helens_daughter: (Default)
A reconstruction of the fresco found in the Room of the Lilies in Akrotiri, Santorini. A vision of Theran spring--lilies growing among volcanic rocks, and two swallows cavorting above--before the eruption completely sterilized the island.

Swallows are common in Crete and all around the Cyclades, except for Santorini.  From the Theran Spring fresco, it's clear they once inhabited the island; the 1600 B.C. eruption must have been so massive that it must have imprinted "DANGER! AVOID!" on all subsequent swallow generations.


Sep. 25th, 2011 11:40 am
helens_daughter: (Default)

Akrotiri was once a thriving large town on Santorini/Thera.  It was a Minoan outpost, which was buried under a thick layer of ash and pumice, cocooning the buildings and their contents from the pyroclastic surges of the 1628 B.C. Theran eruption.

The site was discovered by accident when a donkey broke through an eroded surface layer of ash and fell several feet into one of the preserved rooms.

During the 1960s, a handful of buildings and the streets between them were excavated by the late Spyridon Marinatos.  Beautiful frescoes and pottery have been discovered, as well as voids which, when pumped full of plaster of Paris, have yielded the ghosts of ancient wooden furniture and supporting beams.  Surveys of the area have shown that the town covers many acres, so there is quite a bit left to discover.

The current archaeological team, headed by Marinatos’s protegé Christos Doumas, are still analyzing finds from the original excavation.  These days, conservation takes precedence over excavation, and no further digging can be done until the archaeologists can assure the preservation of whatever artifacts and structures come out of the ground.  The site was roofed over to protect it from the elements, but in 2005, a partial collapse killed a tourist.  It takes money to repair and maintain that roofing, and to extend it--and money is one thing archaeologists never have enough of.  So it may be a while before we see more of the magnificent frescoes and other treasures that are sure to be waiting out there.

helens_daughter: (Default)

In my earlier article on the Thera eruption of 1628 B.C., I mentioned tsunami deposit layers at sites along the north coast of Crete.  Here is a deposit layer from Palaikastro in northeastern Crete.  The colored material you see is jumbled pottery, animal bones, bits of frescoes, and other debris from the tsunami which slammed into the town; the presence of deep-sea marine shells and microbial life among the deposits demonstrated that it was a tsunami, not an earthquake or other disaster, that was responsible for the destruction layer.

The material is so widespread, thrown together, and removed from its proper archaeological context that I don't know whether a serious effort has or will be made to carry out excavations.  Archaeologists are always short of money and resources, and most of their work nowadays deals with the conservation of existing sites and artifacts.

helens_daughter: (Default)

Thera, also known as Santorini, is the southernmost of the Cyclades Islands, and sits like a croissant in the Aegean some seventy miles north of Crete.  It is a favorite among photographers, and its blinding white buildings and blue rooftops can often be seen in travel brochures hugging the sheer cliffs against a brilliant blue sea and sky; it makes your mouth water for an Aegean vacation.  It is also a dry and sterile place, where vegetation struggles to survive, and where water must be carefully conserved and recycled.

Once, Thera was called Kalliste, the most beautiful, and Strongyle, the round island, because at one time, some thirty-seven centuries ago, that croissant was more of a pancake, with lush forests and fields, towns and seaports, and a high mountain in the center.  The people who lived there loved life and nature, and decorated their houses with beautiful frescoes that showed what the island was like in their time.  They did not know that their paradise sat atop one of the world's most dangerous volcanoes.

Sometime around 1628 B.C., the island began to signal the impending cataclysm.  There would have been frequent ground tremors, and the mountain would have begun to vent; we know the ground shook before the main eruption, because under the ash layers the few houses which have been excavated at Akrotiri show signs of violent jolting which threw objects to the floor. 

So far, no human remains have been found at Akrotiri.  It has long been assumed that the people fled the island, but then again, only a fraction of Akrotiri has been excavated, and the current thinking at the archaeological site is that the people are still nearby, that they left their houses and camped outside as people will do after large temblors.  They may have fled back inside after the ash began falling, as at Pompeii, or ran to the harbor to try to evacuate by ship, except it would have been too late.  No person or ship could have outrun the eruption's pyroclastic death cloud, or the tsunami which followed.  Nowadays, they still find remains out in the Pompeiian countryside, where Vesuvius's final surge caught hundreds, perhaps thousands, on the run.  Akrotiri's dead must still be in their houses, where they suffocated waiting for the ashfall to stop, or out in the landscape somewhere.  There might even be a boathouse by the remains of an ancient harbor, as there was at Herculaneum, where people huddled waiting to be rescued. 

All that remains of an island that was once circular.

Like Krakatoa, Thera blew itself apart.  Forests, vineyards, towns, sanctuaries, and people were hurled twenty-two miles into the stratosphere, to the very edges of space, and were vaporized.  And when the eruption column collapsed, and the Aegean rushed in to the crater, the results were cataclysmic.  A death cloud of superheated gas and ash raced toward northern Crete, followed by a tsunami which swallowed towns by the dozens: Amnissos, Malia, Palaikastro, and more.  More died from the sea than from the eruption itself.  Houses well above sea level had their north-facing walls blown out by the wave; in places, the tsunami reached to a height of 420 feet.   The Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004 had an 80% mortality rate.  Think what it must have been like in Crete and the nearby islands, where people lived by the sea.  Today, you can walk along the seashore at Palaikastro and find bits of jumbled potsherds, colored plaster, and animal bones in the eroding hillside.  You can go a mile or more inland and find the same.

The Theran eruption and tsunami did not bring an end to Minoan civilization, but certainly weakened it, and brought about a slow decline.  The Mycenaeans, who were themselves affected by the catastrophe, invaded and occupied Crete more than a century-and-a-half later.

A note to the user who emailed me this morning: you have set your account to receive no messages, so I cannot reply to you.

helens_daughter: (Default)
A charming young saffron gatherer from Akrotiri:

Apparently young girls on Thera shaved their heads until they reached a certain age.  This hairstyle is found only in this image from Akrotiri, and not at any other Minoan site, suggesting that the Therans had their own unique customs.

The saffron gatherer is part of a larger series of images in which women gather in the saffron harvest and make offerings to a seated goddess.  It's been suggested that only women were allowed to participate in saffron collection, which may or may not have been true.  Saffron does have certain uses in female reproductive health, and, like poppies, may have had some sacred significance.  There has been much debate over the meaning of the images in the Akrotiri frescoes.

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