Archaeology & Cephalopods


Pygmy Octopus
Jul 30, 2003
Hello again and thanks for the warm welcome!
For those who asked: my avatar is Minoan in origin, a culture which I have been long interested in. The octopus was a very common theme in Minoan ceramics, metalwork, etc. It is not clear whether the Minoans viewed octos with any particular reverence, or simply depicted it often as a result of its commonality in the marketplace and on the dinner table. I would like to think the former, but who knows? The Minoans did not leave all that much in the way of mythical or religous texts to go by.
Oh, well. I like it, and I'm glad you do too...
Good stuff. (What little I know of) Minoan culture is pretty interesting. I believe some anthropologists have postulated that they were primarily matriarchal, goddess worshipping & very different to the civilizations that surrounded them. Their whole civilization got wiped out, as you say, leaving very little behind, so what remains is open to debate and interpretation

I've seen some etruscan pottery that has similar decoration. As you say, hard to know whether there is any deeper significance operating in choice of subject. I guess if we knew more about who used the pieces and in what context, we might have a better idea. Nice to imagine an ancient ceph cult though... :notworth: :tentacle:
Thanks very much for the information. It would be interesting indeed to know if the octopus was indeed worshipped by the Minoans. As you say though, it seems more likely that the animal makes for wonderful decoration and is a very lively and interesting shape. (Methinks it is easy overinterpret and to read ritual significance into artifacts in order to provide an explanation. I'm sure often the explanation is much more simplistic. Sometimes a knife is just a knife; just because it is found in an unexpected location does not make it sacrificial......).

In the meantime, here is another octopus jar datable to about 1500 BC at the Heraklion Museum in Crete. It was found at the Knossos Palace:

Octopus Jar

Here's another:

Octopus Vase

Thanks for introducing these vases to the site. I had never heard of them and I don't think they have been mentioned before.


While we are at it, it's probably worth pointing out that the Romans were also fond of depictions of marine life, especially in town houses and villas on the Mediterranean coast and in Italy. Depictions of octopi and squid were not uncommon on motifs on mosaic floors.

Here is an example of an odd looking squid that is on display in the British Museum in London. I'm afraid I don't know the precise source of the mosaic though:

Sealife Mosaic at the British Museum

And a 2nd century Octopus mosaic from the Roman city of Mevania in Italy:

Octopus Mosaic

Beautiful stuff!
I saw Roman ruins in Morocco with two aquatic themed mosaics, one of which featured dolphins, the other with more variety, including an octopus.

The picture is from


The dolphin mosaic is there too.

The site also has some shots from a fishmarket in Tokyo. These may horrify some of you, but the octopuses are arranged aesthetically.

Tsukiji fish market

Great pictures, Melissa.

I suppose it is quite possible that the Roman artist(s) who created that mosaic probably had only limited experience of the source matter. It’s almost as if they were drawn from verbal description excepting, of course, the capricorn. The animals depicted are rather stylised such as the octopus with six arms, an amusing looking shrimp/lobster, and a jellyfish that looks like a hot air balloon.

Here is another depiction of a squid, this time from an amazingly detailed and lifelike fresco from Pompeii. It seems that squid must have formed a common part of the diet in the Roman world for it to have been painted as part of a food larder.

Roman wall painting with a squid

It’s a pity that outside of Pompeii so few Roman wall paintings are known. In my home town, Dover in the UK, we have a Roman town house on display that was excavated in the early seventies. When the building was demolished in the late third century to make way for a Roman military fort, many of the rooms were back-filled by the Romans themselves. As the ‘Painted House’ as it is known was not exposed to the elements to decay, large sections of the interior wall surfaces have survived. Although there are no paintings as detailed as the one I have linked to above, there are nice images of deities, coloured panels, brooms and grapes often arranged in mock 3D effects. Most of these were quite gaudy and used strong colours mainly pink, greens and brown. The inside of a Roman villa to our modern tastes would have looked quite hideous!

Here’s a link if anyone would like to know a little about the building and paintings at this little known site, even if they are non-ceph related:

Roman Painted House at Dover
I had no idea what I started w/ this thread...
I loved all the links and pics... people don't know what they're missing w/o TONMO in their lives.
Mmmmm... Ceph cults.....
:notworth: :tentacle:
...But that's a different topic altogether...
Headfoot said:
I had no idea what I started w/ this thread...


I'm glad you did. So glad, in fact, that with Phil's blessing I'm going to clone this thread for the "Culture & Entertainment" forum. As payment for your efforts, here's an ancient (circa 450 B.C.) coin from Syracuse.

Yours truly,


Here's Herakles in the Cup of Helios, off to "take care of" Geryon, with an octopus escort:


This decoration appears on an Attic cup circa 480 BCE. Herakles looks a little worried, doesn't he? Or is it sea-sickness?

Thanks again to Headfoot for starting this thread, and to Phil for giving his blessing to the thread's new home. (And, to TONMO for moving it.)


That's a great image, Clem.

How about this, a Sicilian coin from Syracuse which dates to about 410BC:


By the way, do you think this topic should be named 'Cephalopods in Archaeology'? It seems to have grown somewhat.....
Phil said:
By the way, do you think this topic should be named 'Cephalopods in Archaeology'? It seems to have grown somewhat...


I've re-titled this thread "Archaeology & Cephalopods." I thought that "Cephalopods in Archaeology" sounded good, but couldn't shake the image of squid wearing dusty pince nêz, sifting dirt and taking notes in German.


Above is a 15th Century BCE Mykenaean vase in the collection of the Athens National Museum. Arms that extend from the bowl onto the lid appear on other contemporary vessels, but the limited sampling I've made of the type suggests that it was not common. Perhaps it was a sign of "higher-end" artisanry.

Sepia, ink collected from cephalopods, was used throughout the ancient Mediterranean. How was it processed and stored? Could some of these vessels have been sepia containers, "labelled" with decorative octopus?


o.vulgaris said:
any relation to syracuse university, hehe. :P

Yes, but a very, very, very distant one.

Below, another 15th-century BCE Mykenaean vase from the Athens museum. Note the small bird painted beneath the handle on the left; it appears to be standing on the "surface" described by the circumferential band. The octopus appears to be butting up against this barrier from beneath. Pretty sophisticated stuff.


A little while back, Phil posted an image of a Sicillian coin (circa 410 BCE) from Syracuse, with a beautifully modelled octopus on one side.


Ancient Sicillian coins with cephalopods on them seem to be not uncommon, as I'd earlier posted another piece of bronze, with a simillar (albeit more shallow and rather less morphologically precise) motif, harkening back to an earlier striking date, 450 BCE. The locale, Syracuse, was the same.

Before Sicily belonged to Italy or to Rome, the island was host to the Greeks. The city of Syracuse, on the south-east coast of Sicily near the Ionian Sea, was founded in the eighth century BCE by emigrants from Corinth, a Peloponnese Greek city-state founded in Homeric times. Corinthian Syracuse saw its apogee during the fifth century BCE, when the coin above was in circulation.

The association of Corinth with Homer accomodates Sicily: the Straits of Messina, which separate Sicily from the Italian peninsula, formed the narrows through which Homer's legendary Odysseus made a perilous passage, menaced by the whirlpool-generating monster Charybdis on the one side, and the great cephalopod beast Scylla on the other. More than mere octopus (important as local food items though they were), the cephalopods on the Syracusan coins also represent monstrous Scylla, and place Homer's cephalopod on the Sicillian side of the Straits.

Below is another coin, but one struck in a later era and for Sicily's new masters, the Romans: a Sextus Pompey denarius, ca. 38 BC.


(Sextus Pompey was supreme naval commander under Octavian, but political intrigues led to his being declared an enemy of the state by the Roman Senate. In better times, control of Sicily, Corsica and Sardinia had been granted to Sextus as part of the Treaty of Tarentum, in 39 BCE. The coin above commemorates Sextus' receipt of Sicily as a Protectorate.)

This is a Roman interpretation of Scylla, far-removed from the real-world animals that inspired Homer. Rather than a recognizable cephalopod, we get something closer to a mermaid, with a woman's head, torso and arms, the latter holding a sword behind her back before the downward, killing stroke, all fused with a twin-tailed fish body. The extra heads and limbs required by Homer's text are supplied by the foreparts of wolves emerging from the junction of the two tails. While the details may have changed in the intervening centuries, the geographic association of Scylla with Sicily was maintained. However, the association with Sextus Pompey tweaks the nature of the beast, rendering it a symbol of naval might and regional control...

...but that's a subject for another thread.


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