Archaeology and Volcanism

III. Akrotiri: An Aegean Bronze Age City

A. Relation to Minoan Civilization

A particularly spectacular example of volcanic preservation occurs on the Aegean island of Thera (also called Santorini), about 60 miles north of Crete, where a late Bronze Age city, named for the nearby modern village of Akrotiri, was engulfed during a cataclysmic eruption of the Thera Volcano in the late 17th century B.C. Dubbed the Pompeii of the Aegean, Akrotiri was similarly buried by voluminous tephra falls and pyroclastic flows. By far the best preserved settlement of its era (corresponding to Late Minoan III-A on Crete), Akrotiri was a prosperous sea port, enriched by maritime trade with Crete and other parts of the eastern Mediterranean region. The luxury and opulence of its multistory dwellings (some rose three or even four stories high) is indicated by their technological sophistication (indoor running water and flush toilets) and artistic splendor (some of the most extensive and beautiful wall paintings to have survived from the ancient world).

Although the site of Akrotiri was continuously inhabited since the Neolithic period and hence represented a native Cycladic culture, pre-eruption Akrotiri was profoundly influenced by Minoan civilization. Named by modern archaeologists after Minos, a mythical king of Knossos on Crete, Minoan culture dominated the Aegean region between about 2000 and 1450 B.C. The Akrotiri wall paintings reveal a typically Minoan delight in physical nature and the human form. Most of the human figures, including richly dressed and bejeweled female figures and nude youths carrying fish, probably depict participation in religious processions or other rituals. Other paintings focus on portraying highly stylized flowering plants, soaring birds, or animals, both wild and domestic, including the famous blue monkeys adorning the aptly named House of the Frescoes. Perhaps most important for archaeologists are the lavish wall murals showing a Bronze Age naval fleet and urban waterfront scenes, one of which may represent Akrotiri and its people.

Because the artists made no attempt to keep the plaster they painted on wet and continued to paint over patches that had already dried, the frescoes are unevenly preserved. Generally intact where the paint had permeated wet plaster, the wall paintings quickly flake away from the dry areas, challenging the techniques of Greece's most skilled archaeologist-restorers. Even so, Akrotiri's frescoes survive in larger fragments than the roughly contemporary murals from other Aegean sites, including Cretan Knossos. Besides their exceptional state of preservation, the paintings are unusual in that they generally remain in their original positions, allowing archaeologists to reconstruct the original decoration of entire rooms and to speculate on the probable relationship between scenes painted on different parts of the same room.

B. Architectural Sophistication

At the time of its destruction, Akrotiri was probably one of the Aegean's major ports, with a population of several thousand. Although only a small fraction of the town, which may have covered several tens of acres, has thus far been excavated, it appears that prehistoric Akrotiri closely resembled the general layout of modern villages on the island. Designed for a society functioning without vehicles, its streets were narrow, wide enough only for two loaded donkeys or other pack animals to pass one another. Some archaeologists suggest that the town's zigzag streets and small, irregularly shaped open spaces, such as the aptly named Triangle Square, may have been deliberately planned to block gusty winds and to prevent heavy rains from transforming thoroughfares into stream beds.

Judging from the small portion of the town now exposed—a mere ten houses have been exhumed and most of these have not been fully explored—it seems that the community was highly organized, with special attention given to sanitation. The streets, apparently well maintained, were generally paved with large, relatively flat stones; beneath this flagstone surface ran a carefully constructed sewage system consisting of stone-lined ditches covered with stone slabs. These underground sewers received effluents from neighboring houses via clay pipes incorporated in house walls. The closely packed, multistory domestic edifices and the entire absence of accommodations for livestock or other animals indicates that Akrotiri's inhabitants were thorough-going urbanites.

Individual houses were built of native stone and clay, the masonry walls strengthened against seismic hazards by both horizontal and vertical timber reinforcements. Although no standard house plan exists at Akrotiri, most builders observed some accepted conventions, including the placement of a window next to the main doorway, a practice that may account for the Greek word for "window" (parathyron, which literally means beside the door). The same passion for interior light and color that characterize the Minoan palace architects on Crete appears in Akrotiri's private houses. Virtually every room contains a window, with relatively large ones punctuating upper storeys, and every house uncovered to date boasts vivid wall paintings. It is possible that the presently excavated dwellings represent the home of the town's more affluent residents, but the abundance of these distinctive amenities indicate that at least a significant part of the population enjoyed both a luxurious domestic environment and a strong aesthetic sense.

With some structures rising three stories or higher, staircases are common and are built of both stone and wood. Most stairways rested on piles of rubble enclosed in a solid wood framework set between parallel walls, with stone treads laid atop the rubble. Whereas families had their living quarters on the upper levels, the ground floor was typically devoted to storage of foodstuffs and other supplies. Most houses also had workshops equipped with such stone tools as hammers and anvils, as well as private mills, complete with grindstones and containers to catch the ground flour.

Although no wooden furniture or building materials have survived, the decay of these objects left cavities in the surrounding ash deposit, into which archaeologists poured liquid plaster, resulting in plaster molds of such household items as beds, tables, and even an elaborately carved three-legged stand that may have been used for religious purposes. Besides a plethora of decorated pottery and huge storage jars, some examples of beautifully crafted metalwork have also been found, ranging from bronze awls and daggers to large bronze cooking utensils.

C. The Thera Eruption

The scarcity of valuable jewelry or metal goods, as well as the total absence of human remains, indicates that Akrotiri's people had ample warning of the disaster that overtook their city. As at Pompeii, the combined efforts of volcanologists and archaeologists have enabled researchers to interpret the stratigraphic record, reconstructing the order of events that doomed Akrotiri. According to recent studies, precursory earthquakes severely damaged buildings throughout the town, perhaps years or even decades before the eruption occurred. The city's high degree of social organization is suggested by major communal program following the temblor to clear debris from the streets, tear down ruined buildings, and repair weakened structures. Extensive reconstruction was still underway when further seismic activity apparently prompted the inhabitants to abandon Akrotiri permanently, taking with them their most valuable possessions. The volcano's interruption of this restoration process is effectively symbolized by the presence of two vessels of dried plaster and a third containing dried paint in a second-story bedroom of the West House, where painters were busily redecorating until forced to lay aside their work.

The climactic eruptive sequence began with phreatic blasts that produced a thin layer of ash, followed by a paroxysmal outburst that ejected between 5 and 7.5 cubic miles of magma, creating approximately 12.5 to 19 cubic miles of pyroclastic material. It was previously assumed that this Plinian event triggered the collapse of Thera's former summit, creating the large caldera, subsequently flooded 1000 feet deep by the invading sea, that occupies most of the island today. Geologists have recently concluded, however, that a caldera already existed on Thera at the time of the "Minoan" eruption, although it was probably enlarged by further subsidence of the volcanic edifice. The island's present crescent shape, deriving from a prehistoric collapse long before the Minoan era, inspired its ancient name Stronghyle, which means round.

The Thera catastrophe is notable for reputedly spawning two celebrated theories—one ancient and one modern—about the sudden disappearance of a technologically advanced prehistoric civilization. According to one hypothesis, the eruption that buried Akrotiri and other prosperous towns on Thera was the inspiration for Plato's famous myth of Atlantis. In his dialogues, the Critias and Timaeus, Plato has the Athenian statesman Solon relate a tale he heard from Egyptian priests in the sixth century B.C. concerning a tyrannical island kingdom, supposedly located beyond the Pillars of Hercules (the Straits of Gibraltar), that disappeared in a sudden catastrophe. The Atlantis tradition, in this view, was based on the classical Greeks' dim memories of the disaster that overtook Thera and other Minoan sites. Plato's locating the vanished civilization out in the Atlantic was merely an imaginative but inaccurate attempt to place the ancient culture beyond the realm of the known world.

D. Thera and the Decline of Minoan Political Dominance

A second, contemporary theory links Thera's outburst with the demise of Minonan civilization. In 1939, the Greek archaeologist Spyridon Marinatos suggested that the Thera event was powerful enough to change the course of Mediterranean history, weakening Minoan political dominance of the Aegean and permitting the warlike Mycenaeans of the Greek mainland to invade and conquer Crete. Tsunamis generated by Thera's collapse, Marinatos suggested, may have overwhelmed Minoan ports, demolishing any fleets harbored there and decimating their maritime empire. Recently revised dating of the Thera eruption, placing it about 1645 B.C. (according to ice core samples) or 1628 B.C. (from tree-ring evidence), however, makes it unlikely to have triggered the final decline of Minoan power, which did not occur until about 1450 B.C. In the absence of a substantial ash layer on Crete or unequivocal evidence of flood damage to its ports, most historians now conclude that Thera's explosions were not responsible for the eclipse of Minoan hegemony in the Aegean. Efforts to connect the eruption with the biblical plagues on Egypt, described in the Book of Exodus, or with the Israelites' miraculous deliverance at the Red Sea, when a pursuing Egyptian army was allegedly overwhelmed by a "wall of water" and drowned, are equally unsubstantiated. The exodus from Egypt, which most scholars place in the 13th century B.C., occurred almost four centuries after the Thera disaster.

GlossaryVolcanoes as Preservers of Archaeological SitesHerculaneum and Pompeii: Cities of the Early Roman EmpireAkrotiri: An Aegean Bronze Age CityCatal Huyuk: The Earliest Representation of a Volcanic EruptionMesoamerican Archaeological SitesNorth American Archaeological SitesGeomythology: Volcanoes in Prehistoric Oral TraditionsSummary

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