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Volcanic Eruption At Thera (Santorini)
Aerial view of Santorini today.
Aerial view of Santorini today.
Courtesy MacGillivray Freeman Films

In 1646 BC a massive volcanic eruption, perhaps one of the largest ever witnessed by mankind, took place at Thera (present day Santorini), an island in the Aegean not far from Crete. The explosion, estimated to be about the equivalent of 40 atomic bombs or approximately 100 times more powerful than the eruption at Pompeii, blew out the interior of the island and forever altered its topography. Possibly as many as 20,000 people were killed as a result of the volcanic explosion. Just as happened at Pompeii centuries later, a settlement on Thera known as the town of Akrotiri was buried under a thick blanket of ash and pumice.

For more than 3,500 years the ancient Bronze Age community lay hidden- one of Greece's many secrets of the past. Then, as is often the case with various heritage sites, the town of Akrotiri was accidentally discovered. Quarry workers, digging out the pumice for use in the manufacture of cement for the Suez Canal, chanced upon some stone walls in the middle of their quarry. These eventually proved to be remains of the long-forgotten town. Archaeologists from France and later from Germany did some preliminary excavation in the second half of the 19th Century but it was not until 1967 that systematic excavation began at the site in earnest. Spyridon Marinatos, supported by the Archaeological Society of Athens, soon began to uncover the remains of the ancient town. It was not easy. Not only were the buried buildings two or even three stories tall, the original building materials (clay and wood) had been damaged by earthquakes, fire and the hands of time. It was necessary to proceed slowly and carefully. Work on the project has now been on-going for almost four decades and it is likely to continue into the foreseeable future.

Scattered pottery from the Akrotiri site (Thera/Santorini).
Scattered pottery from the Akrotiri site (Thera/Santorini).
Copyright: Thomas Sakoulas, Ancient-Greece.org
Used by permission of Ancient-Greece.org © 2001-2006

The site has yielded some surprising information. Most startling of all is the fact that no human remains have been found at Akrotiri, unlike Pompeii and Herculaneum where the dead were buried in the midst of their daily activities. At Akrotiri, it was obvious that people had begun to do some repair work to their dwellings, probably in response to minor earthquake or volcanic damage. However, before the major eruption at least some of them had the time to pack up their families and most valuable possessions and leave. Huge pottery containers and large household furnishings were abandoned in their haste to depart but it seems clear that most people got away safely, were buried elsewhere or were swept away by the tsunami waves that might have accompanied such a massive eruption.

The Akrotiri site has not yielded huge amounts of gold, silver and bronze artifacts, nothing on the scale that might have been expected had the inhabitants been caught unawares. But a splendid visual legacy was left, most of it in pieces that are painstakingly being assembled by Christos Doumas and his colleagues. The frescoes at Akrotiri are spectacular, were exceptionally well-preserved by the protective blanket of ash that covered them and their locations can be correlated to various rooms within the town.

Segment of Akrotiri mural depicting two young boys play boxing.
Segment of Akrotiri mural depicting two young boys play boxing.
Copyright: Thomas Sakoulas, Ancient-Greece.org
Used by permission of Ancient-Greece.org © 2001-2006

The paintings provide a lot of visual information that needs to be carefully analyzed- a fleet of ships manned by sailors allowing one to see how the vessels were rigged, how the crew was dressed, what they carried by way of tools and weapons; people in the community going about their daily activities, picking flowers, making religious offerings; two nude fishermen carrying strings of fish; young boys in a boxing match, etc.

Historians have been debating for years about exactly when the major eruption at Thera took place. Radio-carbon dating and dendrochronology (tree-ring dating) had narrowed the date down to a range of years but neither could confirm a specific year. Then improvements in the science of ice core dating made it possible to pinpoint a particular year-1646 BC- a century earlier than most historians had thought. (Ice cores drilled out of the Greenland ice cap show seasonal variation in the same manner as tree rings. The winter snow fall creates yearly bands and within that band the atmospheric activity is recorded. The volcanic eruption at Thera was confirmed as happening in 1646. At the present time, the core depth allows scholars to look back in time some 200,000 years and work will continue on making that timeline longer.)