From blue boy to blue monkey

Reconstructing a fresco from Knossos

Our ideas of the past are often based on mere scraps of evidence. Nowhere is this more literally true than when it comes to reconstructing ancient wall-paintings, such as the “Saffron Gatherer” from Knossos.

Josho Brouwers

During the excavations at Knossos, the British team headed by Arthur Evans (1851-1941) unearthed many fragments of ancient frescoes. Reconstructing what the original wall-paintings depicted is often more an art than a science.

Still, many of the reconstructions feature traits characteristic of the art of Evans’s own time, and sometimes we may be surprised about the mistakes that were made. One example of such a mistake concerns the fresco of the “Saffron Gatherer”, which Evans believed, in the first volume of his Palace of Minos (1921), to show a young boy, “naked except for a girdle, gathering safforn-flowers” (p. 265).

Evans dated it to Middle Minoan II (ca. 1875/50-1750/00 BC), making it one of the earliest wall-paintings recovered from the court complex. Philip B. Betancourt, in his Introduction to Aegean Art (2007), agrees that it is among the earliest surviving wall-paintings from Knossos, but dates it to the Middle Minoan III period (ca. 1750/00-1700/1675 BC), or possibly even a little later (p. 92).

One thing that struck Evans was that the figure was coloured blue. He remarked (ibid.):

The figure itself with its grey blue body colour differs from the convention observed by the later school of Minoan wall-painting. It seems nearer to the female convention as regards its hue than the deep Venetian red that marks male figures, and it is possible, there, that it indicates a young girl rather than a boy.

By 1930, with the publication of the third volume of The Palace of Minos, Evans had apparently settled on a way to explain away this apparent discrepancy. He writes (pp. 21-22):

The unique bluish tint of the figure points to an Age [sic] when the Egyptian colour convention of deep red for males, and white for women, generally prevalent from the Third Middle Minoan Period onwards, had not yet been adopted.

But Evans and the artist who restored the fresco – probably Émile Gilliéron (1850-1924) or his son, who was also called Émile (1885-1939) – overlooked that one of the fragments featured what could only be part of a tail.

At some point after the publication of The Palace of Minos, but before 1938, renowned artist Piet de Jong created an illustration in which the painting was restored to depict a blue monkey rather than a boy.

A reconstruction of the fresco that shows a blue monkey gathering saffron. The monkey’s tail had been overlooked by Evans, who originally believed the body and limbs had belonged to a boy. Currently on display at the Archaeological Museum of Iraklion. Photo: Josho Brouwers.

In retrospect, this might have seemed obvious. Evans and the Gilliérons had restored other wall-paintings with smallish blue figures as monkeys, including one from the House of the Frescoes in Knossos (1923-1928) that depicts a blue monkey in between papyrus plants. (Both monkeys and papyrus were, of course, imported into Crete from Egypt.)

The gathering of saffron, a spice derived from the flower of Crocus sativus, is a motif encountered in other examples of Minoan art, such as the fresco of the saffron gatherers from Akrotiri on the island of Thera (Santorini). In all known instances, the stigmas are collected by women and (leashed) monkeys, never by boys (or men).

In The Cambridge Companion to the Aegean Bronze Age (2008), edited by Cynthia Shelmerdine, John Younger and Paul Rehak note: “A strong yellow color was produced from the stigmas of saffron crocus flowers […]. Because of its use in food and medicine, as well as cloth production, the harvesting of crocus may have been exclusively a women’s activity” (p. 161). They later note that saffron gathering “probably took place in late October, when the autumn crocus produces the saffron stigmas” (p. 180).

If you visit the Archaeological Museum in Iraklion, both Evans’s original reconstruction and the new version depicting a monkey are on display in the room with frescoes. This way, a visitor can see exactly how plausible (or not) a reconstruction may be, and it demonstrates that in archaeology, the state of our knowledge is always advancing.