The Dolphin Frieze from the Mycenaean Acropolis of Gla

Dolphin Frieze, Second half of the 13th century BC, Fresco, from the Mycenaean Acropolis of Gla in Boeotia, Archaeological Museum of Thebes, Greece – Photo Credit: Amalia Spiliakou, February 19, 2024

On February 19, 2024, I fulfilled a long-awaited wish by visiting the Archaeological Museum of Thebes, one of Greece’s most significant archaeological museums. The collections, some of which are rare or unique, have been on my bucket list for quite some time. These artefacts, originating from excavations across Boeotia, span from the Paleolithic era to post-Byzantine times, providing a comprehensive view of the region’s cultural history. The Dolphin Frieze from the Mycenaean Acropolis of Gla was at the top of my list; seeing it in person was a moment of sheer delight and fulfilment.

The Mycenaean period is of profound significance in both art and history, acting as a vital cultural link between the Bronze Age civilizations of the Aegean and the classical world of ancient Greece. Artefacts from this era, ranging from architecture to fresco painting and pottery, illuminate the emergence of distinct artistic styles and techniques that greatly influenced classical Greek artistry. Mycenaean builders demonstrated their prowess through the construction of grand palaces, robust fortifications, and imposing tombs, showcasing advanced architectural and engineering capabilities. Their vibrant fresco paintings, characterized by bold depictions of figures, animals, and geometric patterns, stand as a testament to their artistic abilities. Moreover, the Mycenaean civilization played a pivotal role in shaping the socio-political landscape of ancient Greece, laying the groundwork for the development of Greek culture and identity.

Model of the Archaeological site of Gla, Archaeological Museum of Thebes, Greece

The least known of all Mycenaean Palaces is probably that of Gla in Central Greece. Perched atop a rugged hill, the Mycenaean Acropolis of Gla is a site of historical and archaeological significance dating back to the Late Bronze Age. This fortified settlement, strategically positioned on the Boeotian plain jutted into Lake Kopais (now drained) or formed an island within it. It served as a vital center of the Mycenaean civilization, showcasing the architectural prowess and strategic foresight of its ancient inhabitants. With its imposing Cyclopean Walls, about 3 m thick, and 2.8 km long, enclosing about 235,000 square meters of land, and commanding views, the Acropolis of Gla stands as a testament to the military and cultural achievements of the Mycenaeans, offering invaluable insights into their society, economy, and interactions within the broader Aegean world.

The Acropolis of Gla is famously associated with the ambitious endeavour to drain Lake Kopais, a feat considered unparalleled in Bronze Age antiquity, highlighting the advanced technical knowledge possessed by Mycenaean engineers. It is also known for its sheer magnitude and complexity. Encircled by robust Cyclopean Walls featuring four gates constructed from imposing stone blocks, Gla reigns as the largest fortified Mycenaean Acropolis within Greek territory. Less known, but equally important is the site’s residential area, a sprawling L-shaped edifice, often hailed as a ‘Palace’, and situated in the site’s northern expanse. Built atop an engineered plateau, this ‘Palace’ or, Melathron’, unfolds into three distinct sections, featuring a layout reminiscent of the renowned Megaron structures found in ancient centers like Tiryns, Mycenae, and Pylos. However, the absence of hallmark Mycenaean Palace elements, specifically a “throne room”, a circular hearth, and a “bathroom”, raises questions about its classification as a fully-fledged Mycenaean Megaron.

Among the buildings’ debris, archaeologists discovered as early as 1893, evidence of a wastewater system, unique clay roof tiles suggesting pitched roofs, and evidence of decorative wall frescoes, damaged and fragmentary, but extremely precious. Today, these fragments, discovered in the elongated East Wing of the South Enclosure, during excavations conducted by S. Iakovidis, in the early 1980s and 1990s are exhibited in the Archaeological Museum of Thebes. The most remarkable of these fragments show diving Dolphins and parts of other maritime scenes, including large Argonauts. These fresco fragments were expertly reconstructed by Christos Boulotis. (See Bibliography)

Dolphin Frieze, Second half of the 13th century BC, Fresco, from the Mycenaean Acropolis of Gla in Boeotia, Archaeological Museum of Thebes, Greece – Photo Credit: Amalia Spiliakou, February 19, 2024

The Dolphin Fresco from the Mycenaean Acropolis of Gla is a remarkable artefact that showcases an unusual naturalism and a sophisticated understanding of marine life, captured through the depiction of Dolphins with an astonishing level of detail and realism. These elegant creatures, spanning 75 to 80 cm in height, are painted against a vivid blue background, highlighting their dynamic forms and graceful postures. The Dolphins, numbering between six and seven, are depicted in a uniform size and posture, their bodies elegantly curved into open arches or crescents, embodying the fluidity and grace of living dolphins. Their upper bodies are painted black, featuring a triangular dorsal fin, while their bellies are a contrasting white, delineated from the black with yellow stripes. Their eyes are almond-shaped, set against a yellow background, adding a striking detail to their overall appearance.

The use of colours in the Gla Dolphins fresco draws closer to the real hues of these marine creatures, with the black, white, and yellow providing a stark contrast to the deep blue sea they inhabit. This colour choice not only enhances the naturalism of the scene but also demonstrates the Mycenaeans’ advanced skills in pigment selection and application. Indeed, recent analyses have revealed the use of rare, imported lapis lazuli mixed with hematite and possibly an organic colour derived from murex, underscoring the significant effort and resources devoted to achieving the fresco’s vibrant colours.

This fresco, along with other Dolphin Paintings of the Aegean Bronze Age period demonstrates a persistence of themes drawn from nature within Mycenaean art, suggesting a deep-rooted appreciation for the natural world. The Gla Dolphins, with their lifelike appearance and intricate detailing, stand as a testament to the Mycenaean civilization’s artistic prowess and their enduring fascination with the sea and its inhabitants.

For a Student Activity, inspired by the Dolphin Freeze, please… Check HERE!

Bibliography: Christos Boulotis, Reconstructing a Dolphin Frieze and Argonauts from the Mycenaean Citadel of Gla, ΜΕΛΕΤΗΜΑΤΑ 72, Mycenaean Wall Painting in Context, National Hellenic Research Foundation, Athens, 2015, pp. 371…

Mycenaean Procession of Female Worshippers

Procession of Mycenaean Female Worshippers from Kadmeia Palace of Thebes, c. 1400 BC, Wall Painting, Archaeological Museum of Thebes, Greece

One of the most frequent themes in the Mycenaean wall painting is a procession of lifesize women in Minoan Dress (tight bodice with exposed breasts and flounced skirt), each figure bearing an offering and proceeding either to the left or right toward an unspecified goal, which was very likely a seated representation of the goddess. A circa 1400 BC fresco example, titled Mycenaean Procession of Female Worshippers comes, from the Kadmeia Palace in Thebes… and is exceptional! Three articles provided me with the necessary information so I can better understand the fresco’s importance. The same articles helped me codify six interesting facts about it… (see Bibliography)

Fact 1: Kadmeia Palace in Thebes was the nucleus of many important Greek Myths… it was connected to Gods and Heroes! The city of Thebes in ancient Greece has a rich mythological tradition. It starts with Kadmos, the Phoenician Prince, who searched for his abducted sister Europa and eventually settled in Boeotia, where he founded the city of Thebes, and built the first Palace. The myth of Oedipus, tragic in every aspect, and the riddle of the Sphinx, is equally known. The myth of the Seven Against Thebes revolves around the conflict between Eteocles and Polyneices, both sons of Oedipus, the fight over the rule of Thebes, and the heartbreaking end of Antigone, their sister, who became a symbol of resistance against unjust laws. Finally, the myth of Zeus, Semele, and Dionysus was closely connected to Thebes and the Palace of Kadmos.

Fact 2: The Greek archaeologist who discovered, in 1906, the Theban Palace, and subsequently the Procession of Female Worshipers fresco was Antonios Keramopoulos. In 1906 Antonios Keramopoulos was the first archaeologist to excavate, in the city of Thebes, a sizable and well-built, but burnt building of the Mycenaean period. He also discovered fragments of a Procession fresco, pieces of gold, agate or quartz artifacts, and numerous jars inscribed with the undeciphered then, Linear B script. Keramopoulos compared his discovery with similar discoveries in Mycenae or, for example, Pylos, and concluded that what he discovered was the Palace of Kadmos, the legendary founder of Thebes.

Architectural Plan of the Old Kadmeia Palace (Ground Floor ‘Court’ Area) in Thebes. The room marked with a blue Star is the area where the Procession fresco was found.
The Archaeological site of the Palace in Thebes and

Fact 3: The Procession of Female Worshipers fresco was discovered in Room N (marked with a Blue Star) of the Old Kadmeia Palace. Early during the Keramopoulos excavations, fragments of fresco pieces were discovered in Room N (marked with a Blue Star in the Photo). These fragments employed both the buon fresco and the fresco al secco techniques. Keramopoulos decided that these fragments were part of a long, probably 14 m, fresco presenting a life-size Procession of Female Worshipers, facing both right and left.

Fact 4: The Procession of Female Worshipers fresco found in the Old Kadmeia Palace dates from the Early 14th century BC ( LH III A period, 1400-1300 BC). It is the oldest such fresco discovered in mainland Greece. The Procession of Female Worshipers fresco in the Theban Palace is the oldest wall painting discovered in Boetia. In 1978, Dr. Christos Boulotis embarked on fresh research regarding this fresco. During his investigation, he stumbled upon “forgotten” pieces stored in the warehouse of the Theban Museum. Dr. Boulotis added these fragments to the existing Procession fresco and reassembled the fresco’s composition. By conducting extensive research, comparisons with Mycenaean frescoes, and new local finds, Dr. Boulotis proposed a date of the 14th century BC for the fresco.

Fact 5: The Procession of Female Worshipers fresco in the Palace of Thebes marks the beginning of the Boaetian fresco School of Painting. Dr. Christos Boulotis once again proposed the Palace of Thebes to be established as the focal point of a Boetian workshop, responsible for disseminating innovative ideas in fresco painting across the Palatial areas of Central Greece. To support his proposition, Dr. Boulotis drew comparisons between frescoes found in the Theban Palace, such as the Procession of Female Worshipers, and those discovered in locations like Gla and Orchomenos. Additionally, Dr. Boulotis put forth the idea that groups of itinerant artists, initially from Crete, introduced the Minoan style of fresco painting to Palatial centers in the Peloponnese. The same groups trained local Mycenaean artists who then transmitted the newly developed Mycenaean style of fresco painting to Thebes. The presence of resemblances in patterns, compositions, and styles further suggests a high probability that these groups of traveling artists possessed “pattern/composition books” for their prospective clients to choose from.

Museum View of the ‘Procession of Mycenaean Female Worshippers’ from the Palace of Thebes, late 2000 BC, Wall Painting, Archaeological Museum of Thebes, Greece

Fact 6: The Procession of Female Worshipers fresco in the Palace of Thebes is the oldest and the finest in mainland Greece. It presents a life-size Procession of Women, finely dressed facing both right and left. The Theban fresco was originally 14 meters long, consisting of three zones: 1. a decorative band in the upper part, 2. the main composition, known as the Procession of Female Worshipers, in the middle, and 3. a lower decorative zone, imitating marble. Interestingly to note is that all pigments were from natural materials, red and ocher, for example, came from iron oxides, and black from carbon. Equally interesting, is that red pigment was used by the Mycenaean painter to outline each female figure.

According to Dr. Immerwahr’s description, the painters of the Theban Procession fresco were excellent draftsmen capable of depicting the human form in a conventional manner while infusing it with a dose of naturalism, allowing the figures to be shown in various positions. The depicted women appear to be wearing the traditional Minoan dress, which is colorful and exquisitely adorned with patterned borders. Their long wavy hair cascades loosely down to their narrow waists. They have spit curls fashioned across the forehead, twisted shoulder coils, and ponytails, some short and others longer. All the women wear fine jewelry, including necklaces and bracelets, each of which is individualized with round-shaped beads, lentoid shapes, or papyriform designs.

This is a large mural composition and a unique fresco of female worshipers striding majestically in two opposite directions, perhaps towards a central female deity who receives their offerings. Archaeologists were able to reconstruct five women from the original composition, one of them facing left, and the other four facing right. According to the latest reconstruction of the fresco, as exhibited in the Archaeological Museum in Thebes, the female worshiper facing left is posing, showing her chest frontally and holding wild roses. Two of the remaining four women facing right are depicted in profile, one of them holding a heavy casket with jewelry, and the other holding wild roses as well. The remaining two worshipers are depicted showing their frontal chests, holding lilies, and a luxury vase, perhaps filled with aromatic oil.

For a PowerPoint on the Mycenaean Procession of Female Worshippers Fresco, please… Check HERE!


1. Aegean Painting of the Bronze Age by Sara A. Immerwahr, The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1990

2. Χρήστος Μπουλιώτης, Η Τέχνη των Τοιχογραφιών στη Μυκηναϊκή Βοιωτία, ΕΠΕΤΗΡΙΣ ΤΗΣ ΕΤΑΙΡΕΙΑΣ ΒΟΙΩΤΙΚΩΝ ΜΕΛΕΤΩ, ΤΟΜΟΣ Γ’, ΤΕΥΧΟΣ α’, Αθήνα, 2000 σελίδες 1095-1149

3. The House of Kadmos in Mycenaean Thebes Reconsidered: Architecture, Chronology, and Context by Anastasia Dakouri-Hild, The Annual of the British School at Athens, Vol. 96 (2001), pp. 81-122 (47 pages)

An interesting Video titled Mycenaean Thebes, by @HellenicCosmos…