

The aim of this project is to carry out the first general study of gestures depicted in late Middle and Late Minoan art (c. 1700 to 1100 BC). Other than previous studies, it will cover all kinds of pictorial media depicting anthropomorphic figures, taking into consideration not only ritual scenes but all kinds of representations of non-practical activity and communicative interaction. A methodology combining semiotic iconographic analysis with a contextual approach will be applied in a pragmatic structural approach to the use of gestures in both pictorial and physical contexts of Bronze Age Crete and related areas. Contextual data will be drawn not only from pictorial scenes but also from archaeological find-contexts and from the production and usage of the objects on which the images of gesturing figures appear. By tracing the patterns of appearance of each gesture through media, space and time, the aim is to reconstruct the contextualization of individual gestures and to pinpoint the circumstances which prompted the performance of gestures within certain situations of Minoan cultural life and social practice.

As an innovative approach to process, visualise and present the contextual networks related to each individual gesture, I will introduce concept maps as a new heuristic tool to enhance the organisation, representation and analysis. The concept maps are created with the free software CmapTools by the Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition (ihmc). They will be used to create a knowledge model representing and interlinking all known gestures and their contextual networks. This will then form the basis for the main analysis of gestures and their structural and pragmatic embedding within pictorial and physical spatial contexts of late Middle Minoan and Late Minoan Crete and related areas. In this way, I will be able to relate gestures with people, objects, situations, locations, actions and interactions and thus produce a more general, structural understanding of the function and use of individual gestures.

The knowledge gathered in the concept maps will then form the basis for an informed re-examination of individual representations of gesturing human figures. I will use the concept maps to give a picture of the general embedding of the particular gesture within the spatial, social and ritual structure of Minoan life, as evidenced by its objects of art, and then make an attempt to reveal its meaning within the particular context of the individual image. In this way, I am hoping to prove the usefulness of the method and tools used in my approach and to make a persuasive case for the use of this comprehensive and innovative database for all future interpretation of Minoan scenes of human action and interaction.




U. Günkel-Maschek, ‘A Lost Ritual Space in the Palace at Knossos: Re-Contextualising the Fresco of the ‘Dancing Lady.’ In Current Approaches and New Perspectives in Aegean Iconography, edited by F. Blakolmer, 147–176. AEGIS 18. Louvain-la-Neuve: Presses Universitaires de Louvain. 

Abstract: In this paper, I present a new approach in reconstructing Minoan frescoed spaces. It uses networks of conceptual structures that are drawn from images and archaeological contexts and visualised in the form of concept maps, to reconstruct what a frescoed space could have looked like in its original state and how it could have been used in ritual performances of the Late Bronze Age. The fresco of the so-called Dancing Lady is presented as a case study for this approach. It elaborates on Wolf-Dietrich Niemeier’s identification of the ‘Dancing Lady’ as a hovering figure, a motif well known from Neopalatial ritual scenes, which would have decorated the wall of a polythyron structure located on an upper storey in the East Wing of the palace at Knossos. After discussing the find context, the LM IB/early LM II date of the fresco and my new methodology, I proceed by mapping the network of conceptual relationships between female hovering figures on the one hand, and pictorial elements co-appearing with female hovering figures in LM I ritual scenes, on the other hand. This concept map captures and visualises shared and distinct spatial and structural features of the images in a concise and focused manner, thus giving an overview of contextual and performative features related to female hovering figures in Minoan art. This information is then used to create models of the structural, pictorial and architectural setting of the ‘Dancing’ or rather ‘Hovering Lady’. In the final chapter, I am reconsidering the function and importance of the ‘Hovering Lady’s’ lost ritual space within the wider context of Minoan palatial ritual and affirmation of power relations, before I conclude with a final note on the loss in significance of the ‘Hovering Lady’ and associated rituals in the Final Palatial period.


Coming up: ‘Expressions of Grief and Gestures of Lament in the Neopalatial Period’, paper in preparation for the international conference ‘Gesture, Stance, and Movement – Communicating Bodies in the Aegean Bronze Age’, 11–13 November 2021, Internationales Wissenschaftsforum Heidelberg

Abstract: Descriptions and representations of lament are known from many cultures of the ancient eastern Mediterranean. However, although lamenting or grieving figures have been occasionally identified in Minoan imagery, the structural significance of grief and lament in Late Minoan I ritual and belief has not received substantial attention. In this paper, which is based on my ongoing iconographic and contextual analysis of gestures in Minoan two-and three-dimensional anthropomorphic representations, I will argue that a considerable number of gestures commonly associated with adoration or the ecstatic invocation/vision of divine epiphanies, should indeed be understood as gestures of lament. Exploring depictions on gold rings, engraved gems, and other pieces of jewellery, in wall-painting, and in bronze and clay figurines, I will demonstrate that lamentation was a major theme in Late Minoan I visual narratives and chosen by the élite for items of personal and administrative display and use, for the mural decoration of rooms such as lustral basins, and for votive figurines offered in peak/open-air sanctuaries, caves, ‘villas’, and funerary contexts of the Late Minoan I period. The gestures as well as their pictorial and physical contexts reveal different causes of grief, including the death or absence of a deity, hero, or ordinary person, or the uncertain fate of seafarers and warriors. This study thus sheds light on an important aspect of Minoan visual narratives and ritual practices, and on the eminent role of élite groups in expressing grief and performing ritual lament in the Late Minoan I period.


‘‘…the prevailing note is one of joy’? Ein neuer Blick auf minoische Gesten‘, Archäologisches Kolloquium, FAU Erlangen-Nürnberg, 20 May 2021, Erlangen


‘Mapping communication. A contextual approach to gestures in the art of Bronze Age Crete’, IMCC Research Seminar, 22 January 2020, Darendorf Seminar Room, St Antony’s College, University of Oxford


‘Gesten und Gebärden in minoischen Bildwerken? Eine erste Bilanz’, the Institute of Classical Archaeology, University of Heidelberg, June 18, 2019


‘The Potential of Concept Mapping in the Reconstruction of Late Minoan I Ritual Spaces: The ‘Dancing Lady’ from the Palace at Knossos’, paper presented at the Unlocking Sacred Landscapes Research Network’s conference Unlocking Sacred Landscapes II. Digital Humanities and Ritual Space, 19-21 October 2018, Rethymnon, Crete.

Summary: Minoan imagery is one of our key sources for the reconstruction of ritual spaces in Bronze Age Crete. In scenes of ritual, spatial aspects are indicated by the correlation of figures, objects and landscape features, whereas works of art such as wall-paintings and figurines help us to identify buildings or sanctuary sites as particular spaces of ritual action. Minoan images and their contexts thus offer important insights into the spatial and visual structures of ritual. Even more, they provide us with the ‘Minoan’ vocabulary by which these structures of meaning had found expression in material and visual environments of Minoan Crete. Although semiotic-structuralist approaches have been applied on Minoan imagery in the past to unravel structures of meaning in ritual spaces, no attempt has ever been made to use digital methods to collect, structure and visualise data from both images and their contexts.
To address this lacuna I will present a new method which is based on concept mapping. Concept maps are widely used in education and business to organize and represent knowledge in the form of graphical networks of concepts and relationships. In prehistoric archaeology, such ‘knowledge’ is, in a sense, provided in images and in spatial configurations of archaeological assemblages, with concepts being formed by pictorial elements, objects and types of sites, linked to one another through their co-presence in the archaeological evidence.  I will show how to use concept mapping to record relations between figures and objects within images, and between figural representations and contextual features, in order to visualise material and immaterial structures of Minoan ritual spaces. The ‘Dancing Lady’ fresco from the palace at Knossos will serve as a case study, its fragmentary condition providing an excellent opportunity to demonstrate how concept maps can indeed help us to come to a new and deeper understanding of an important, yet lost, ritual space.


‘Thinking in Concepts: Decoration and Space in the Aegean Bronze Age’, paper presented at the Craven Seminar 2018 on ‘Ancient Mediterranean Painting Between “Classical” and “Non-Classical”’, 17-18 May 2018, University of Cambridge, UK.

Summary: Our knowledge of Aegean Bronze Age wall-painting reaches back to the second half of the 19th century, when first fragmentary finds were made at the mainland citadel of Mycenae, followed soon by discoveries at other Mycenaean sites. By the beginning of the 20th century, the corpus of Mycenaean frescoes was expanded by the discoveries at Cretan sites such as Knossos, Phaistos, and Agia Triada of fragments of wall-painting that were soon recognized as distinctive Minoan creations. With the discoveries at Akrotiri, Thera, in the 1960s, the study of Aegean Bronze Age wall-painting had its very own Pompei moment. Despite their distinctive Cycladic style, it has been clear from the beginning that the frescoes from Akrotiri owe a lot to the art of contemporary Minoan Crete. The similarities in the decoration of whole architectural spaces offer an excellent basis for assessing the roles that wall decoration played as an integrated part of built environments and spaces of human action in the early Late Minoan and Late Cycladic period.      
Given our lack of textual evidence on any sort of Minoan cultural life, it is all the more important to understand how wall painting was used to create indoor locations for daily and ritual activities and what associations Bronze Age people made upon entering a decorated space. My aim is therefore to uncover spatial and structural patterns of relationships between painted visual motifs, architectural structures and their human users, and to correlate these patterns with concepts in Aegean Bronze Age religious and ritual practice which had also found expression in other art forms of the same period. In this paper, I will use two different types of spatial decoration – landscape settings and procession frescoes – to show how the interplay between wall painting and architectural space was achieved, and how the greater conceptual associations of the depictions help us to better understand the significance of the decorated spaces within the cultural context of early Late Bronze Age Crete and Thera.

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Letzte Änderung: 02.06.2021
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