Ignorance is Not Bliss: What Doomed Pompeii and Saved Akrotiri

Throughout our study here on Santorini, our geologic knowledge was built up to one main event: the Minoan eruption. As an anthropology major, all I was concerned about was the settlement of Akrotiri, which was preserved beneath the ash. As I wandered through the excavation site of Akrotiri, I began to draw comparisons between this city and the city of Pompeii.
The main point of difference between these two very similar cases is the death toll. Akrotiri excavations have turned up no human remains, or any sign of human activity during the eruption at all. This indicates that the Minoans evacuated before the eruption even began, most likely during the preliminary earthquakes. Conversely, Pompeii is closely linked in memory to the bodies found preserved in casts of ash. While all of Pompeii has not be excavated, the number of bodies found represents a tenth of the overall population, putting the death toll in the thousands.
I began to wonder: why did Akrotiri evacuate and not Pompeii? There are several possible factors that could have led to the Minoans abandoning their city before the real danger even began.

On Shaky Ground
Volcanic eruptions are usually preceded by a series of earthquakes caused by the magma and gases moving towards the surface. Because of this, earthquakes are one of the main warning signs of an impending eruption.
The citizens of Akrotiri were already familiar with earthquakes, as they were common in their homeland of Crete. A large earthquake occurred on Crete in 1450 BCE and collapsed the palace, solidifying it in the civilization’s memory for generations. The Minoans at Akrotiri had a history of evacuating during earthquakes and returning to rebuild (1). As there is archaeological evidence at the Akrotiri site that some of the buildings were under repair from earthquake damage at the time of the city’s destruction, it is plausible that the people evacuated during that time and planned to return.

Figure 1: The presence of earthquake damage under repair and objects such as these pots indicate that Minoans planned to return to Akrotiri.

Pompeii also experienced earthquakes, including a famous one that took place in 62 CE, with a magnitude that ranged between a 5.1 and 6.2. There is also evidence that Pompeii was under construction from earthquake damage when Vesuvius erupted.
The difference between these two is the number and magnitude of the earthquakes that took place. Akrotiri experienced less earthquakes, but at a higher magnitude. This persuaded the citizens to leave early enough before the final eruption to prevent casualties. Pompeii, however, had a series of smaller, low magnitude earthquakes. Since these earthquakes were not especially damaging, the people there brushed them aside as being insignificant and remained in their town (2).
This discrepancy is mainly due to the way seismic waves move through different types of rocks. These waves are amplified when traveling through softer rocks, such as the types that Akrotiri was built on. Pompeii was built on harder basement rocks, meaning the seismic waves here were not felt as much.

Cities of Gold
Another reason that Pompeii did not evacuate was because of their economy. While both Akrotiri and Pompeii were trading hubs, Akrotiri was more isolated, taking trade only from the sea. Pompeii had both sea trade and trade routes on land, meaning that more merchants flowed in and out of the town. The city also enjoyed the reputation of being a “resort town” where wealthy Romans had vacation homes.
Archaeologically, there is very little wealth found in Akrotiri, an indicator that the people took it with them upon evacuating. For Pompeii, the citizens decided far too late to try and escape the volcano. Many of the people here ran to the shore in hopes being rescued, bringing a fairly random set of valuable objects with them in haste. Most of the bodies found on Pompeii’s ancient shoreline have articles of jewelry, baskets of coins, and other various bits of gold and metals.
It is very possible that Pompeii’s booming economy influenced the citizens to remain in the city. Since the earthquakes were of a low magnitude and caused little damage, and the majority of the population consisted of shopkeepers, merchants, and slaves, keeping businesses open may have seemed more important than evacuating (3).

Figure 2: This model on display at the Akrotiri excavation site showcases the urban hub that was the once-great city.

By The Gods
The citizens of Pompeii also have the excuse of their spirituality. Ironically, the day before Vesuvius erupted, the Romans held an annual celebration known as Vulcanalia, a festival in honor of Vulcan, the god of fire and volcanoes (4).
Pompeii especially placed extreme spiritual value on the ability to predict the future through good and bad omens (3). Earthquake were bad omens and represented giants roiling around under mountains where they had been imprisoned by the gods. Is it plausible that the warning signs of an eruption were ignored because of this unfortunate timing of events? While there isn’t any solid evidence corroborating this as a motivation, it isn’t too far fetched.

Moral of the Story
While the motivations of both civilizations may never be fully known, archaeologists are still working to understand them. By assessing the warning signs that come along with volcanic eruptions, and how they vary from place to place, we can see how one civilization escaped disaster and another did not. If there is any moral to the story of Pompeii versus Akrotiri, it is to know your risk and listen to the alarm bells when they ring.

For Further Reading:

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

2. Bagley, Mary. “Mount Vesuvius & Pompeii: Facts & History.” LiveScience, Purch, 19 Dec. 2017, http://www.livescience.com/27871-mount-vesuvius-pompeii.html.

3. “Eruption Timeline.” British Museum, http://www.britishmuseum.org/whats_on/exhibitions/pompeii_and_herculaneum/pompeii_live/eruption_timeline.aspx.

4. “Pompeii.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 19 June 2018, en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pompeii.

5 thoughts on “Ignorance is Not Bliss: What Doomed Pompeii and Saved Akrotiri

  1. Rachael,

    This was an interesting amd enjoyable read to understand the similarities and differences between the impact the eruptions had on two civilizations. I was curious as to where the Minoans went when they left Santorini though.

  2. What an interesting blog; you well established your purpose upfront, which is so important in engaging your audience, and I enjoyed the compare/contrast approach. Using section heads helped organize your blog, and I appreciated your graphics (though do try to mention them in text). While I liked your conclusion, a brief recap of your main points would have been helpful for your reader. Great work!

  3. Hi Rachael –
    I like the comparison of Pompeii to Akrotiri, as Akrotiri is sometimes referred to as the “Greek Pompeii”. This blog would have benefited from an explanation of why these cities were preserved. While I know you are an anthropology major, we did learn a lot about the phases of the Minoan eruption and their ability to both preserve and destroy landscapes. There is a really interesting part of the story at Pompeii where the people left and then came back during a pause in the eruption.

    Also, I would like to know where those people were found and how? There is the fact too that much of Akrotiri has not been excavated, so while it is not likely based on the evidence in the city, it is possible there are casts of bodies somewhere else under all those meters of ash and pumice on the island.

    I hope you have a safe and uneventful trip home – Lisa

    1. Hello Lisa – I completely agree that I should have gone into ash preservation more, the thought hadn’t even occured to me until I read your comment. The people of Pompeii were mostly found in residential areas, such as their houses, and in positions of distress. While scientists thought for awhile that the victims asphyxiated on ash, they now think that it was the heat from the oncoming pyroclastic flow that killed them. I didn’t find much information about the Pompeii eruption in terms of people coming and going during pauses in the volcanic activity, but I’m sure I could have done more digging (no pun intended).

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