After concluding his spectacular excavations at Ur in 1935, the British archaeologist Leonard Woolley moved north. Having sought (and, he believed, found) the home of the first biblical Israelites—the Ur of the patriarch Abraham—Woolley set his sights on Europe’s oldest civilization. He was sure that the origins of Minoan culture were to be found in the Near East.

Woolley excavated a number of sites in present-day southern Turkey—along the ancient trade route (later known as the Parthian Road) that ran up the Euphrates River and overland to the Mediterranean. In 1947 he finally struck gold at Tell Atchana (Thirsty Mound), which was soon identified as the second-millennium B.C. site of Alalakh.

Here Woolley excavated two major palaces, each with its own archive of Old Babylonian cuneiform tablets. In one of the palaces, the palace of Yarim-Lim, Woolley found fragments of wall painting executed in true fresco technique, with the paint applied to the wet plaster. All Near Eastern wall painting, Woolley knew, was on dry plaster, a technique known as tempera or secco. Only on Minoan Crete were palace walls decorated with wall paintings done in true fresco style.

And it wasn’t only the paintings. The architecture of the Yarim-Lim palace clearly resembled that of Minoan palaces—especially the use of polished stone slabs (or orthostats) at the base of walls and the use of wood for half-timber construction. Here was evidence of a connection between Near Eastern and Aegean cultures.

Woolley assumed, from the Old Babylonian tablets, that the Yarim-Lim palace was contemporaneous with the Syrian site of Mari (first half of the 18th century B.C.), where thousands of cuneiform texts in Old Babylonian had been excavated by the French archaeologist André Parrot. If the Minoan-style paintings at Alalakh were indeed from the first part of the 18th century B.C., they were at least a full century earlier than any wall paintings then known from Crete. Woolley thus believed he had found exactly what he was looking for: the Near Eastern origins of Minoan art.

Woolley’s dating was wrong, however, or at least uncertain, and a good deal of confusion persists to this day. In a series of articles published in the 1950s, the German-Jewish Assyriologist Beno Landsberger argued that the Alalakh tablets found in the Yarim-Lim palace, and thus the Minoan-style paintings, were actually later—probably dating to around 1600 B.C.

The early 16th century B.C. was a time of great change throughout the Near East. The destruction of Babylon by the Hittites in 1595 B.C. marked the end of the Old Babylonian period and the beginning of a dark age in Near Eastern history. In Egypt, the Asiatic Hyksos, who ruled the Nile Delta, were expelled around 1570 B.C. and the New Kingdom (18th Dynasty) was established. In the turmoil surrounding these events, Minoan-style wall paintings suddenly appeared in the Near East: at Tell el-Dab’a (ancient Avaris) in the Nile Delta, Tel Kabri in modern Israel, Alalakh and, recently, Tell Mishrifeh (ancient Qatna) in Syria.

In the past 20 years, there has been much confusion regarding questions of chronological priority and who was influencing whom. Were artistic and intellectual developments moving from the Near East to the Aegean, as Woolley thought, or from the Aegean to the Near East, as the majority of scholars have come to believe?

If the wall paintings from Akrotiri (on modern Santorini), Tell el-Dab’a, Alalakh and Tel Kabri do indeed date to about 1600 B.C., how did they get there? Were Minoan artisans working at these sites, decorating the palaces of local rulers in what seems to have been the desired fashion of the day?

The existing scholarly literature presents an interesting dichotomy. Whereas most Aegean archaeologists believe that Minoan artists worked abroad in the pay of foreign rulers, most Near Eastern archaeologists believe that certain artistic motifs simply became known throughout the eastern Mediterranean from painted pottery and woven textiles.

Who is correct? At this stage of the game, it is hard to say.

The beginnings of wall painting on Crete itself have been the subject of much dispute. We now have examples of true fresco wall painting from Knossos dating as early as around 1850 B.C. But there is an important difference between these early Cretan paintings and those from the Levant. The Middle Minoan examples all have purely linear or geometric designs, whereas the Minoan-style paintings from the Nile Delta and the Levant are pictorial, showing a bull’s head, for example, or a crouching griffin. Pictorial wall painting on Crete seems to go back no earlier than the beginning of the New Palace period—say the 17th century B.C.

And what about antecedents? Was there a developmental phase on Crete during which artists learned how to produce pictorial frescoes? The answer seems to be “No.” According to Mark Cameron, the British scholar who produced the most accurate reconstruction drawings of the existing fragments, the pictorial paintings came all at once, in a quantum leap forward, with conventions governing layout, color schemes, manner of portrayal and theme already in place, accepted by everyone.

It seems highly unlikely, however, that the Minoan paintings simply appeared ex nihilo. For this reason, the German scholars Barbara and Wolf-Dietrich Niemeier, who have studied the fragments from Tel Kabri and Alalakh, are now willing to concede Oriental Priority in Minoan-style pictorial painting.

But we are not out of the thicket yet. What is especially remarkable about the Tel Kabri fragments is that they were done in the “miniature” technique (long but narrow paintings). Miniature frescoes are known from Knossos, from Ayia Irini on the island of Keos, and from Akrotiri. It appears that the Ayia Irini paintings are contemporaneous with those from Akrotiri. But if the wall paintings from Akrotiri are to be dated to about 1650 B.C., just prior to the great volcanic eruption that destroyed the island of Thera/Santorini, then they cannot have been influenced by the Kabri paintings, which are no earlier than 1600 B.C. Also, the newly discovered paintings from Syrian Qatna, also in the miniature technique and very similar to those from Akrotiri, are assumed to date to the 16th or 15th century B.C. (though the Qatna excavations have not been published). Does all this mean Occidental Priority?

In evaluating these arguments we should keep in mind that we are dealing with what is still essentially unpublished material. In a review-article in the American Journal of Archaeology (1997), the Aegean archaeologist Paul Rehak wrote what I consider the best discussion of the problems involved in trying to understand the presence of Minoan-style wall paintings in Egypt and the Levant. Rehak suggested that we distinguish between “Minoan” and “Minoanizing” styles, much as we have long distinguished between “Egyptian” and “Egyptianizing” styles. That is, artistic techniques can be taught and transmitted, and then taught and transmitted once again. Minoan techniques executed in the Near East do not tell us that Minoans were there (or that Near Easterners were on Crete); they only say that there was communication.

To go further, we will have to learn more about the iconography—the actual images and their meanings. And for that, we need final publications.—J.D.M.