Subsidence: The Story of a Great and Wonderful Empire

“[…] There occurred violent earthquakes and floods; and in a single day and night of misfortune all your warlike men in a body sank into the earth, and the island of Atlantis in like manner disappeared in the depths of the sea.”

In Critias and Timaeus, Plato tells the tale of a utopia devoured by the sea and never seen again. Many are familiar with the myth of Atlantis and most know it to be just that: a fable for the children, a simple story to spark the imagination. But I refuse to believe that. Though there is very little physical evidence to support Atlantis’ existence, there are a few lines in Plato’s dialog that make a convincing argument.

Plato writes, in 300 BC, that Atlantis sank into the ocean nine hundred years earlier. Adding in three hundred years for the story to travel, this would put Atlantis’ disappearance at about 1500 BC, which is right around the time of the Minoan eruption (1613 +/- 13 years BC).

Consisting of five islands, Santorini gets its archipelago shape from twelve explosive and four caldera-forming eruptions over the course of six hundred and fifty thousand years. It is widely believed to be the site of the famous lost city of Atlantis because of four main parallels between Plato’s dialog and Santorini.

“Now in this island of Atlantis there was a great and wonderful empire which had rule over the whole island and several others, and over parts of the continent, and, furthermore, the men of Atlantis had subjected the parts of Libya within the columns of Heracles as far as Egypt, and of Europe as far as Tyrrhenia.”

The great and wonderful empire Plato writes of is most likely referring to the Minoan civilization. The Minoan people were technologically advanced for their time, which was evident to me as I walked through Ancient Akrotiri.

Figure 1. “Fresco of Antelopes” Photo retrieved from Deviant Art

One of the first things I noticed as I entered the climate-controlled dome that protects the ancient city was the varying height of the different structures. The buildings and houses are multi-storied and have wooden frames. Wood frames allow for more stress to be applied without breakage, which is necessary for multi-storied buildings (and all buildings, in truth).

As I walked along the designated paths, all I wanted to do was to step off and go excavate more of the city. A fresco was discovered that depicted antelopes that can only be found by the Nile Delta in Egypt, and I kept thinking about this fresco (see figure 1). It is evidence of transoceanic travel and trade. I almost couldn’t control myself. I was ready to jump in, get my hands dirty and find out more about these ancient people.

Figure 2. Toilet (left) found in West house in Ancient Akrotiri

My favorite house in Ancient Akrotiri is by far the West House. This house had an indoor, siphoning toilet. I don’t know about you, but I dig the luxury of indoor plumbing. Located on an upper story, the toilet utilized gravity and water to wash waste into a drainage/sewage system (see figure 2).

“[…] [Poseidon] made circular belts of sea and land enclosing one another alternately, some greater, some smaller, two being of land and three of sea which he carved as it were out of the midst of the island […]”

Plato writes about how Poseidon fell in love with Cleito, a native to the island and wed her. But to make sure the ground she walked on was impregnable, he broke the island into circular, concentric rings.

Figure 3. Santorini before the Minoan Eruption

There are only two ways to get these concentric rings that Plato writes about. One is an asteroid impact and the other way is a nested caldera which is formed when multiple caldera collapses occur in the same location to create a nest, of sorts. I always think of Russian Nesting dolls, how there is a smaller doll inside of each. If there were two caldera collapses, there would be two rings of land and three rings of water like Plato stated.

Figure 3 depicts what Santorini could have looked like before the Minoan eruption. And this would fit Plato’s description nicely. In the center of the rings, there is a small island. This island is a resurgent dome, meaning that the magma below is coming up to form a dome volcano in the center.

“And the stone they quarried beneath the central island all round, and from beneath the outer and inner circles, some of it being white, some black and some red […]”

Our very first day in Santorini, while we entered the archipelago on the ferry, I was taken aback by the cross sections the steep cliff sides offered. You could see every layer defined and every color vibrantly basking in the sun. Santorini is made up of layers of pumice, cinders, and andesite/lava rock. These types of rocks are white, red, and black respectively (see figure 4). No matter where you are on Santorini, you’re guaranteed to see one or all of these rock types represented.

Figure 4. The layers of white, red, and black rocks is pronounced. Photo taken from Caldera Beach, Santorini, Greece

“[…] The sea in those parts is impassable and impenetrable, because there is a shoal of mud in the way; and this was caused by the subsidence of the island.”

The mud that Plato writes about could be from the pumice fall, the first phase of the Minoan eruption. Pumice is extremely vesicular (full of air bubbles) and light in weight, which causes it to float. In some parts of the island, the pumice fall is about seven meters thick. As I imagine the eruption column shooting into the sky, I watch the pumice fall and blanket the landscape and surrounding sea. I can see the dark blue water slowly but surely become a tan, muddy color.

In addition to the evidence I’ve just presented from Plato’s dialogs, there is also a significant piece of physical evidence that ties all of this together. Hold on tight, because this one has a bit of length to it (but it’s totally worth the microphone drop at the end).

The tsunami that followed the collapse of the caldera deposited sand and shells onto Western Turkey in a matter of a few hours (estimated with a model to time the tsunami to travel). I can just see this behemoth of a wave making its way toward Turkey, ready to make some noise. On top of this deposit, we see a layer of ash, carried by wind, that is estimated to have been deposited relatively soon after the tsunami deposit because there is no erosion from weather and waves in the tsunami’s deposit. The layer of ash covered the tsunami deposit so quickly that there wasn’t enough time for erosion.

So here’s the trick: the tsunami is the last event in this eruption. (So… wouldn’t it make sense that the tsunami would reach Turkey later than the ash?) This means that the duration of the eruption was fairly short because otherwise we’d expect a layer of ash and/or pumice beneath the tsunami deposit (because ash and pumice were ejected before the collapse of the caldera which caused the tsunami). But there isn’t one. Using atmospheric and timing models, researchers estimate the entirety of the plinian eruption and collapse of the caldera to have lasted all of twenty-four hours or so. “[…] a single day and night of misfortune.”


Friedrich, W., 2009, Santorini: Denmark, Aarhus University Press, 312.

Minoura, K., Imamura, F., Kuran, U., et al, 2000, Discovery of Minoan tsunami deposits.


4 thoughts on “Subsidence: The Story of a Great and Wonderful Empire

  1. Hi Lizzie – this reads much better after our first round of edits. I really like how you incorporated your experiences into the first 3 lines of evidence. The fourth one – single day and night of misfortune – is a little harder to understand based on the way you wrote it. Just one major correction – the tsunami and ash deposits were in Western Turkey (not Crete). The presence of these two deposits can be used to model the timing of the caldera collapse. The Plinian eruption would have been delivering copious amounts of ash into the atmosphere, which would travel in the primary wind direction toward Turkey. Using atmospheric models and models for the timing of the tsunami to travel, researchers estimate the entire Plinian eruption and caldera-collapse occurred in approximately 24 hours.

    I’m glad you took on this topic – it is a fascinating myth.

  2. Hello Lizzy,

    Interesting read this week. I enjoyed how your post discussed the possibility of Plato writing on Atlantis. You do well in balancing your personal narrative with discussion of the geological evidence supporting Plato’s writings. While most of your post directly relates Plato’s quotes to geological evidence you’ve witnessed on your trip, I become a bit lost in the middle portions. Specifically, “Now in this island of Atlantis there was a great and wonderful empire which had rule over the whole island and several others…”, as well as your following portions up to the next quote. The quote describes how the great city ruled over other cities and how their culture stretched to other lands. Then, the following paragraphs detail a bit about your experiences around Akrotiri. Your writing touches a bit on Minoan culture and how it connects to other cultures but I can’t connect your discussion of Minoan technological advances to the Plato quote. Perhaps fleshing out how technological advances and wooden structures are directly related to Plato’s quote will better guide your reader through this portion of your post.

    Happy Writing,

    Jose Martinez

  3. Hi Lizzy!

    This was an incredibly interesting post to read. I loved the way your integrated Plato’s work with your own analysis!

    I like how your wrapped things up at the end with the mic-drop-worthy ‘single day and night of misfortune’.

    Thanks for writing about this topic! I learned so much from you and the knowledge I gained from reading this post has made me more appreciative of the mysterious island we are standing on.


    1. Thank you, Jenna! I really appreciate your feedback! I find the Atlantis story extremely fascinating and the fact that we could be standing so close to where it used to be gives me chills! xoxo

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