Throughout human history, volcanoes have played a critical role in both the creation and the destruction of civilizations. While the fertile soil created by volcanic activity attracts the development of nearby settlements, an eruption has the power to annihilate a flourishing culture. In some cases, such as those of Italy’s Pompeii and Santorini’s Akrotiri, the eruption style pairs destruction with preservation resulting in a snapshot of time still accessible today.
Although I have not personally seen the site of Pompeii (I’m actually heading to Naples right after this class!), I learned about the famous eruption in school. When Mt. Vesuvius erupted in AD 79 it completely buried the city of Pompeii in hot, volcanic ash which preserved most of the city’s interior, including many of the inhabitants (1). This week, I took my knowledge of Pompeii’s historic destruction with me as our class visited the excavation site of ancient Akrotiri.
When the pre-Kameni island erupted in 1613 +/- 13 BC, the sequence of the eruption phases preserved the entire city of Akrotiri located on Thera’s southwestern peninsula (3). Seeing the excavation site, a city over 5,000 years old preserved by the white Minoan pumice, was breathtaking. The Minoan pumice fall that occurred in Phase 1 of the eruption coated the landscape and created molds of the city’s interior; these casts not only maintain the structure of the buildings but are so detailed in shape that you can identify the different kinds of fruits once stored within the pottery (2). As I walked through the excavation site, completely mesmerized by the remains of this ancient Minoan civilization, I shifted my attention away from what was preserved and concentrated on what was not: Why have no bodies been uncovered at Akrotiri? We know from the excavation of pottery, frescos, and other artifacts that there was an advanced civilization living on the island of Thera during the time of the Minoan eruption, so why do we not find bodies mummified by ash as we do at the site of Pompeii?
As it turns out, the answer to my question may lie within the stratigraphy of the different eruptions.
When Mt. Vesuvius erupted in AD 79, the eruption began with a period of pumice fall that buried the city in about 3 meters of pumice and ash. This pumice fall trapped many residents in their homes and caused the collapse of buildings around Pompeii. Inhabitants who were not able to escape the city during the first eruptive phase were then hit by pyroclastic flows, surges of hot gas and volcanic material, which enveloped the city and both killed and preserved more than 600 victims (1).
So what was different about the Minoan eruption of Santorini?
Evidence has been uncovered through the excavation of Akrotiri and the analysis of volcanic material deposited on Santorini that the ancient Minoans may have been warned of the impending eruption. On the south to southeastern side of the island, our class identified a thin bed of ash, 7 cm at its thickest point, deposited under the pumice fall of Phase 1 (2). This “zero phase” suggests that the volcano emitted a cloud of ash that rained over the island before beginning the catastrophic Minoan eruption. The presence of broken staircases found at Akrotiri suggest the island also experienced a series of earthquakes that shook the ancient city. It is possible that this seismic activity combined with the zero phase was enough to warn the Minoans of the danger ahead and cause the evacuation of Akrotiri before the eruption began. The scarce amount of valuables found within the Akrotiri site and the excavation of beds stacked upon one another also cause archeologists to believe the city’s inhabitants had already packed their belongings and left the island by the time the volcano erupted.
Unfortunately, the excavation of Akrotiri has not yet been completed and what exists under the remaining layer of pumice is a mystery. It is completely possible that, such as the case in Pompeii, the Minoans were not able to leave the island before the eruption and are currently buried within the un-excavated portion of the site. Although no one can say with certainty what lies within the areas of Akrotiri still covered by pumice, the theory that the ancient Minoans were able to escape the eruption due to the warning provided by the zero phase is a compelling correspondence to the evidence we have today.
(1) Luongo, Giuseppe; Perrotta, Annamaria; Scarpati, Claudio;
De Carolis, Ernesto; Patricelli, Giovanni; et al. Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research126.3-4 (August 2003): 169-200.
(2) Druitt, T.H. 2014, New insights into the initiation and venting of the Bronze-Age eruption of Santorini (Greece), from component analysis. Bull Volcanology, 76:794
(3) Friedrich W.L., 2009, Santorini: Volcano, Natural History, and Mythology, Denmark: Aarhus University Press, 312 P.