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Akrotiri Archaeological Site

Akrotiri Archaeological Site in Santorini by Joy of Museums

Akrotiri Archaeological Site

Akrotiri was a Minoan Bronze Age settlement on the volcanic Greek island of Santorini (Thera). The civilisation of this ancient settlement was affiliated with the early Cretan culture. The Akrotiri settlement was destroyed in the Theran volcano eruption sometime in the 16th century BC  which buried this site in volcanic ash. The ash preserved the remains of buildings, streets, frescoes and many artefacts and artworks. This site was first excavated in 1967, and there is a debate about whether this site was the inspiration for Plato’s story of Atlantis. Whether the far-reaching and disastrous events at this site were the seeds of the Atlantis story, or not, the violent destruction of the original island certainly had global impacts.

Akrotiri’s Ancient Past

The earliest evidence for human habitation of Akrotiri was as early as the 5th millennium BC when Akrotiri was a small fishing and farming village. By the end of the third millennium, this community had significantly developed and expanded due to the trade relations it established with other cultures in the Aegean. Akrotiri’s strategic position on the primary coastal sailing route between Cyprus and Minoan Crete also made it an essential point for the copper trade thus allowing Akrotiri to become an important centre for processing copper.

Paved streets demonstrate Akrotiri’s prosperity, as did the extensive drainage system, the production of high-quality pottery, and craft specialisation which all point to a high level of sophistication. The settlement all came to an end, however with the volcanic eruption probably between 1570 to 1500 BC. Egyptian New Kingdom records refer to a vast explosion with widespread impacts at about this time in the Aegean Sea.

On Santorini, there is a 60 m (200 ft) thick layer of white volcanic material that is clearly delineating the ground level before the eruption. This layer has three distinct bands that indicate the different phases of the eruption. The thinness of the first ash layer suggests that the volcano gave the local population a few months’ warning. Since no human remains have been found at the Akrotiri site, this preliminary volcanic activity probably caused the island’s population to flee.

Akrotiri Excavations

The earliest excavations on Santorini were conducted in 1867; however, an extensive modern dig on the Akrotiri Archaeological Site was not started until 1967, which quickly revealed the full significance of this site. The site was preserved in thick, volcanic debris so that many of the buildings were preserved to a height of more than a single story, creating unique challenges for excavation. Excavated artefacts can be found Museum of Prehistoric Thera in central Santorini. Only a single gold object has been found, hidden beneath flooring, and no uninterred human skeletal remains have been found. This discovery indicates that there must have been warnings of impending doom and that there was an orderly evacuation undertaken before the main destructive explosion which would have led to a significant loss of life, similar to the Pompeii volcanic explosion.

Atlantis

Atlantis is a fictional island mentioned in Plato’s works. However, there is a debate on what served as its inspiration. Did Plato borrowed from older traditions and legends? Was one possible inspiration of Atlantis the ‘Thera Eruption’ documented in Egyptian records? The Thera eruption was one of the most significant volcanic events on Earth in recorded history. The volcano ejected up to four times as much as the well-recorded eruption by Krakatoa in 1883. It devastated the island of Thera, including the Minoan settlement at Akrotiri and communities on nearby islands and all the way to the coast of Crete with a tsunami.

Global Impacts

The eruption at Akrotiri had global effects from its significant ashfall. Firstly the massive explosion caused an environmental and economic crisis in the Minoan civilisation of Crete and other island communities, making them vulnerable to the later conquest by the Mycenaeans. In Egypt the ‘Tempest Stele of Ahmose I’, describes apocalyptic rainstorms, which devastated much of Egypt, and these have been attributed to short-term climatic changes caused by the Theran eruption. Some have sought to link the eruption at Santorini (c 1600 BCE) to the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt, as told in the Bible. In China, a volcanic winter described as a “yellow fog, a dim sun, then three suns, frost in July, famine, and the withering of all five cereals”. These events in the late 17th century BCE correlate with entries in later Chinese records documenting the collapse of the Xia dynasty in China.

Did you know?

  • The ancient island of Thera is more popularly known as Santorini, a modern tourist destination.
  • The Greeks arrived in Crete during the Mycenaean Period, which was later than the Akrotiri period. The date of Greek influence through the Cyclades remains uncertain, but Akrotiri was not part of the mainland Greek culture, it was related to Minoan culture.

Reflections

  • Was the volcanic destruction of Thera the source of the Atlantis legend?
  • Evidence suggests that there were no significant deaths at the Akrotiri site, but did the residents of the buildings and street we can see today, make it to safe land before the giant tsunami created by the destruction of the original island fanned out across the Aegean Sea?

Highlights of Akrotiri Archaeological Site

Akrotiri Archaeological Site

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“Faithful earth, unfaithful sea.
– Greek Proverb

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Photo Credit: JOM