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Arte-Factual: Minoan Dolphin Fresco (Tomb Raider 1)

The dolphins of Palace Midas: Not just a pretty motif but an insight into Minoan culture

Time for another blast from the past as we return once again to the original 1996 Tomb Raider for this edition of Arte-Factual!

If you’ve ever played the original game, you may have noticed that the game developers drew inspiration from real-life artworks and artefacts, such as the Toltec pillars at Tula in Mexico, the Gayer-Anderson cat statue, and the Chimú bird motifs that adorn the adobe walls of buildings at Chan Chan in Peru. This time around, we’ll be looking at the walls of a pool seen at the start of the Palace Midas level, which appears to be modelled on the famous Minoan Dolphin Fresco found on the Greek island of Crete.

The dolphin pool seen in Tomb Raider

The dolphin pool seen in Tomb Raider (Image credit: Tombraiders.HU)

Crete was one of the major cultural centres of the Eastern Mediterranean during the Bronze Age and was home to Knossos, the political and ceremonial centre of the Minoan civilization. The site, which covers an area of almost 20,000 square metres, was excavated by the archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans and his team in the early 20th century. The Minoans were a primarily mercantile and seafaring people who established trade links with mainland Greece, Anatolia, Cyprus, Canaan, and Egypt, and set up colonies on the nearby islands of Santorini (also known as Thera) and Rhodes. Their extensive trade network encouraged cultural exchange and this is evident in their art.

The Minoans adopted the colour conventions used in Ancient Egyptian art (e.g. men were painted in red, women in white) as well as certain Egyptian motifs (e.g. lotus flowers, papyrus reeds). Even human figures and animals were usually drawn in profile. However, in contrast to the Egyptians’ highly conventionalized art style, Minoan art is characterized by its vigorous naturalistic style and fluid, graceful forms.

A perfect example of this style is the “bull-leaping” fresco found at Knossos, with its athletic men and women performing somersaults over the back of a bull. The Minoans were also fond of depicting flora and fauna in their art and are thought to be one of the first cultures to portray natural landscapes without any accompanying human figures, suggesting that they may have placed a great deal of importance on nature and the environment.

But let’s turn our attention back to the dolphin fresco.

The dolphin fresco dates back to the period known as Late Minoan I (c.15th and 16th centuries BC) and is an example of “marine style” Minoan art. Octopi, dolphins, fish, crabs, rocks, and seaweed are common motifs seen on pottery and in frescos dating to this period and some archaeologists believe that this may have been in response to a natural disaster, such as an earthquake or tsunami. This theory is corroborated by the fact that a number of temples and palaces, including the palace at Knossos, had to be rebuilt following an earthquake in 1570 BC. Could the sudden attention to marine life have been an attempt to appease Poseidon, the Earth-Shaker, and prevent further devastation?

A replica of the dolphin fresco found at Knossos

The replica of the dolphin fresco found at Knossos (Image credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Whether the dolphin fresco was designed to appease a temperamental god or was for purely decorative purposes, it’s hard to deny it’s one of the most stunning works of Minoan art found at Knossos. Visitors to Knossos will find a replica of the fresco displayed over a doorway in the east wing of the palace.

The original fresco, which is now housed in the Heraklion Archaeological Museum, is actually a reconstruction. Piet de Jong, the artist and architect hired by Evans to assist in the recording and reconstruction of the palace at Knossos, was able to recreate the fresco based on a few fragments of painted plaster.

It’s quite possible that de Jong may have taken some artistic license when he reconstructed this and other frescos. There is also some debate as to where the original fresco would have been. Although de Jong and Evans believed it once adorned the wall of the Queen’s Megaron, it may actually have been part of a decorated floor in an upper level chamber and that it had fallen through the ceiling when the palace was destroyed after the Mycenaean takeover of the island.

One thing is for certain, though. If I were as rich as Ms Croft, I’d call in the painters and have my bathroom redecorated in Minoan marine style, dolphins and all…

Sources & Further Reading:


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About Kelly M (396 Articles)
A Gibraltarian-born blogger, gamer, and archaeology enthusiast with a passion for languages and wildlife conservation. Tweets under the username @TombRaiderArch and runs the official fansite, The Archaeology of Tomb Raider.

5 Comments on Arte-Factual: Minoan Dolphin Fresco (Tomb Raider 1)

  1. Decorating the bathroom with Minoan Dolphins is actually a really cute idea, their art style really stands out from the rather angular and narrow art of the time.

    It’s funny I do remember that dolphin pool in the original Tomb Raider, I’m almost certain it’s the one you end up in after completing the cistern and get to the level with the golden hand, but I never thought anything of the texture I simply thought it was random. This blog has really made me have a new perspective on how the Tomb Raider games are decorated.

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    • I think the designers borrowed a lot of real-life imagery when they created the 1st game. You can see lots of Aztec, Maya and Inca art in the Peru levels (even though the Aztec and Maya were historically based in Central America) and there’s a lot of real-life Egyptian art in Last Revelation. Very little of it is in the right place but I’m willing to forgive Core for their lack of historical accuracy since they produced some of the best games ever. 😉

      As for Minoan art, check out the links and/or books I referenced. They borrowed their art style from the Egyptians and other Near Eastern cultures but, as you say, the end result is a lot less angular and more fluid and naturalistic. I’m trying to remember whether the famous bull-leaping fresco makes an appearance in the game. I don’t think it does but I may need to re-play the Greece levels to be sure… 😉

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  2. Dammit! Now I want to go home and play Tomb Raider (though I’ll have to find a version that’ll work on Windows 8 …)!

    It is very beautiful though; as you say, so naturalistic, and lovely colours.

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    • It’s funny, isn’t it? Tomb Raider’s graphics look so basic compared with today’s games and yet there’s a certain beauty to the levels that seems absent in the newer games. One of my favourite moments in the game is when Lara swims through a tunnel and into a beautiful room decorated with papyrus reeds and hieroglyphs (this bit: http://youtu.be/60gJJf0FhBQ?t=1m39s). That’s the sort of thing I miss in the later games.

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