40K Years: Preserved in Time, Beneath Your Feet, Take a Peek

At a young age, many of us learned of Italy’s Mt. Vesuvius and the tragedy that engulfed the city of Pompeii in 79 CE. Although an extraordinary number of people are intrigued by natural disasters, few have heard of the Minoan eruption that blanketed a quickly abandoned ancient Greek civilization in approximately 1613 BCE [1]. In an effort to reveal a small fraction of the culture, construction, and catastrophe of what was Ancient Akrotiri, I will walk you through almost 40 thousand years of time.

Today, the smell of earth and dirt is strong inside Ancient Akrotiri’s bioclimatic shelter. Spending so much time outdoors, I was comforted by the musty smell. But with this familiar scent comes a distinct feeling of discomfort, evoked by the sight of a beautiful city, preserved in time by ash and pumice.

It is theorized that Akrotiri first sustained life as early as the mid-fifth millennium BC. Located on the southern outermost part of Santorini’s crescent, it has been thought that Akrotiri served as a cosmopolitan trading harbor during the Early Bronze Age (Figure 1) [2].

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Figure 1: Labeled map of Santorini

Bays protected either side of Akrotiri before Minoan ash transformed the geography of the land in ~1613 BCE. These bays allowed trading vessels and ships to anchor safely in the harbor and, in addition, protected the town from military attacks. (The reasons for the topographical change will be explored below). At this location, Minoans also had direct visual contact with Crete, some 60 miles south of Santorini [2].

Houses ranging from 140-190 square meters, dotted the rocky terrain of southern Thera. Almost all of the houses were more than one story and many homes shared walls with their neighbors [3]. In the mid 17th century BC, an earthquake destroyed the town, forcing the Minoans to rebuild. In response, the city was rebuilt even more lavishly and was decorated with wall paintings [2]. In the late 17th century BC (Late Bronze Age) another earthquake struck Akrotiri. The Minoans had just begun to clean up their town when they left their home for good.

Due to the man-made piles of garbage found preserved in the ash, it is suggested that only a short amount of time separated the 2nd earthquake from the Minoan eruption’s first ash fall. This initial eruption only produced an eruption column of approximately 1km high. The ash cloud was blown south by prevailing winds where it was deposited. This thin layer of ash is known as Phase 0, by volcanologists, and is believed to have been one of the primary “warning signs” for the Minoan people.

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Figure 2: Volcanic layers 0-2 stacked on top of ancient Minoan Ruins at the Akrotiri Archeological Site.

Through field research, here on Santorini, we have observed and documented the data explained below personally. On the southern part of the island, Phase 0, 1, 2 and 4 can be seen in rock layers above the Cape Riva foundation (ancient Minoan surface). Phase 0, as mentioned above, is a very thin layer of ash dispersed from the volcano at an extremely high efficiency. Phase 1 and 2 are the first sub-plinian eruptions in the Minoan eruption sequence. With a column that is approximately 9 km high, the Phase 1 and 2 ash-cloud remained within the troposphere. Phase 1 primarily resulted in pumice fall while Phase 2 was composed of pyroclastic surges caused by the infiltration of water into the caldera vent. Due to easterly winds, Phase 3 is not seen on the southern part of the island and cannot be found in the tephra layering atop Ancient Akrotiri. Phase 4 of the Minoan eruption was super-plinian with an eruption column of approximately 36 km high [4]. Hot pyroclastic flows deposited meters more of debris on top of pre existing, aforementioned layers.

The extension of the shoreline, as seen in Figure 2, is a result of phase 0, light layer of 1-2, and phase 4b.

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Figure 3: Map of modern and paleogeography on the southern coast of Santorini

Beneath all of the aforementioned layers, lies the story of an ancient civilization. Excavation started in 1967 by the archeological society of Athens. In recent years, little effort has been made to continue the excavation process, therefore resulting in the loss of history and culture [2].

Sickened by the countless buried stories lost beneath my feet, I still feel grateful to have walked where an ancient Minoan civilization once thrived. Fortunately, the Minoan eruption, although cataclysmic, managed to record the history of its own eruption and in addition, preserved an ancient archeological site that will serve as a valuable resource for future generations. In all of this, it is my goal to help others to see what may lie beneath all of our feet, both literally and figuratively. I feel it is our duty to learn the history of the land we walk on both cultural and geological; I believe I have a higher appreciation for my own purpose and place, simply from learning another’s.

[1] Freidrich, W., Kromer, B., Freidrich, M., Heinemeier J., Pfeiffer, T., Talamo, S., 2006, Santorini Eruption Radiocarbon Dated to 1627-1600 B.C., Science, 312:548

[2] Ancient Akrotiri Archeological Site. Akrotiri ‪84700, Greece. GPS N36.35 E25.40

[3] Palyvou, Clairy. A Synopsis of the Theran House Model. Prehistory Monographs, Volume 15 : Akrotiri, Thera : An Architecture of Affluence 3,500 Years Old. Philadelphia, PA, USA: INSTAP Academic Press, 2005. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 18 Feb

[4] Druitt T. H.,  2014, New insights into the initiation and venting of the Bronze-Age eruption of Santorini (Greece), from component analysis, v. 794, p. 1-21, doi: 10.1007/s00445-014-0794-x

8 thoughts on “40K Years: Preserved in Time, Beneath Your Feet, Take a Peek

  1. Savannah – Expertly written. Your description of the preservation of Akrotiri by the Minoan eruption is well done. I would add that the pyroclastic surges of phase 2 were so turbulent that they destroyed some of the 2nd and 3rd floors of the building.

    I particularly like your choice of figures. They represent the main points of your post and are very well put together.

    P.S. a caption is missing from figures 2 and 3

    1. Lisa- Thank you for your words of praise; I am excited to hear you were pleased with my post. I have updated the captions for figures 2 and 3 and will add more detail concerning the destruction of upper levels now.

      Thank you

  2. Hello Savannah.
    It was a true pleasure to read (and learn) from your post concerning the cultural, geographical, and historical aspects of the Minoan Eruption. You’ve done a solid job providing such in-depth description in explaining the changing state of the island and how the Minoan eruption is significant. Throughout your post, you do well with providing a consistent style that offers a reader much information, and an explanation of this information’s historical / cultural relevancies.
    My only bit of advice would be to, perhaps, flesh out the use of your own voice and style in some of the more information heavy portions of the post. For instance, some paragraphs include your feelings and opinions in relation to where you explored and that is always a pleasure to read, however, some paragraphs seemed like they could have come directly from outside sources (and from the writings of others). To avoid losing your own voice in such information-heavy portions, you could better synthesize your sources through the use of quotations or paraphrasing (compared to providing the information and attaching a numbered citation). Such a practice will distinguish your piece as a first-hand, researched blog post, rather than a personal account with large factual portions.
    Overall, your writing and style is thorough and polished, my critique is a bit nitpicky but I believe being able to wholly synthesize your source will help your posts to become the best they can be.

    1. Jose Martinez-

      Thank you so much for your critique, I am always eager to improve my writing and analyze my writing from new perspectives. Reflecting on my blog after reading your comment, I can clearly see where you are coming from. I will re-work through my information-heavy sections, and in the meantime, look forward to reading your analysis of my third blog post!

      Thank you again for sharing your time with us,


  3. I really enjoyed reading this Savanah, you keep it simple yet informative with you’re writing. The entire time I read it, I was reading it with through your voice because they way you wrote it sounded so much like you. I like how you described the persistences of the people of Akroteri through the rebuilding of the city after each earthquake. To bad you don’t have a picture of the art and pottery that was found at the ruins, I feel as though that would have really enhanced your blog post so that the readers can really see what the people of Akroteri were capable of. Thanks for the good read!

    1. Thank you Rachel, your feedback is much appreciated! Thank you for taking the time to read/ comment on my post 🙂 I love you very much!

  4. Hi Savannah,

    Great work; this post has an appropriately casual while still appearing knowledgeable voice, your topic is interesting, you gave yourself time to explore it in detail, and the evidence you provide does not altogether outweigh your own sentiments. What is working best for you is your voice, and it is most apparent in the second and final paragraphs. In blogs readers like to hear from the author and get to know their thoughts and feelings and that is the insight you offer.

    Because your voice is working so well in the paragraphs it is more apparent, I think what could make this post even better by allowing it to come through in all sections and make some of the more information focused sections easier to remember. The good thing about having an engaging voice is that your reader will remember what they read, including scientific information if it is presented in an engaging way. An area in which you can provide more of our own voice to complement the scientific observations is the fifth and sixth paragraphs. You mention that houses were 140-190 square meters, but did you see any. Describing your own observations lets the reader see through your eyes and shows the reader that you’re experiencing something different than simply reading data about an old place. What you should take away from this is that right now your post is great and has much of the data content that allows your reader to learn more, but a way to make it better is to let your reader experience what you did by describing what you saw and felt as a complement to the scientific observations.

    Looking forward to reading future posts.

    Justin Kanzler

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