A Brief History of Bad Decisions

The island of Santorini has an extensive history of volatile seismic and volcanic activity. Aside from the four caldera eruptions that have decimated the entire island over the past 200 thousand years, Santorini seems to be a hot spot for smaller eruptions and large earthquakes. Despite this reputation, civilizations have been settling the land since the third millennium BCE (before common era), ignoring the obvious hazards that would later plague each of them. What do these messy histories entail and what did these peoples of the past see in this dangerous land to warrant them staying for generations?

In The Beginning… (The Bronze Age, 3000-1615 BCE)
The first recorded peoples on the island of Santorini stemmed from the Minoan civilization. Originally from Crete, the Minoans established the settlement of Akrotiri on the southern peninsula of Santorini’s main island, Thera. This point was perfectly situated between various larger trading ports, making it vital for copper trade and farming (1).
However, by this point the caldera had already erupted three times with another one brewing beneath the surface. “Several times in its history the town was destroyed or damaged by earthquakes; on each occasion the ruins were leveled, and new [buildings were constructed above],” wrote art historian Nigel McGilchrist (2). These Minoans were not deterred due to Crete’s own history of earthquakes, including a massive one in 1450 BCE.
It wasn’t long after this cycle of rebuilding that the fourth and most recent caldera eruption occurred, destroying the settlement and contributing to the fall of the already-weakening Minoan Empire.

This is Sparta (Post Bronze Age, 900 BCE)
After a few centuries, the eruption of Thera seems to have faded into legend, as the island was re-settled briefly by the Phoenicians, then the Dorians from Sparta. The Dorians viewed Thera as being a strategically located maritime trade hub as well as a fortified military stronghold (Figure 1).
Situated securely on the limestone bedrock of Mesa Vouno, the mountains provided an ideal spot for ports protected from the strong winds and provided the Dorians with plenty of stone building materials. In this settlement, known as Ancient Thira, there were no catastrophic geologic events, most likely due to the fact that the city was not built on any of the weak volcanic material deposited by the Minoan Eruption. The city eventually lost importance and was abandoned, but seems to be the only long-standing civilization on Thera to leave unscathed by the dangers within the island.

Figure 1: The ruins of Ancient Thira still sit on Mesa Vouno, one of the few structurally sound locations on Thera.

In Hot Water (140 BCE-727 CE)
As with every civilization in the Mediterranean, the Romans soon conquered Greece and with it, Thera. There is not a substantial Roman record on Thera itself and the island was soon passed to the Byzantine Empire that rose from the eastern half of Rome after its collapse.
It was during this time that the next volcanic eruption occurred. In the summer of 727, a hydrothermal eruption took place in the sea between Thera and Therassia. Byzantine historian George Kedrenos witnessed the event, writing “the whole place burned like fire,” (3). However, like with any previous activity, people here still saw value in Santorini’s placement in the Aegean Sea and simply rebuilt on top of the wreckage.

A Modern Terror (1550-Today)
Into the modern age, the island of Santorini still faces the near-constant risk of geologic hazards. The volcanic risk is fairly low, with recent eruptions having occurred only on the uninhabited island of Nea Kameni. Nevertheless, there are still highly active fault lines that crosscut the island, the most active being the Kolumbo fault line through the northern part of the island (Figure 2). There are noteworthy earthquakes here every few hundred years or so. An earthquake in 1570 radically altered the coastline and destroyed the ancient settlement of Eleusis. Another earthquake in 1956 destroyed most of the buildings on Thera, leaving the people without building materials for years.

Figure 2: The modern day cities of Oia and Fira (upper 2 points) rest on the caldera rim within range of the Kameni (southernmost) and Kolumbo (northernmost) fault lines.

A Lesson to Be Learned
Will the people in this region learn from the past? This seems unlikely. The majority of Thera’s major cities are built on top of several meters of weak, hollow pumice left behind by the Minoan eruption. Oia and Fira especially are at risk, as they also rest on the edge of the caldera rim, one large earthquake away from possibly plunging into the sea.
Similar to the Minoans and Dorians, though, there is always some factor keeping people on Santorini. Today, that motivation is a booming tourist-based economy, with thousands of people visiting the island each year for the volcanic beaches, shopping, and wine. The economic benefits for now outweigh the fear of earthquakes and volcanoes, but like with the Minoans before, it is dangerous to ignore a land that always holds the potential to disrupt this peace.


For Further Reading:

1. Fagan, Brian. People of the Earth: An Introduction to World Prehistory. Vol. 14, 2013.

2. McGilchrist, Nigel. Santorini & Therasia With Anaphi. Vol. 1, Genius Loci, 2010.

3. “Santorini.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 6 June 2018, en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Santorini.

6 thoughts on “A Brief History of Bad Decisions

  1. Hi Rachael,

    Your post had me thinking about the ring of fire and how people in Japan and in California rebuild and rebar after major earthquakes/tsunamis. Your map provided the visual that caused me great discomfort as it’s clear where the caldera is and where volcano sits under the water. It seems innocent though the overhead perspective shows just how massive the volcano really is.

    Ask your professor if you’re allowed to ponder. If yes, then I’m curious how you as a student/tourist feel about living on a caldera? Are you always uncomfortable or are you also enjoying the beaches, shopping, and tea-time? Knowing about the history of human activity on an active volcano, do you find the Minoans and later groups short-sighted or does your first-hand experience open a window into why people keep coming back? I’m curious if your studies and this particular post helps you understand what people may be thinking on the Big Island of Hawaii? Especially for people who don’t have a second home on the mainland. What draws people to places that seem to have a timer set? You’ll have the best insight for landlocked Flagstaffers.

    Good post. I got all bothered and am now curious to learn about Santorini’s geology, volcanology, and people. What a great experience you’re having! I look forward to the next one.

    1. Hello Xoco GB! Great questions! I agree with you, the situation is very reflective of what is happening on Hawaii at the moment. It bewilders me as to why any one would live so close to danger. To answer your question, yes, we are able to ponder and put our personal persepctives and opinions into our posts, which some of my colleagues have done. I’ve personally been taking a more fact-based approach and don’t think my feelings have much of a place in that context. But I value your opinion and am glad you enjoyed my post!

  2. Hi Rachael,

    Well, there are feelings, then there are opinions, and then observations. Your observations may not be fact-based, but as the individual currently there, you definitely have much to contribute even if it means a bit of talking-through known facts with possibilities. I suppose I’m suggesting that blog-posts benefit from supposing, from pondering. Later, your course papers will require writing that are far from blog-entries. It’s a pity. I think that more people would learn from scientists if they hosted more blogs.

    Also, as you’re pondering, you may want to consider asking Professor Skinner to wander over to

    It’s good to practice observations at a café.
    Have a good evening.

  3. Rachael,

    I enjoyed the approach you took providing a heading for each of the paragraphs. It drew me in and had me wanting to read more. You may be interested when we go to Akrotiri to learn about the Minoan excavation.

  4. All the comments here are very thorough and like your last post, it is clear you have done your research. I’m glad you chose to write about this subject because its not my area of expertise and I always enjoy learning from my students. I think the student/professor relationship needs to go both ways (we all have so much to learn from one another).

    The map that you showed of the Coloumbo and Kameni lines is not correct. Coloumbo is correct, but the Kameni line runs right under the Kameni volcanos and under Fira (please correct that).

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