Category Archives: GREECE

White Idols from the Cycladic Islands of the Aegean

It was supposed to be a high-speed ferry ride from Crete (Heraklion Port) to Santorini (Thera), which usually takes around two hours. In our case, the estimated time was disrupted by a sudden storm that broke out at sea. Raging waves ruthlessly played with our boat throughout the whole sea crossing. People were swinging on their feet or wading across the deck of the ferry, which was dangerously shaken in its foundations, together with tearing the screens off the walls. Passengers felt as if they had been on a roller coaster, with their stomach approaching the throat. The lucky ones managed to get to the toilet on time, primarily still available, and others grabbed the last resort, usually one of the paper bags distributed dispassionately by the crew.

My friend sitting next to me got frozen in fear of another stomach contraction, squeezing the edges of the bag in the fingers. The colours of her face kept changing from pale white to green. In the midst of this collective hysteria, apparently I was the only person who felt well. Maybe yet except for the crew, who looked at me in disbelief.

‘Could I go outside?’, I asked hesitantly. ‘I just can’t handle staying inside’.

It was indeed stuffy inside the ferry; all windows and doors were closed tightly. and the atmosphere became more and more unpleasant due to the sick passengers.

In response to my question, two crew members looked at each other and one of them in turn looked at me asking: ‘Don’t suffer from seasickness?’,
‘It looks like no’, I smiled.

Finally the captain agreed, and after a while I was standing outside, in the crisp sea air, with the rope strongly tied around my waist and firmly attached to the side of the jumping on the waves ferry. The gusts of wind were hitting me with all its force and blowing up the folds of my long and light skirt. The rough sea kept splashing over my face again and again, leaving flecks of salt on my skin and in the long locks of hair, dancing in the breeze.

When we finally got to the port of Santorini, the storm ceased. The sun shone and the earth emanated with an usual peace, as if black clouds never appeared in this area. However, it is known that this volcanic island in particular has experienced the wrath of nature. There was always something happening in Santorini, known in Greek as Thera, and the face of the island has been shaped in equal measure by people and nature (Chabińska-Ilchanka et al. 2015:45).

“As its own archipelago, Santorini encompasses the islands of Thíra, Thirassiá, Asproníssi, Palea Kaméni and Nea Kaméni, which all lie in the southern part of the Cyclades, and are the result of [ancient] volcanic activity” (“Cyclades” 2021). Five thousand years ago, there was a thriving center of Minoan civilization on the archipelago (Chabińska-Ilchanka et al. 2015:45). In mid-two thousand BC., a volcano erupted on Thera, or in fact the entire island blew out, as it had grown out of a volcano (Ibid.:45; see: When Gods Turned against the Minoans). The volcanic eruption destroyed everything, not only the island itself and its closest area, but also had a negative impact on the entire world of that time, including the Minoan culture, for which the volcanic eruption was the beginning of the end (Ibid.:45). The volcano itself collapsed into the abyss of the sea but it did not disappear (Ibid.:45).

After volcanologists monitoring the island, the volcano is going to be reborn and will erupt again in the future (Chabińska-Ilchanka et al. 2015:45). The trace of those dramatic events not only changed the shape of the island, looking now like a crescent, but also made one of the largest calderas in the world, that is to say. the collapsed crater flooded by the waters of the sea (Ibid.:45). It is naturally still active, which may be felt by microseismic activity. At that time, it is possible to observe rings forming on the water. While staying on Satorini, I noticed it once in the morning, while I was reaching for a glass of water on my table. Such a phenomenon is not usually dangerous and does not last long.

In the port, my friend was still recovering from the seasickness. Surely, I did not look too good either; I was covered from head to toe with flecks of sea salt, and my hair for the same reason formed a kind of stiff and disheveled basket on my head. Additionally, it turned out that the car sent by the hotel did not show up to pick us up from the port. Fortunately, several taxis and buses were waiting for the visitors, and one of the drivers offered to take two emaciated travelers, because our hotel was on his way. He did not take a cent from us. It was probably because we looked like two poor relatives who had managed to finally save enough to go on holidays.

Towns and villages on Santorini are all like taken from postcards. The town of Pyrgos, built at the foot of Mount Profitis Ilias and in the center of hinterland, is one of the hidden gems of Santorini. Life there seems slower and more relaxing. It is also a fantastic place for taking beautiful pictures. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The towns and villages of the main island are trully picturesque: the former capital of Santorini, Pyrgos, inland (the city’s name sounds almost like my surname, and so my origins may be possibly traced to Greece), seaside Oia in the north or Fira, the charming capital of the island (Chabińska-Ilchanka et al. 2015:45). Although Pyrgos is situated almost in the central island, like most towns on Santorini, it is built up the hill so it is still possible to observe the sea from its highest parts.

Among other things, Oia and Fira are famous for the fact that their buildings descend along the steep shore built by the volcanic eruption almost to the surface of the sea (Chabińska-Ilchanka et al. 2015:45). The buildings of the insular towns look like cubist paintings hung on the deep blue canvas of the sea and the sky (Ibid.:45). The landscape is composed of bright, regular blocks of houses and countless outbuildings, blue domed roofs, miniature terraces, stairs, steps, squares and streets (Ibid.:45). And all this is clustered on small areas, around the hills or cliffs, as if glued together (Ibid.:45). In this picturesque maze, holidaymakers can wander for hours, stepping into tiny galleries, museums, jewelry stores, boutiques and romantic cafes or wine bars (Ibid.:45). The white dry wine produced in Santorini tastes especially good, which is usually chosen by food connoisseurs to go with seafood dishes (Ibid.:45). On the other side, lunch or dinner in a tavern on the cliff, overlooking the endless blue of the sea with the spots of scattered islands, is a pure pleasure (Ibid.:45).

Early forms of the Cycladic idols in the form of a violin. The Museum of Prehistoric Thera, Fira. Copyright©Archaeotravel.
One of a typical female idols of the Cycladic culture in the Archaeological Museum of Thera, Fira. It represents a possibly pregnant woman with her arms under the breast. The features of the face are invisible. The most intriguing is an oval and elongated head. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

From the south of the island, where we were staying, we drove to Fira by a hired car, where we got after a quarter of an hour. Actually, it is a very tiny island. First, we went to the port hugged to the rock face, and from there we climbed to the top of the two hundred meter volcanic cliff on which the city was built (Chabińska-Ilchanka et al. 2015:45). You can get there on the back of a donkey or on foot along the paved path, as we did (Ibid.:45). The two must-see sights in Fira were definitely the Archaeological Museum of Thera and the Museum of Prehistoric Thira. While most of the Minoan frescoes excavated in Akrotiri (the Minoan town destroyed by the volcano) are preserved by the National Archaeological Museum of Athens, they two also boast impressive collections of artifacts found on the island throughout its cultural development, starting from Prehistory. Apart from being one of the center (or an important colony) of the Minoan civilization, the island also housed the so-called Cycladic culture, having developed around the third millennium BC. (the period of Late Neolithic and Bronze Age). Its main objects of art are Cycladic marble figurines, also known as Cycladic idols.

Group of three figurines, early Spedos type, Keros-Syros culture (EC II). Photo by Smial (2006). CC BY-SA 2.5. Colours intensified. Photo source: “Cycladic art” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Idols are objects of art typical of various prehistoric and ancient cultures, particularly from the Paleolithic to the Bronze Age, such as figurines of Venus, various representations of Neolithic goddesses, like the Cypriot Idol of Pomos, or more abstract depictions, including bronze discs from Cappadocia (PWN 2007:156). Most outstanding idols, however, come from the Cycladic culture in the Aegean Sea (Ibid.:156). The turn of the Late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age is a period of rapid development of settlement, trade and many other areas of life (Rutkowski 2009:7). During this period, the most interesting art depicting idols, apart from Crete, comes from the Cycladic islands, whose influences also reached the Minoan civilization (Ibid.:7). The Cyclades belonged in the Bronze Age (from 3000 BC.) to the circle of Aegean cultures (Barucki et al. 2009:170). They constitute the Aegean archipelago of thirty-one islands around the sacred island of Delos, where Apollo and Artemis were born. Hence their name ‘cyclic’ (“Cyclades” 2020).

The largest Cycladic island of all is Naxos, Apart from them, there are also Syros, Santorini, Mykonos, Amorgos, Paros and Antiparos (“Cyclades” 2020). The residential buildings on the Cyclades, except for Thera, are poorly known (Barucki et al. 2009:170). Moreover, the art having developed there was, in comparison to Crete and mainland Greece, of a peripheral character, and many of their products refer to the Minoan art and its famous frescoes (Ibid.:170). In addition to the Minoan Thera, valuable frescoes have been also found on Melos (Filakopi) (Ibid.:170). On the other side, the Cyclades equally produced original and unique of the archipelago works of art, with which this region of the world is now clearly associated (Barucki et al. 2009:170; Rutkowski 2009:7-9).

Together with my friend, who is a historian of art, we came to the island of Santorini to continue our research on the Minoan culture, which we had alrady started on Crete. Our aim was thus to describe the archaeological site of Akrotiri and Minoan artifacts exhibited by the museums in Fira. Nevertheless, the Cycladic culture seemed to me equally attracting. It developed into successive phases, from the Late Neolithic, throughout the Bronze Age, till circa 1050 BC., and although it is slightly older, the Cycladic culture stays in part chronologically parallel to the Minoan civilisation (3000-1100BC), The Cycladic art flourished north of Crete and for me the archipelago of Santorini constituted a symbolical gateway to the islands’ cycle.

On numerous and usually tiny Cycladic islands, small human figures were massively carved; they usually do not exceed a dozen or so centimetres in height (Rutkowski 2009:7). They were made of clay or stone, but most often of snow-white marble, as in the Cyclades (Paros, Naxos) there are deposits of precious marble, from which vases and figurines were made (Barucki et al. 2009:170). While the Cycladic ceramics usually imitated the forms of stone vessels and statuettes (Ibid.:170).

Head of a female figure, Spedos type, Keros-Syros culture (EC II, 2700–2300 BCE; Louvre). Photo by Unknown artist – Jastrow (2006). Public domain. Image cropped and sharpened. Photo source: “Cycladic art” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

In Cycladic art, the earliest methods of shaping the human figure were limited to the simplest forms, and it was only from those models that the larger plastic compositions developed (Majewski 1935:23). A characteristic early type is composed by the so-called violin idols (Ibid.:25). They have a long neck, a circular part of the arms, and the lower part modelled in the form of a semicircle by a curved waistline (Ibid.:25). By these means, such figurines resemble the shape of a violin, or, as it is also noticed, the outlines of the island of Cyprus. Such examples are also preserved by the museums of Fira,

Other Cycladic idols mostly illustrate highly simplified but still naturalistic figurative representations; they usually show naked women, also pregnant, with arms folded at the waist level, above the belly, or under their breast, like in the case of a marble female figurine from the island of Paros, preserved by the Museum of Louvre in Paris, France (PWN 2007:56; Rutkowski 2009:7-9). It represents a standing woman with arms folded under her breasts, whose body is characterized by a compact form and a synthesizing interpretation of anatomical details, such as the geometric outline of the breast, resembling two pyramids, and the pubic triangle (Rutkowski 2009:9).

Generally, figurines are built on the principle of geometrical parts of the body, usually with an elongated almond-shaped head or one in the form of an upside down triangle, a small, almost rectangular body and usually joined (early examples) or separate legs (PWN 2007:56; Rutkowski 2009:7-9). This is a style that is generally defined as the tendency to synthesize human forms (Barucki et al. 2009:170; Rutkowski 2009:7-9). The Polish researcher, the author of the first monograph on Cycladic art, Kazimierz Majewski (1935), supposes that the mutual relationship of individual parts of the body, i.e. the head, torso and legs, testifies to the application of almost mathematical rules by artists creating these works of fine art (Rutkowski 2009:7,9).

Although only a few figures have traces of polychrome, it is assumed that the natural white surface of the stone, especially the face, was usually enlivened with elements painted with a thick contour line in red; thus the outlines of the eyes and mouth were made (Rutkowski 2009:8-9; Barucki et al. 2009:170). Such a technique may have been also applied to a marble figurine from the Late Bronze Age, found on the island of Amorgos, now in the Museum of Louvre, in Paris (Rutkowski 2009:8). It possibly represents a female head; its schematic almond shape is only identified by an elongated nose (Ibid.:8). The lack of facial features without being underlined by paint gives the sculpture a rather raw expression (Ibid.:8).

It is believed that Cycladic idols may have been related to the sepulchral practices prevailing on the islands, as most of the statuettes come from graves, characteristic of the archipelago, namely of box, tolos and chamber types (Rutkowski 2009:9; Barucki et al. 2009:170).

Pyrgos is the largest and the well-preserved medieval settlement on Santorini, though almost completely omitted by tourists. Thanks to that, the atmosphere in Pyrgos is truly idyllique. This is also why the town offers almost empty mazes of blue-white narrow streets and lanes, sometimes leading under low and long passages. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The figurines placed in the graves of the dead were usually small (Rutkowski 2009:9). However, the Cycladic artist did not abstain from making large human (female) heads and statues reaching a height of about one and a half meters (Ibid.:8-9). Some researchers believe that such large figures were placed in holy places dedicated to the cults of nature deities (Ibid.:9).

The best-known examples of Cycladic art also include male figurines depicting warriors or characters playing musical instruments (Rutkowski 2009:9). The latter group, including the figure of the Harpist of Keos, are distinguished by a much greater degree of detail in their form and equipment (Rutkowski 2009:9;Barucki et al. 2009:170). There are also some examples with visible facial features, like eyes and a mouth, and even few elements of clothes, such as necklaces.

Cycladic idols, of the FAF type below, in the National Archaeological Museum of Athens. Photo by I, Sailko (2008). CC BY 2.5. Image cropped. Colours intensified. Photo source: “Cycladic art” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

During the period of the greatest development of this type of art, that is, in the third millennium BC. there were many workshops, and the stylistic differences between the statuettes make it possible to distinguish artistic individualists, which are referred to by convention, for example, by the name of private collections (Rutkowski 2009:9). The contemporary interest in Cycladic art is evidenced by the fact that a museum has been established in Athens (opened in October 2019), the core of which is the collection of N.P. Goulandris, collecting mainly figurines of Cycladic masters (Ibid.:9). But the admiration for this field of fine arts dates back to the time when in the early twentieth century, artists such as Pablo Picasso or Hans Arp looked for inspiration to express the ‘new’ in form, yet modeled on the works of primitive and ancient art, in which there was a tendency of synthesizing natural forms (Ibid.:9). Thus, in the art of the early Bronze Age, there were achievements that are still valid and admired to this day (Ibid.:9).

We still travelled around Santorini, enjoying its natural though dangerous beauty, which for ages has ideally mingled with the manmade constructions, scattered around the island. Leaving the coast behind, we headed off towards the centre of the island with its charming town, Pyrgos. At each step, apart from numerous traces left by the Minoans, there were tell-tales of the white marble idols. Sometimes, a copy of some sculpture was crouching in front of the door of somebody’s house, another time the idols were sold in souvenir shops for tourists. They all keep welcoming and inviting deeper inside their sacred cyclic kingdom of the tiny islands, dancing on the turquoise waves of the Aegean Sea. … And I have accepted their invitation.

Featured image: In the wide expanse of the Blue Aegean Sea, a group of islands of Santorini stands out in a Greek archipelago. Copyright©Archaeotravel. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

By Joanna
Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology.
University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland;
Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland;
University College Dublin, Ireland.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

“Eidolon” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/2MzgPEb>. [Accessed on 4th February, 2021].

“Cyclades” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3czRVz4>. [Accessed on 4th February, 2021].

“Cycladic art” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3tqwnL3>. [Accessed on 4th February, 2021].

“Kultura cykladzka” (2020). Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3pOI9Nm>. [Accessed on 4th February, 2021].

Barucki T. et al. (2009). “Cykladzka sztuka”. In: Sztuka świata. Leksykon A-K, tom 12. [Historia del Arte, vol. 12]. Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Arkady.

Chabińska-Ilchanka, E., Dylewska K., Horecka K., Jaskulski M., Kastelik M. M., Łatka M., Ressel E., Willman A., Żywczak K. (2015) Niezwykłe miejsca świata. Warszawa: Wydawnictwo SBM Sp. zo.o.

Majewski K. (1935). “Figuralna plastyka cykladzka. Geneza i rozwój form”. In: Archiwum Towarzystwa Naukowego we Lwowie, Section I, Volume VI, Book 3. Drukarnia Naukowa we Lwowie.

PWN (2007). Słownik terminologiczny sztuk pięknych, p. 156. Kubalska-Sulkiewicz K., Bielska-Łach M., Manteuffel-Szarota A. eds. Wydanie piąte. Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Naukowe PWN.

Rutkowski B. (2009). “Sztuka mykeńska i minojska”. In: Sztuka świata, tom. 2 [Historia del Arte, vol. 2]. Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Arkady.

Apollo at the Top of the Acropolis of Rhodes

Although the Google Map showed an estimated time of reaching the hill of Acropolis in thirty minutes, my uncle and I did not take into account the heat, generously sent by Helios, and the fact that we should first climb the path leading up to the hill (see: Island of the Sun in Favour of the Gods). At some point, we had to slow down our walk as the hillside grew steeper and so we were both out of breath (Lawrence 2005:Scroll XX). And even if we kept moving up, the site seemed still far in the distance. Why is it always so hard to see the summit while you are climbing up?

On the way up the hill

Located on the western edge of the city of Rhodes, the hill with the Acropolis on its eastern slope is called Agios Stephanos, also known as Monte San Stephano by the Italians (Hellenic Ministry of Culture 2010-2019; Via Gallica 2020). But there is also its third name, Monte Smith, after the name of the British Admiral, Sir Sidney Smith who built there in 1802 (Ibid.) “an observation post to monitor the movements of Napoleon’s fleet during the Egyptian campaign” (Via Gallica 2020). “[The] Acropolis of Rhodes and its imposing Temple of Apollo, dominates the views” (Hellenic Ministry of Culture 2010-2019).

The Acropolis of Rhodes on Agios Stephanos, also known as Monte Smith. Video source: Tourism Rhodes (2015) “Acropolis of Rhodes”. In: Tourism Rhodes Youtube Channel.

From the site, which is situated at altitude of 111 metres, it is possible to see a small valley surrounding the city and the western coast with precipitous cliffs overlooking blue waters of the Ixia Bay (Rice 1995:384; Via Gallica 2020; Themis 2020). Especially at sunset, the site “offers breathtaking [and panoramic] views [reaching as far as] the island of Symi and […] the Turkish coast, about [twenty] kilometres away” (Via Gallica 2020).

Two acropolises instead of one

As recent excavations have revealed, the ancient city of Rhodes had in fact two acropolises; the other one with the Temples of Aphrodite and Dionysus was situated on the site now occupied by the Palace of the Knights and Collachium (the northernmost part of the Medieval City) (Via Gallica 2020; Medieval Town “Collchium” 2019).

The remains of Panagia tou Bourg (Our Lady of the Burgh), the fourteenth century Catholic church built by the Knights of Saint John who operated a hospital on Rhodes for the Crusaders, in the Medieval Town of Rhodes . Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The ancient city of the Classical Greece was therefore much larger; “it stretched from the northern tip of the island at the site of the current” (Via Gallica 2020) Medieval Town and went south-westwards to where today are the remains of the Acropolis of Rhodes (Ibid.). The latter “was a large elevated plateau […], lying just inside the main fortification wall, running [east-west], along the southern boundary of the [ancient] city” (Rice 1995:384). Unlike most ancient acropolis, that one was not fortified (Hellenic Ministry of Culture 2010-2019; Via Gallica 2020); so “it is not a towering citadel which dominates the lower city, but it does present a distinct elevated profile when Rhodes is seen from the sea – the means of approach in antiquity. [Ancient] streets running [westwards and southwards] from the main inhabited areas in the [east] and [north] gave access to the [Acropolis] from the [city], and it could also be reached from outside […], through the city gate situated near the southern end of modern Odos Sophouli (ancient north-south street P)” (Rice 1995:384).

Many tourists spend their time shopping at Ippokratous Square in the medieval walled city of Rhodes. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Nowadays, it is possible to get there from the Medieval Town either by bus or on foot, leaving through the western side of the city walls (Via Gallica 2020).

Lecture on Greek architecture

The Acropolis finally opened to us, revealing its treasures. “Far from the urban liveliness, [we were] standing on the top of Monte Smith hill” (Themis 2020), accompanied just by striking musical performances of Greek cicadas. I felt utterly tired but deeply satisfied we made it. My uncle even speeded up while we are approaching a row of reconstructed columns towering ahead as if the city’s guardian (Tourist Guide 2020). They are the part of the Temple of Apollo Pythios, “which are visible today from the commercial harbour even above the intervening modern building” (Rice 1995:384). they. ‘Amazing’, my uncle admitted, still panting. ‘Now I can give you a lecture if you want’, he exclaimed enthusiastically, gasping for breath.

It must be emphasized that many areas [of the site] are now overgrown or filled in since they were last investigated many decades ago, which makes any observations based only on what is visible to the naked eye today superficial and in need of refinement” (Rice 1995:387). But in its glorious past, the site must have looked impressing; “it consisted of a monumental zone with [sanctuaries], large temples, public buildings and places of worship, [including underground cult places] (Hellenic Ministry of Culture 2010-2019]. Significant buildings] were mainly built on terraces reinforced by powerful walls” (Via Gallica 2020).

My uncle and university professor of Fine Arts, giving a lecture in front of the Temple of Apollo Pythos on the Acropolis of Rhodes. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Different constructions vary in their dating but most buildings were erected during the Hellenistic times (323-31 BC) (Stefanu 2017; Via Gallica 2020). “These public structures would have been a visual highlight above the busy harbours, drawing the eyes above and away from the bustling dock areas” (Rice 1995:348). Apart from the Temple of Apollo (C), on the Acropolis stood the Temple of Athena Polias and Zeus Polies (B) (Ibid.:384). There was also “the stadium (D) with an adjacent [Odeion] (E), very probably a nearby gymnasium (F) and possibly the theatre (G)” (Ibid.:384). The lecturer in classical archaeology, E. E. Rice (1995:384) says that “it […] appears likely that the main civic sanctuary of Helios […] was located on the eastern [side] of the [Acropolis of Rhodes]”.

In the third century BC., it may have housed one of the legendary Wonders of the Ancient World and Greece, the bronze statue of the Colossus of Rhodes, (Ibid.:384). From that point, the mounting representation of the patron Sun god, Helios, would be visible to those approaching the island from the sea.

A composite photo in a modern setting at Rhodes, showing how the Colossus (a random image selected for illustration purposes, which, while reflecting the statue‘s actual height, is not meant to be an accurate representation of its stance or configuration) would have dominated the city and harbours below– if, as proposed here, it was once located atop Monte Smith (Fig.1; p. 86). Photo source: Kebric, R. B. (2019) “The Colossus of Rhodes: Some Observations about Its Location”. In: Athens Journal of History, Vol. 5, Issue 2, pp. 83-114.

On the Rhodian Acropolis, there were possibly also landscaping features, characteristic of ancient sanctuaries, such as trees and sacred groves surrounding the buildings (Ibid.:386). Such a theory is attested by the observation made by the orator Aelius Aristides, from the second century AD, (Ibid.:386) “that ‘the Acropolis is full of fields and groves’. […] The open spaces of the Rhodian [Acropolis were probably] due to the fact it was a virgin site when the city of Rhodes was founded and designed at the end of the fifth century BC. […] The new structures which were built upon the [Acropolis] were therefore inserted into the natural landscape which already predominated; [these were] fields, groves, natural rock hollows [and] cliff faces […]” (Ibid.:386).

Stadium and Odeion

In an olive grove to the east of the Acropolis, there are the partly restored Temple of Apollo, the stadium and the Odeion (Via Gallica 2020). The so-called stadium of Diagoras was built around second century BC. (Themis 2020; Via Gallica 2020).

Acropolis of Rhodes: the ancient stadium. Photo by Tango7174 (2011). CC BY-SA 4.0. Colours intensified. Photo source: “Acropolis of Rhodes” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

It is located southeast of the hill and oriented north-south (Hellenic Ministry of Culture 2010-2019). It measured according to the Greek standards, over one hundred and eighty metres in length and around thirty-five in width (Via Gallica 2020). This was one of the very first sites that were excavated in 1912 and, like the Odeion, it is was largely restored (Stefanu 2017; Via Gallica 2020). Hence their perfect condition known at present (Ibid.). The stadium could contain over ten thousand spectators, attending various exhibitions and athletic games (Stefanu 2017). There “athletic competitions were staged as part of the Haleion Games, an important celebration held by the ancient Rhodians in honour of the god Helios” (Hellenic Ministry of Culture 2010-2019).

However, taking into account that the uppermost part of the monument has not been excavated yet, its size and so the capacity of the stadium may have been much larger (Stefanu 2017). Among the stadium’s authentic parts, there are sphendone (a semi-circular part at the end of an ancient Greek stadium), the proedries (seats of honour, dedicated to the officials), (Hellenic Ministry of Culture 2010-2019), “and some of the lower seats in the auditorium. Also preserved is the starting mechanism for the athletes” (Ibid.). The stadium was made from the local limestone, with rectangular blocks but of different sizes, which depended on their location (Stefanu 2017). Each element has got smooth surface and fits perfectly in the whole construction without the use of mortar (Ibid.). To the east of the stadium, there was additionally a gymnasium, which was partially uncovered (the western side along with its north-east corner) (Via Gallica 2020). It was a large square building (around two hundred metres wide), where many works of art were uncovered (Ibid.).

Odeion of the Acropolis of Rhodes. Photo by Tango (2011). CC BY-SA 4.0. Colours intensified. Photo source: “Acropolis of Rhodes” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Another important element of the ancient site lies northwest of the stadium (Via Gallica 2020). It is a white marble Odeion (theater) built in the second century BC (Stefanu 2017; Via Gallica 2020). It was possibly used for attending musical performances or rhetoric lessons given by famous speakers, as its stage is too small to be a scene of a theater (Ibid.). One who was standing in the middle of it could be well heard around, at each point of the construction (Stefanu 2017). There were probably eight hundred spectators who could watch performances (Via Gallica 2020). Although the Odeion looks impressive today, it has been entirely rebuilt by the Italian archaeologists, and only its bottom shelf is authentic (Ibid.).

The view from the Acropolis of Rhodes on the Odeion and the partly visible stadium on the right. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Today tourists usually enjoy the sunset sitting on the stairs of the stadium or of the nearby Odeion, which regularly hosts musical and theatrical performances (Themis 2020). At the time of our visit, however, there were just a few tourists walking around the reconstructed columns; it was definitely too hot to enjoy the Acropolis by staying for longer in the sun. Our sightseeing unfortunately fell at full noon, but we had no choice due to limited time on Rhodes. If we had stayed on the island a few days, we would have certainly taken the evening walk to the Acropolis with the family, of course, just for volunteers …

Agora and necropolis

The both constructions, the stadium and Odeion, were once situated just in the centre of the ancient agora (known as the forum in the Roman times) (Stefanu 2017). It was a very central site, where all the political and cultural events took place (Ibid.). Piles of ancient stones placed together there consist of finds from the archaeological excavations; they all come from the ancient agora and contain precious parts of various buildings, sometimes covered in Greek writings (Ibid.). It is a pity, they are not exposed in the museum as objects of further studies (Ibid.).

Piles of ancient stones placed together on the place of the ancient agora of the Acropolis of Rhodes. It consists of finds from the archaeological excavations, now in the shadow of trees. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

South of the ancient city, there is also a Hellenistic necropolis of Saint John (Agiou Ioannou) (Tourist Guide 2020; Via Gallica 2020). “The most important of these are the large corner funerary complex with tombs featuring vaulted masonry tombs, the cluster of yet more tombs of vaulted stonework crowned by a monument with triglyphs and metopes and the tomb carved into the rock that includes a monumental gateway. Of greatest interest is the underground quarry where burial chambers were dug into the sides of the tunnels”(Tourist Guide 2020).

Stairs leading to the temples

Nonetheless, the most significant part of Monte Smith is the Acropolis (Stefanu 2017). From the place of the previous agora, there are stairs leading up to the Greek temples of Acropolis of Rhodes, which were, like other ancient sanctuaries, built upon an area of elevated ground (Stefanu 2017; “Acropolis” 2020). Hence akron, meaning the highest point and polis – city (“Acropolis” 2020). Today, on the site, there are mostly huge pieces of stones, such as blocks of local limestone and marble, possibly from Naxos or from Pharos, scattered everywhere around the place (Stefanu 2017). Some original building material had already disappeared; they were mostly reused for the construction of post-Hellenistic buildings (Ibid.).

The restored part of the Temple of Apollo Pythios. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

“[Once] situated on the northern edge of the Acropolis, the Temple of Athena Polias and Zeus Polies was orientated east-west and was a poros Doric peripteral temple (having a columned portico on all four sides). Four oversize column drums and parts of a capital and architrave still [can] be seen on the site. This was where the Rhodians kept the texts of their treaties with other states.

The temple stood in a larger temenos bounded by a stoa on the east” (Hellenic Ministry of Culture 2010-2019). The only reconstructed structures, however, belong to the Temple of Apollo, which was also built in the Doric style (Via Gallica 2020). The temple stood “on the southern part of the hill, on the west side of a large rectangular terrace. It [was] orientated [east-west, and like the Temple of Athena Polias and Zeus Polies it was also a poros peripteral temple, but smaller […]. Part of [its north-eastern] side [has been restored” (Hellenic Ministry of Culture 2010-2019): rising from the incomplete stylobate, there are just four columns and a small section of the entablature as the remains of the temple colonnade. It is also evident that its entrance must have once led through a wide staircase (Via Gallica 2020). Although the temple does not exist anymore, the preserved remains are still able to witness to its monumental character (Ibid.).

Nymphaea

Nothing was left from the once impressive façade of the stoa (a covered walkway or portico for public use); only its foundation has been preserved to our times (Via Gallica 2020; “Stoa” 2020). Southeast of the stoa wall, there starts “the first of a series of elaborate rock-cut chambers [carved in] the slopes beneath the [Acropolis] summit; other similar [underground] systems are [cut] into the ridge that curves to the [south and west], towards the main buildings on the summit, and to the [north] where it meets the [western] edge of the [Acropolis]. These structures, partly open to the sky but beneath ground level, have traditionally been described as nymphaea” (Rice 1995:387-388) or the Temple of Nymphaea (Via Gallica 2020).

Nymphaeum of Monte Smith (2020) with all artificial caves and stairs carved in the rock of the Acropolis of Rhodes, leading directly to the temples on the summit. Photo source: “Nymphaeum of Monte Smith (picture 40936781)” [“Nymphaeum auf dem Monte Smith“] (2020). In: mapio.net.

“The word nymphaeum originally meant a shrine of the nymphs, but since nymphs were traditionally associated with caves, and caves with water, the term came to be [later] applied to an ornamental fountain” (Ibid.:388). Archaeological study shows that the Temple of Nymphaea on the Acropolis of Rhodes “consists of four subterranean cave-like constructions cut into the rock with entrance steps, communicating passages and a large opening in the central part of the roof. […] Water cisterns and lush vegetation complete the picture” (Hellenic Ministry of Culture 2010-2019) “Despite the undoubted fact that shade, water and attractive decoration would have made these places pleasant enough to visit and linger in during an ascent to the [Acropolis], they nonetheless led directly to the summit where the main religious buildings were located. The alignment with the grid plan and direct connections with streets and stoas make this evident” (Rice 1995:403).

Why were such underground structures built? What function might they have had? It is believed “they were places for recreation and worship” (Hellenic Ministry of Culture 2010-2019). “Cults of the nymphs were [highly] popular [in the Hellenistic] period; they and Pan were also worshiped in Rhodes. [A late] fragmentary inscription found on the Rhodian [Acropolis], dated to the third or fourth century AD, […] mentions a shrine of Pan (a ‘Paneion’) near of sanctuary of Artemis Thermia, [the goddess who was Apollo’s twin sister]” (Rice 1995:402). Nothing else is known about the Paneion but there are the remains of other places of worship, which may have once been the Artemision (a temple attributed to the cult of Artemis) (Rice 1995:402; Hellenic Ministry of Culture 2010-2019).

The Apollo’s restored temple behind the trees on the Acropolis of Rhodes. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The cult ‘Thermia’ of the goddess Artemis presumably had associations with thermal waters. It can be hence speculated that ‘some grottoes indeed had passages which connected into the underground aqueduct system” (Rice 1995:402-403). If so, the artificial caves would have “played an important role, since water supply was vital to the survival of the city, and they might have functioned as shrines to deities directly associated with water, [which is manifested by] recesses in the interior walls for statuettes” (Ibid.:403). “[The] evidence of the votive dedications [in the caves] shows that these areas clearly had a primarily […] religious function. The extensive systems of grottoes covered a significant part of the Rhodian [Acropolis, including] the separate system of [south] of the [Temple] of Apollo precinct” (Ibid.:403), and so it may have once been linked to the temples themselves. It is hoped that future archaeological excavations by modern methods may go some way [further] in revealing its mystery (Ibid.:402).  

Successive ways of destructions

All the ancient acropolises on Rhodes and elsewhere are located on the mounts, as much as the sites falling on the axis dedicated to both, Apollo and Saint Michael (Broadhurst, Miller, Shanley, Russel 2000-2003). The following conquerors of Rhodes also reached there but did not respect the ancient sites and they left their signs on them as the remnants of war, having scratched the beauty of the temples (FM Records 2014). Who and why destroyed them?

The park around the Old Town of Rhodes with footpath and cannon balls in the grass. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

As a matter of fact, there were three periods that had greatly contributed to the destruction of the site (Stefanu 2017). The first devastation was, however, caused by nature and happened already in 226 BC, when a huge earthquake hit the island of Rhodes and toppled down most of the buildings on the site, including the Colossus of Rhodes (Ibid.). The temples of the Rhodian Acropolis were rebuilt but in 42 BC they were again destroyed (Ibid.). This time it was because of the Roman senator, Casius, and his army (Ibid.). Yet, the most modern warfare turned out to be the most destructive to the Acropolis (Ibid.). In 1944, the Germans installed their artillery on the hill, which was consequently bombarded by the British (Ibid.). That it turn affected the temples, which suffered considerable damage (Ibid.).

Time for excavations

Successive excavations and restoration work carried out on Rhodes in the twentieth century allowed to uncover the sites and reconstruct some of the ancient buildings. However, historically diverse, multiply layers of uninterrupted constructions makes such sites difficult to excavate and interpret archaeologically (“Lindos 2020”).

The Temple of Pythian Apollo, on the southern part of the hill, was a poros peripteral temple; restored is part of the north-eastern side with four columns and part of the architrave.Copyright©Archaeotravel.

“The [Acropolis] of Rhodes offers different archaeological problems from those posed by the rest of the ancient city. Unlike the lower town, the hill has not been much built over, but neither has it been much excavated except for the Temple of Apollo Pythios and the stadium-Odeion area, which [had mainly been] investigated and reconstructed” (Rice 1995:387)  by the Italian School of Archaeology in Athens from 1912 to 1945 (Via Gallica 2020). Other areas have been partially studied both by the Italians and by the Greek Archaeological Service after the World War II (Rice 1995:387).

“From 1946 onwards Greek Archaeologists [have conducted] a series of excavations, bringing into light important findings regarding the site’s history and topography. During the 60’s and 70’s more reconstruction work was carried out to the west foundation of the Temple of Pythian Apollo. In 1996 further reconstruction was added on the Temple and the [Nymphaeum]. There is still an ongoing excavation in the Acropolis archaeological park, a protected area that covers an area of 12,500 m². As the archaeologists say, the current findings represent only a fragment of the glorious past of the ancient city of Rhodes” Hellenic Ministry of Culture (2010-2019).

Back to the port

Suddenly, my uncle awoke from thoughts on the ruined temples and quickly looked at his watch. He looked terrified. ‘She’s going to kill us’, he said. I knew who he meant.

Tourist Port lies outside the Old Town walls at Virgin Mary’s Gate. It is located between Kolona Port and Cruise Port. A perfect point to take a swim while waiting for a ferry. Photo by I. Sailko (2013). CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo source: “Rhodes (city)” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Around thirty minutes later, we were back at the port of Rhodes. We had made our way back much faster as, according to the basics of the physics and fear, we were walking down, additionally being pushed by the vision of my furious aunt. Meantime, we got a message that the whole company was waiting for us in a cove with a small beach, just outside the Old Town walls at Virgin Mary’s Gate. The place is located between Kolona Port and Cruise Port, so we could wait in the proximity for our ferry to go back to Asia (Rhodes Oldtown 2020).

Our catamaran waiting in the port of Rhodes to come back to Turkey in the evening. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

When we got there, again breathless, everybody was either enjoying sun or swimming in the warm sea. My aunt did not even notice at first we came back. She just waved to us from water. After a while, I reminded myself that I was still wearing my bikini underneath, and soon I also dived into blue sea. It was a great refreshment after the archaeological adventure full of sun and effort.

The island’s ambiance took me centuries back (FM Records 2014). It seemed as if the Sun god had shed beauty to his land; on Rhodes, visitors got the impression of living in a fairy tale as they are carried away by the blue sea, warm beaches, locals’ welcoming smiles, picturesque ports, churches, and soaring ancient temples (Ibid.).

Leaving behind the remains of the Temple of Apollo Pythios on the Acropolis of Rhodes. Rhodes island offers visitors a history that goes back in time thousands of years, to the ages of mythology. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Featured image: Acropolis of Rhodes on Monte Smith; like in other ancient acropolises, its sanctuaries were built on an elevated ground; hence akron, meaning the highest point and polis – city. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

By Joanna
Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology.
University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland;
Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland;
University College Dublin, Ireland.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

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Broadhurst P., Miller H.  Shanley V., Russel B. (2000-2003). The Dance of the Dragon. An Odyssey into Earth Energies and Ancient Religion. Launceston: Mythos.

FM Records (2014). “Discover Greece – (Rhodes, Kos, Leros, Samos, Chios, Patmos)”. In: FM Records. Available at <https://bit.ly/2V0AgXz>. [Accessed on 19th June, 2020].

Hellenic Ministry of Culture (2010-2019). “The Acropolis of Rhodes”. In: Discover Rhodes. Available at <https://bit.ly/3ehq198>. [Accessed on 18th June, 2020].

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Lawrence C. (2005). The Roman Mysteries: Book 9: Colossus of Rhodes. Orion Children Books.

Medieval Town (2019). “Collchium”. In: Medieval Town Map. Discover Every Secret Corner. Available at <https://bit.ly/30VSvRS>. [Accessed on 19th June, 2020].

Photo: “Nymphaeum of Monte Smith (picture 40936781)” (2020). In: mapio.net. Available at <https://bit.ly/2CqbU3a>. [Accessed on 20th June, 2020].

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Via Gallica (2020). “The Ancient City of Rhodes”. In: Via Gallica. Available at <https://bit.ly/2NcPVyO>. [Accessed on 19th June, 2020].

A Storm of Controversy on the Dating the Eruption of Thera

Ever since I became interested in the subject of Minoan culture, there has always been a problem of dating the volcanic eruption of Thera (see: The World Ended When Gods Turned against the Minoans) and related to it speculations about the reasons why the Minoan culture on Crete collapsed at all (see: Disaster of the Bronze Age Spreads Beyond the Epicenter).

For the periodization of the history of the Minoan world on Crete, the so-called palace system is usually used (“Kultura minojska” 2020). It is mainly based on archaeological stratographic research, which gives time frames for successive phases of the existence, growth and the fall of Minoan palaces on Crete (Ibid.). Following so the Minoan chronology given by archaeologists, the volcanic eruption occurred around 1500 BC. (Ibid.). It therefore ended the first phase of the Late Minoan period (LM IA) (1600-1500), when the Minoans were at their heyday, and started the second phase of the Late Minoan period (LMIB) (1500-1450) (Ibid.). Accordingly, the Minoan culture had survived the eruption and lasted until around 1100 BC., but it had never regained its former power, which eventually led to its collapse (Ibid.).

Nea Kameni: volcanic craters on Santorini Island (previously Thera), June 2001. Photo by Rolfsteinar – Own work (2001). CC BY 2.5. Photo and caption source: “Minoan eruption” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

On the other hand, however, there is another chronology obtained from Thera’s geological research, which takes the eruption back over a century! According to geologists, Thera erupted around 1620 BC. (Mitchell 2011), which is when the archaeological chronology suggests the end of the Middle Minoan period (MM), namely, around 2000 – 1600 (1700) BC. (“Kultura minojska” 2020). According to archaeological finds, it was also a period of natural disasters but they were mainly associated with earthquakes on Crete. Were they related to the eruption of Thera? It is possible … Yet, if the volcano erupted in the seventeenth century BC., badly affecting the Minoans of Crete, how could their culture flourish then in the sixteenth century BC.? What is more, such dating results would also change historic witnesses of the eruption, especially in such empires as Egypt. Is there then any notice of the natural disaster in their records or elsewhere? Such written evidence present outside the Minoan world could greatly support or deny one of the given chronologies.

Finally, how is it possible at all that the reliable study results of the both interdisciplinary but related sciences could be so different and hence confusing?

A major controversy between archaeology and geology

Dating the Thera’s eruption has become one of the major controversies in academic world.

The Lillies fresco from Akrotiri, Santorini. Photo source: Antiquated Antiquarian (2015) “The Minoans: Frescoes”. In: The Stream of Time.

“For more than two centuries archaeologists have refined the Bronze Age Mediterranean historical framework by observing the relative order of superimposed levels on a series of sites (MacGillivray 2007:150). Next, they established inter-site relationships based on common cultural characteristics – primarily in ceramics, art and architecture” (Ibid:150). “Based on archaeological correlations between the Aegean, Egypt and the Levant, the eruption of Santorini was believed to have occurred around 1500 BC., after the beginning of the New Kingdom in Egypt, [that is to say in the sixteenth century BC., when the Queen Hatsheput mainly ruled (see: Last Queen in the Valley of the Kings)]” (Ehrlich, Regev, Boaretto 2018). “The traditional date around 1500 BC. was first proposed in  the 1930s by Marinatos. It has […] been, [however], challenged by a controversial new date of around 1600 BC., dividing prehistorians into two camps and generating heated debate” (Castleden 1998-2001:191).

Turning for help to ancient Egyptians

In 1980s, two scientists first disputed the archaeological dating (History Channel 1980s). These were the German geologists, H. Pichler and W. L. Friedrich who radiocarbon-dated the charcoal found in the volcanic rocks (Ibid.). According to the results they obtained, the eruption of the volcano took place around 1650 BC. (Ibid.). It would mean that Thera’s explosion was over one hundred years earlier than it was primarily thought (History Channel 1980s; Wengler 2009). Accordingly, “the Minoans in [their] mature stages [would have been] contemporaries of the ‘Foreign Princes’ of Egypt’s Hyksos period, a century earlier than Hatshepsut’s reign in the historical chronology” (MacGillivray 2007:150).

Statue of the famous Egyptian queen Hatshepsut who belonged to the Eighteenth Dynasty. Today on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, MET, New York. Created: circa 1479 BC. CC0. Photo source: “Hatshepsut” (2020). In : Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

In this case, some scholars turn for help to Egyptian texts, which “may give a clue to the absolute date [of Thera’s eruption” (MacGillivray 2007:159). And they find there interesting records, which may actually refer to the volcanic explosion and its devastating results. At the turning of the fifteenth century BC., “one of Hatshepsut’s best known dedications was the rock-cut temple to the lioness-goddess Pakhet, near Beni Hasan in Middle Egypt. […] Here, Hatshepsut carved a very revealing account of herself and her deeds in that region over the architrave” (Ibid.:159). Some scholars interpret the text “as Hatshepsut sending braziers to her subjects driven by raging storms and total darkness into the temples” (Ibid.:159). One of her deeds “was to care for refugees who swarmed into Middle Egypt from the Nile delta because of the incursion of the sea there” (Ibid.:160). There is also another text from much later Ptolemaic period (third or second centuries BC.), but referring to the events having happened during the Eighteenth Dynasty (Ibid.:160). Namely, the words of an Egyptian scribe recall biblical descriptions of darkness covering the earth (Ibid.:160). “[He writes:] ‘there was no exit from the palace by the space of nine days. Now these days were in violence and tempest: none, whether god or man, could see the face of his fellow’. This nine-day period reads suspiciously like an Egyptian multiple of three, which meant ‘a long time’, and so refers to a lengthy period of storms and darkness” (Ibid.:160).

The Tempest Stela of Ahmose. Reconstruction of the face (R) and back (L). (Malcolm H. Wiener and James P. Allen, 1998). Source: University of Chicago (2014). “Tempest Stela: World’s Oldest Weather Report Could Revise Bronze Age Chronology”. In: The Epoch Times.

Additionally, there is also a very interesting writing on the fragmented stele, ascribed by some scholars to Ahmose, the pharaoh and founder of the Eighteen Dynasty in the middle of the sixteenth century (Jacobovici, Cameron 2006). ‘It records some tremendous catastrophe that happened to Egypt’, says Prof. Donald Redford, the archaeologist (Ibid.). ‘We aren’t quite clear what it was but it involved rain and thunder and lightening, such a storm that rarely happens in northeastern Africa. I mean that’s a dry area’ (Ibid.). For this reasons, the stele has been known as the Tempest or Storm Stele (“Tempest Stele” 2020). Apart from ravaging storms, it also confirms that Egypt was enveloped in darkness and that statues of its gods were toppled to the ground, which may have happened due to a sequence of severe earthquakes (Jacobovici, Cameron 2006).

Wall painting representing foreigners’ procession scene in the tomb of Hatshepsut’s chief architect, Senenmut, (TT 71). The gift-bearers looking like Minoans are probably paying a diplomatic tribute to the Queen of Egypt. Depicted objects with such features as bull’s heads are also analogous to those produced in the Aegean region by Minoans. Such imagery would point out to the Egyptian-Minoan peaceful trade relations (dated by an archaeologist, R. W. Hutchinson, to the Late Minoan IA; 1600 – 1500 BC.). Dates are, however, debated. MacGillivray (2007). Facsimile, after Davies 1936: Pl. XIV. Source: U. Matić (2014); fig. 3, p. 238.

Such ancient records are usually pinpointed to the Eighteenth Dynasty, between the second part of the sixteenth and first part of the fifteenth century BC. But are these records dated correctly? If the stele had been really created by Ahmose and it talks about the Thera eruption, that would place it during the reign of the pharaoh, which is believed to have happened between 1550/49 and 1524 BC, or even twenty years earlier (MacGillivray 2007; “Ahmose I” 2020), which in turn, corresponds to the Late Minoan IA period (1600-1500 BC.). On the other side, Hatshepsut’s exact time of reigning is similarly unclear but usually estimated for the first half of the fifteenth century, sometimes between 1504-1483 or 1478-1458 BC. (MacGillivray 2007; “Hatshepsut” 2020), which mostly fell in the Late Minoan IB period (1500-1450 BC). If there are such discrepancies in dating the ruling of particular Egyptian kings, it is also highly probable some ancient texts are either wrongly ascribed (Ahmose’s stela refers just to a pharaoh, not Ahmose himself) or their date was estimated incorrectly (Jacobovici, Cameron 2006).

Fresco from the tomb of Khnumhotep III in Beni Hassan shows a group of Semitic people, possibly Canaanite merchants, arriving in Egypt. They are thought to be related culturally to the dynasty that called itself the Hyksos. De Agostini Picture Library/G. Sioen/ Bridgeman Images. Source: Andrew Curry (2018). “The Rulers of Foreign Lands”. In: Archaeology.

Moving back to the seventeenth century BC., before Egypt’s consolidation by the Eighteenth Dynasty, it was the Egypt’s dark period (Wengler 2009). The kingdom of Egypt was split in two (Ibid.). The northern region (the Nile delta) was ruled by the Hyksos, foreign invaders from Asia Minor (Ibid.). The time that followed brought economic decline and serious unrest (Ibid.) The rule of the Hyksos kings for long had reminded a trauma in the Egyptian minds (Ibid.). Did that period overlap with the volcano eruption on Thera?

Geologists make their way

For years now, doubts have been growing among scientists about the exact date of the eruption (Wengler 2009).

The reconstructed South Propylaeum of the palace of Knossos, Crete. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

On Santorini, colossal rocks were hurled through the air by the last great eruption of the Bronze Age (Wengler 2009). Between these rocks, a geologist and student of Prof. Friedrich’s, Tom Pfeiffer, found in 2003 – as both geologists say – a critical evidence buried beneath the layers of lava (Wengler 2009; Volcano Discovery 2020). It was an olive branch of a tree smashed by Thera’s eruption (Wengler 2009). Around it, there were remains of olive leaves, twigs and olive stones, which signifies the tree was alive at the time of eruption (Ibid.). As it was an organic material, the remnants were carbon-dated (Ibid.). The moment, the olive branch died would mean the exact date of the volcanic eruption (Ibid.). Since the time of previous results, Prof. Friedrich obtained in 1980s, he has been convinced that the once accepted date of 1500 BC. for the eruption should be officially pushed back a hundred years (History Channel 1980s; Wengler 2009). Moreover, if the previous results had been confirmed by the results obtained by a recently found branch, the new timing would have been unchallengeable (Wengler 2009). Having conducted comparative tests, the geologists have received results confirming that the eruption took place in the seventeenth century BC. and not in the sixteenth century BC. or later (Ibid.). Accordingly, Santorini exploded somewhere between 1620 and 1600 BC (Ibid.). As Prof. Friedrich claims the confirmed date of the tree should have huge consequences for future research and for the understanding of ancient history in general (Ibid.).

Pumice deposit on Santorini, Greece, showing the holes in the pumice where remnants of an olive tree were recovered in 2003. They were found by Tom Pfeiffer, a student of Prof. Friedrich’s in Geology. This organic material allowed another radiocarbon dating of the volcano eruption back to the seventeenth century BC. The results, however, have again been debated. Photo and caption source: Volcano Discovery (2020) “Illustrated Glossary: Plinian eruption. Volcanology”. In: Volcano Discovery. Source: USGS.

Similar date has also been obtained by the soil specialist, Prof. Hendrik Bruins, who has studied Palaikastro’s deposits, which were accumulated by the tsunamis that had smashed the northern coast of Crete (Lilley 2006). He has radiocarbon-dated the cattle bone found on the beach in the deposit (Ibid.). According to the received results, the cattle bone comes from around 1600 BC. (Ibid.) For Prof. Bruins, who has been convinced that the Thera’s eruption took place around 1600 BC., it proves that the chaotic deposit is the result of the tsunami generated by the outbreak of the volcano (Ibid.). Thera’s eruption also produced “enormous volumes of ash and sulphuric acid aerosols which [usually] reduce atmospheric temperatures and may be detected in tree rings as years of slow growth” (Castleden 1998-2001:191). Forensic science and ancient records are also based on these dense clouds of ash across the Middle East and around the world (Westbrook 1995).

Steep volcanic cliffs coming down to the Aegean Sea, Santorini. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

And they also pinpoint the years between 1628-1626 BC. to Thera’s eruption (Westbrook 1995). Although there is a difference of around thirty years between several independent studies, it is still the seventeenth century BC. that they identify (Westbrook 1995; Castleden 1998-2001:191). Thera’s ash has also been found on the Nile, which is traced back to the same time period, like a fingerprint (Westbrook 1995). “[Also] an independent study of Irish bog oaks [has] revealed that 1628-1626 BC. were very poor growth years. […] A search for acidity peaks in ice cores taken from the Greenland ice sheet failed to produce anything perceptible for 1500 BC., but revealed acidity peak for 1645 BC., which some eagerly identified as evidence of an early date for the Thera eruption” (Castleden 1998-2001:191).

Who is closer to the truth?

“In spite of the strenuous lobbying of a seventeenth-century BC. date, the evidence in its favour is inconclusive. To begin with, the eruptions are not the only cause of narrow tree rings: weather patterns vary for a great many reasons. […] From Thera itself comes a different kind of evidence. […] Some radiocarbon dates for the destruction level of Thera are too old for the […] eruption date. Charcoal from a Minoan hearth in the Athinios quarry in 1979 was dated to 1800 BC.; fava beans found in  jug in Building 4 produced a date of 1700 BC. It has been claimed that [these] increasing numbers of radiocarbon dates favour the older date […] In fact, the average of over twenty radiocarbon dates from Akrotiri is 3200 BP, which rather calibrates to 1500 BC. (Castleden 1998-2001:191).

Charlotte Pearson analyzed annual tree rings from bristlecone pines and Irish oak to more accurately estimate the date of the Thera eruption. Photo by Bob Demers/UA News. Photo source: Mari N. Jensen, UA College of Science (2018). “Dating the ancient Minoan eruption of Thera using tree rings” In: UA College of Science.

It is also worth to note that there can be some inaccuracies in standard carbon dating, leading to further mistakes in estimating an exact date for archaeological finds (Gorey 2018). “Research conducted by Cornell University [in 2018] could be about to throw the field of archaeology on its head with the claim that [due to] a number of inaccuracies in commonly accepted carbon dating standards, […] many of […] established historical timelines are thrown into question, potentially needing a re-write of the history books” (Ibid.).

In 2018, further attempts of dating Thera eruption have been conducted using tree rings.

The rings in trees that were alive at the time of the eruption may be a dating source able to settle the debate from conflicting archaeological and radiocarbon analyses. Photo by Garry Knight (2015).  Creative Commons Attribution 2.0. “Age In Double Figures?” Wikimedia Commons. Michelle Starr (2018). “The Date of The Legendary Volcano Explosion of Thera Has Finally Been Traced”. In: Science Alert.

According to University of Arizona-led research, “[new] analyses that [have used] tree rings could settle the long-standing debate about when the volcano Thera erupted by resolving discrepancies between archaeological and radiocarbon methods of dating the eruption, according to new research. […]  ‘It’s about tying together a timeline of ancient Egypt, Greece, Turkey and the rest of the Mediterranean at this critical point in the ancient world – that’s what dating Thera can do’, said lead author Charlotte Pearson, an assistant professor of dendrochronology at the UA Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research. ‘What we can say now is that the radiocarbon evidence is compatible with the archaeological evidence for an eruption of Thera in the 16th century BC’., Pearson said” (Jensen 2018).

Is it a compromise?

The date of Thera volcanic eruption is regarded as crucial as it “has far reaching consequences in the archaeology of the Aegean, Egypt and the Levant, and the understanding of their interconnections” (Jensen 2018). This is why the fierce debate between the two camps, mainly between archaeologists and geologists has still been going on. Nevertheless, the UA Laboratory of Tree-Ring results have offered a provisional compromise.

Analyses that use tree rings could settle the long-standing debate about when Thera erupted by resolving discrepancies between archaeological and radiocarbon methods of dating the volcano eruption, according to new University of Arizona-led research
(Jensen 2018). Material source: Bob Demers (2018). “Ancient sentinels and the secrets locked away in their tree-rings”. In: University of Arizona. UA News. Source: Youtube.

“Archaeologists have estimated the eruption as occurring sometime between 1570 and 1500 BC. by using human artifacts such as written records from Egypt and pottery retrieved from digs. Other researchers estimated the date of the eruption to about [1600-1650] BC. using measurements of radiocarbon, sometimes called carbon-14, from bits of trees, grains and legumes found just below the layer of volcanic ash. […] By using radiocarbon measurements from the annual rings of trees that lived at the time of the eruption, the UA-led team dates the eruption to someplace between 1600 and 1525” (Jensen 2018).

Clay model from Palaikastro, Crete, representing three female figures dancing with their arms stretched, in a circle, to the accompaniment of a lyre held by a woman in the middle. Preserved by the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Although the results are more in favour of later dates for the eruption, as an estimated “time period overlaps with the 1570-1500 date range from the archaeological evidence” (Ibid.), the highest point of the same results points to the date of 1600 BC., which has been, in turn, proposed by geologists.

If standard methods fail, scientists count on legends

In the matter of Thera eruption the scientific research still remains unclear. Although a century as the time difference range for the eruption of Thera does not seem significant for a geology, it rather counts in terms of history of the region. In this case, with just few written records as their guide, scholars usually have no choice but to use legends as launching pads for their studies (Masjum 2006).

Fairy-like colours of the island of Santorini. On the horizon the tiny island, Nea Kameni, situated within the flooded caldera. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

‘When volcanologists are trying to reconstruct an ancient eruption, [they] use everything [they] can, all the available data and certainly, there are a lot of collaboration between volcanologists, historians and archaeologists’, says Dr. Rosaly Lopes Gaultier (Masjum 2006). ‘In Santorini, for example, it turned out to be a great collaboration because archaeologists can tell the things helping to date the eruption, while other scientists studying the volcano can tell more about the effects and sequence of events. [Hence] it ends up tying it all together. And you even look at legends and stories’ (Ibid.).

So do I …

Featured image: After the volcanic eruption, the circular shape of the island of Thera had been shaped into a semi-circular crescent, which is clearly visible in the aerial photo taken from the plane. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

By Joanna
Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology.
University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland;
Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland;
University College Dublin, Ireland.

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Disaster of the Bronze Age Spreads Beyond the Epicenter

Experts have only recently learnt the true scale of the disaster triggered by the volcano eruption on Thera (see: The World Ended When Gods Turned against the Minoans). As they have concluded, its deadly impact stretched far beyond the island of the tiny Minoan island (Mitchel 2011). The volcano spewed out huge plumes of ash, carried by wind southwards (History Channel 1980s; Lilley 2006). It travelled from Thera to Crete in less than half an hour (Masjum 2006). When the dense clouds appeared, it must have seemed to the Minoans on Crete that nature had turned against them (Lilley 2006). ‘Imagine this ash coming over the island’, asks the professor of Greek archaeology, Jan Driesser (Ibid.). ‘It blackened the air [and the] blue sky for several days’ (Ibid.).

I looked up in the azure colours of the sky over the Mediterranean. I just could not imagine it turning into black pitch and breathing fire and ashes.

Town under the ashes

In 1980s, Prof. McCoy and his colleagues found ash deposits on neighbouring islands and on the seabed near Crete (Lilley 2006). ‘We calculated the amount of the volume of this material, which is how we [figured] out how explosive [the] eruption had been’, says Prof. McCoy (Ibid.). Recent analysis of the seabed around the island has revealed that sediments from pyroclastic flow extend over thirty-two kilometres and are up to eighty meters deep (Mitchell 2011).

The earthquakes on Akrotiri seemed to happen in a couple of waves. One set did substantial damage to the town. Photo by Gretchen Gibbs. Source: Mari N. Jensen, UA College of Science (2018).

Excavations on the island of Santorini reveal that pyroclastic flow broke the upper fronts of the buildings on Thera (Mitchell 2011). Subsequently, the Minoan settlement was buried in a layer of volcanic ash and pumice stones more than forty meters deep (Jensen 2018).

Biblical darkness

With time, more evidence of Thera’s deadly deposits began to emerge not just from the Mediterranean but as far as the Black Sea (Lilley 2006). Volcanic ash must have plunged the region into darkness for weeks (Mitchell 2011). Computer modelling expert and volcano enthusiast, Dr Stuart Dunn, decided to plot the results by creating a database putting together all ash thicknesses with their locations (Lilley 2006). The location and thickness of these residues allowed to calculate how many millions of tons of material were blasted across the region (Ibid.). ‘We concluded that the eruption was very much larger than [it] was previously thought’, admits Prof. McCoy (Ibid.). ‘Now we’re up to ten times of the explosivity of Krakatau’, he concludes (Ibid.). After scientists, It was one of the most violent volcanic eruptions in human history, one hundred times the eruption of the volcano at St Helens and forty thousand times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima (Mitchell 2011).

The ruins of the palace of Knossos on Crete, excavated and then reconstructed by Sir Arthur Evans at the beginning pf the twentieth century. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The clouds of ash caused the climate collapse over the whole region and subsequent lightning and hail storms (Masjum 2006; Wengler 2009). Temperature around the world lowered, inhibiting plant growth even in the British Isles (Mitchell 2011). Before collapsing into itself, the volcano expelled twenty billion cubic metres of molten lava and pumice has been found far inland of the Mediterranean region, where could have been carried by the waves of tsunami (Wengler 2009). Hundred and forty pumice stones from Thera’s eruption were found by Prof. Bietak in Avaris, in the Delta Nile (Ibid.). It is the same site, where the Egyptologist has found the Minoan fresco. Some number of pumice has been also found by archaeologists in Sinai (Ibid.).

Decorative flower-like rosettes from a fresco at Akrotiri, on the island of Thera, today Santorini. Copyright©Archaeotravel

Also this has prompted some scholars to suggest that the stories in the Bible may be linked to Thera eruption (Masjum 2006). In the Book of Exodus, signs of the ten Egyptian plagues include thunder and hail and total darkness, the phenomena that could have been volcanic in origin (Ibid.). And another plague mentioned in the Bible, namely the waters of the Nile turning into blood (Ibid.). Zeilinga de Boer explains that huge amounts of reddish dust, as upper layer in Santorini, and lot of dead material actually wiped out over the area of Egypt (Ibid.). He says that all this volcanic dust was in the atmosphere and was brought in the Nile by very heavy rains falling at a time and so the colour of the Nile could have changed from its natural into reddish tint (Ibid.). For the people of the entire Mediterranean observing such phenomena, the world must have descended into chaos (Ibid.).

Fire in the sky

Prof. McCoy assumes that in the morning, after the eruption, Minoans at Knossos and other towns along the northern coast, must have seen the clouds of smoke on the horizon (Masjum 2006). Although they must have already been frightened, they had no idea yet what was in store for them (Ibid.).

The north entrance to the palace of Knossos passing by the North Pillar Hall. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

‘They saw black sky, lightnings, darkening clouds enveloping them and ash falling on the ground all around them. And constant earthquakes. For them the world looked like it was ending’, he says (Masjum 2006). ‘When something blew up, north of them, on the horizon, they must have known it was the island’, he speculates (Ibid.). ‘Maybe some [Cretans] had family or friends there. There was fire in the sky, […] ash falling out of the sky and even torrential rains coming along with the latter part of the eruption’ (Ibid.). Earthquakes from the eruption triggered further fires setting ablaze the Minoans temples, houses and other buildings (Ibid.). Climate change also badly influenced their agriculture (Ibid.). The effect on them must have been tremendous (Ibid.). Zeilinga de Boer adds that ‘the volcano brought a lot of pumice, the material that floats very easily and have covered apparently most of the eastern Mediterranean for years, making rowing or sailing impossible, so this commercial empire lost its major part of existence’ (Ibid.).

Each numbered triangle represents the deposit of ash from Thera. Source: Harvey Lilley (2006). The Real Atlantis. A Quickfire Media Wales Production for BBC and Arte France.

Until recently, many archaeologists believed that the ash from Thera suffocated the entire island but Dunn’s computer model shows that only the eastern part of Crete received a significant covering, whereas the western part of the island reminded virtually untouched (Lilley 2006). Prevailing winds blew most of the ash clouds away (Ibid.). If the ash did not cause the Minoans’ downfall, what then did? (Ibid.).

Catastrophe speeding up towards Crete

Today the serenity of Crete is a far cry from the fabled land of half-human monsters, bloody sacrifices or natural disasters (History Channel 1980s).

Gramvousa Peninsula in north-western Crete is nowadays a dream destination for tourists. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Much of what is encountered today seems barely to have changed in the course of its mysterious past (History Channel 1980s). Just in the ancient times, the forests were logged because the wood was needed for monumental architecture and ships (Ibid.). Sheep and goats graze here as they have for thousands of years (Ibid.). The work of farmers and shepherds give little hint that this island was once the center of a powerful commercial empire (Ibid.). After centuries of foreign occupations, residents here are more aware of their immediate past (Ibid.). The tale of the Minotaur has faded into a legend (Ibid.). Only at the beginning of the twentieth century, following the independence from the Ottoman Empire archaeologists came (Ibid.). Among the first, there was Sir Arthur Evans, able to start digging into Crete’s great past (Ibid.).

The remains of the Minoan town of Palaikastro, situated on eastern coast of Crete. Photo source: Ian Swindale (2020) “Palaikastro”. In: Minoan Crete. Bronze Age Civilization.The buildings of the town itself show unusual signs of damage. ‘We find some walls entirely missing’, says Dr. Sandy McGillivray.

The archaeologist, Dr Sandy McGillivray has been excavating the Minoan town of Palaikastro on eastern Crete (Lilley 2006). The extent of ruins found there suggests that this was the largest Minoan settlement after Knossos and home to around five hundred people, stretching from the mountainside to the seaside (Ibid.). Like in other Minoan settlements, paved roads with drains were laid on a grid pattern in its town plan (Ibid.). Palaikastro’s extensive workshops produced everything from basic foodstuffs to some of the finest art, yet discovered on Crete (Ibid.).

Today the small hill, the town stood on at the water’s edge is eroding into the sea (Lilley 2006). It reveals strange layers of chaotically mixed material of pottery, building material, stones, cattle bones and lumps of ash, reaching up to five metres above Minoan sea level (Ibid.). After Prof. Hendrik Bruins, a soil scientist who specializes in identifying and dating unusual layers, the deposit does not look like natural archaeological stratification or the result of an earthquake (Ibid.). To find out the origins of the strange deposits in Palaikastro, Prof. Bruins has conducted thorough laboratory studies (Ibid.). He was thrilled by the results (Ibid.). ‘We saw foraminifera in these deposits’, he says (Ibid.). Foraminifera are the shells of tiny organisms only found beneath the sea (Ibid.). Accordingly, it suggests that the deposit has been formed with the power of sea waves (Ibid.). Another marine creature within the soil sample is coralline algae from the seabed (Ibid.). ‘These come from below the sea level and in order to deposit them in that level, where we found them in a promontory, [they had] to be scooped up […] to [the] level, where the sea normally never comes’, explains Prof. Bruins (Ibid.). No storm would have lifted the algae from the seabed and left it stranded metres up on the island (Ibid.). Nevertheless, there is another powerful natural force that has the power to do that (Ibid.). These are tsunami waves (Ibid.). Are the Palaikastro beach deposits the terrifying footprint of a tsunami? (Ibid.).

Now it makes sense

Prof. Costas Synolakis, an expert on tsunami, has explored the excavated part of the Minoan town of Palaikastro, situated three hundred metres from the beach (Lilley 2006). He has found there further evidence that something extraordinary happened there in the far past (Ibid.).

Tsunami waves demolishing the coast of Crete. Shot from the documentary: Atlantis: End of a World, Birth of a Legend (2011): Director: Tony Mitchell. Source: CDA.

The buildings of the town itself show unusual signs of damage (Lilley 2006). ‘We find some walls entirely missing’, says Dr Sandy McGillivray. Prof. Costas Synolakis claims that ‘this is what we [observe] in modern tsunamis. We call this the blow out. The sea comes in [and] blows out the walls. If the building is strong enough, the side walls […] will survive but the walls facing the ocean […] collapse’ (Ibid.). For Dr Sandy McGillivray ‘all of the sudden a lot of deposits [around Palaikastro] began making sense […] because [the town] had these buildings pulled away, [it] had the fronts of buildings missing. [it] had buildings raised right down the foundation level’ (Ibid.). What kind of wave was then powerful enough to cross three hundred metres of land before demolishing a town? (Ibid.).

When Thera erupted, it unleashed a powerful force into the sea, which caused giant waves of tsunami, breaking into Minoan cities, mainly on the north-eastern coast of Crete. Shot from the documentary: Atlantis: End of a World, Birth of a Legend (2011): Director: Tony Mitchell. Source: CDA.

The scientists also travelled further inland of Crete to find out how wide was the range of the waves terrible progress (Lilley 2006). Around one kilometre from the shore, and well above sea level, they have found deposits of seashell (Ibid.). Soil samples from excavation from ancient Palaikastro also contain the tale-tell microscopic signs of marine life, which is another evidence that the tsunami deluged the town (Ibid.).

Destructive tsunamis

When Thera erupted, it unleashed a powerful force into the sea (Masjum 2006). Scientists believe it caused giant waves of tsunamis (Ibid.). Hour after hour, pyroclastic flows on Thera were pushing volcanic debris into the sea, causing great tsunami waves that battered the Aegean coast (Masjum 2006; Mitchell 2011). ‘And then what happens is that the centre of the volcano […] has been blasted. it collapses to produce today’s caldera’, describes Prof. Floyd. ‘The land suddenly fell in, the ocean poured in and out producing constant tsunami’ (Masjum 2006). Inhabitants of nearby Crete could notice warning signs, but did not have enough time to react (Mitchell 2011). The first tsunami moving at the speed of three hundred and twenty kilometres per hour reached the coast of Crete within twenty minutes (Ibid.). At the time of contact with the land, the wave could have been up to twenty meters high (Ibid.).

The remains of the Minoan town of Malia, Crete. Scientists have found there layers of smashed pottery, building debris and crushed seashells that are observed along the northern coast of Crete as the results of the tsunamis. Source: Ian Swindale (2020) “Malia”. In: Minoan Crete. Bronze Age Civilization.

Apparently, the tsunami generated by Thera eruption was powerful enough to ravage the entire civilization (Lilley 2006). On the north coast of Crete, fifty kilometres west along the coast from Palaikastro, Malia lies. Now it is known for ruins of a Minoan palace but once it was the third largest settlement on coastal Crete (Ibid.). Close by the ruins, the team of scientists has found the same layers of smashed pottery, building debris and crushed seashells that they have observed in Palaikastro (Ibid.). That is further evidence that a huge wave had struck the northern coast of Crete, dumping marine life onto the land (Ibid.). Next step was the study of the Minoan port of Amnissos (Ibid.). The site is located west of Malia and near the settlement of Knossos (Ibid.). Four thousand years ago, a villa nestled among olive groves on this idyllic coast (Ibid.). It was decorated with frescoes that celebrated the Minoan love of nature (Ibid.). But about the time of eruption of the volcano, the villa was destroyed and the frescoes torn from the walls (Ibid.). Pumice from Thera was once found in the ruins of this Minoan villa (Ibid.). Initially it was thought that the petrified volcanic froth may have been brought in there by a storm (Ibid.). However, the team has also found Thera pumice higher in the hills behind the villa, twenty metres above sea level, which may suggest it floated in on a massive tsunami (Ibid.).

NOVA senior science editor, Evan Hadingham, described the tidal wave as ‘terrifyingly destructive’, perhaps larger than the Indian Ocean tsunami that hit Banda Aceh, Indonesia, in 2004. Source: Telegram.com (2007).

Dr Sandy McGillivray says that he remembers from his childhood a big anthill at one end of the garden and as a child he used to go with a garden hose and wash ants off it (Lilley 2006). That memory keeps coming back to in his memory when he is thinking how the tsunami destroyed the Minoans on Crete (Ibid.). Tsunamis weeping people out to the sea must have been just like washing ants off the anthill. ‘It is a terrifying thing’, he admits (Ibid.). ‘Those ants never had a chance [to survive]’ (Ibid.). ‘Once the tsunami starts climbing up on dry land’, he continues (Ibid.). ‘It’s moving at [such] speed that nothing can stop it’ (Ibid.).

You wish you hadn’t found out …

Evidence gathered also demonstrates the range of destructive powers of the tsunami that would have struck on northern coasts of Crete (Lilley 2006).

As it can be concluded, when the caldera of Thera collapsed, it sent several walls of water into the Aegean Sea, like a pebble dropping into a pond (Lilley 2006). These waves cumulated around the islands and bounced off them (Ibid.). As a result, Crete was hit not by one but by several rebounding waves (Ibid.). The intervals between them were from around forty-five to thirty minutes (Ibid.). Recent studies have shown that more tsunamis ravaged cities on the northern coast of Crete for hours or even days after the eruption (Mitchell 2011). It is estimated that they killed from thirty to forty thousand people (Ibid.). After the first tsunami, there were surely Cretans who escaped but they came back to look for the injured and dead relatives and friends, smashed by the powerful wave (Lilley 2006). They did not realize that another wave was coming (Ibid.). Consequently, the survivors of the first wave may have become the victims of the second (Ibid.).

Atlantis: End of a World, Birth of a Legend (2011): Director: Tony Mitchell; Writer: Rhidian Brook; Stars: Stephanie Leonidas, Reece Ritchie, Langley Kirkwood; Network: BBC One
Documentary tells the story of the greatest natural disaster of the ancient world, an event that some experts believe inspired the legend of Atlantis. Source: Youtube.

Dr McGillivray has been deeply moved by the obtained results. ‘You know, it’s like time looking for something and then when you find it, you wish you hadn’t because it becomes too real and, you know, you begin to feel the experience’, he admits (Lilley 2006). ‘This is life, this is people just being washed out to sea [in vast numbers]. There’s a whole instant that flashes through your head’ (Ibid.).

Mysterious legend that haunts to this day

The most massive volcanic eruption of the ancient world blew the island of Thera apart and buried for centuries all the evidence of the lives of people who had once called it home (Westbrook 1995). Yet memories have remained (Ibid.). Footprints in the dust have finally been discovered by archaeologists (Ibid.). There are, however, no written records left about the Thera’s eruption and subsequent tsunamis, no figures for the death or destruction it has caused (Lilley 2006). It is only known that the rich culture of the Minoans, one that awed and inspired the earliest civilizations of the Mediterranean, completely vanished at the end of the Bronze Age (History Channel 1980s). Was the powerful empire of the Minoans destroyed by natural forces or was there human intervention? (Ibid.).

Bronze Group of a Bull and an Acrobat, the so-called a bull-leaper. Said to be from south west Crete. Today it is preserved by the British Museum. Photo by Carole Raddato from FRANKFURT, Germany (2011). CC BY-SA 2.0. Photo source: “Minoan Bull-leaper” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

On Thera, a massive eruption had buried Minoan streets and buildings beneath the flowing lava (History Channel 1980s). Meantime, clouds of ash engulfed the entire region (Ibid.). Crops were ruined and livestock suffocated (Ibid.). Consequently, all life on Santorini was destroyed (Ibid.). The utter destruction of the island and its people who settled there, must have left the powers of the region awestruck (Westbrook 1995). The palaeontologist, Charles Pellegrino, claims that the Egyptians must have known Thera (Ibid.). In the Bronze Age, it was surely known as a powerful colony of the Minoans (Ibid.). Egyptian ships would have travelled north to the very mountainous island for trading (Ibid.). After the volcano eruption, there was nothing but the silvers of broken rib-like land (Ibid.). Pellegrino thinks that to the ancient Egyptians finding the still smoking and blooming crater probably meant that the whole island and its inhabitants had simply sunk and disappeared (Ibid.). In centuries to come a great legend was heard of a Utopian island society that vanished in the sea “in a single day and night” (Ibid.).

The Palace of Knossos: North Passage. 3D Digital Reconstruction by John Carlina (2011). Source: Youtube.

Did the Egyptian priests mean Thera in their written story of the sunken island that they retold to Solon? According to some scholars, the history of the volcanic disaster on Thera may have been recorded by the ancient Egyptians and survived in repeatedly embellished stories (Mitchell 2011). In the fourth century BC., they may have inspired the Greek philosopher to write a morality play about the rise and fall of a great civilization, called Atlantis (Ibid.). For centuries, Plato’s words were considered a legend, until archaeologists discovered a lost world on Thera (Ibid.).

In one day and one night

The legend of Atlantis has teased human imagination ever since (Westbrook 1995). Some scholars definitely claims the story is a myth, others believe it is a true story and they either still keep looking for it or point to the small dot in the Aegean between Egypt, Greece and Asia, today just a rim of volcanic rock jutting out of the sea (Ibid.). Is Thera a legendary Atlantis? (Ibid.). Plato described the island of Atlantis as alternating rings of land and sea (Mitchell 2011). The port was full of ships and buyers from all over the world (Ibid.). Such great wealth had never been seen before (Ibid.). Bulls grazed at Poseidon’s temple, and ten princes hunted for them using wooden sticks and ropes (Ibid.). Then came powerful earthquakes and floods (Ibid.). In one day and one night, Atlantis was swallowed up by the sea and disappeared (Ibid.).

Bull’s head rhyton from the palace at Knossos, Crete. It is made of black steatite, jasper, and mother-of-pearl. One of the greatest finds. Now exposed by the Archaeological Museum in Heraklion. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

After some enthusiasts of the legend, like Pellegrino, there are some convincing clues and local finds that confirm that Plato’s Atlantis was in fact the island of Thera (History Channel 1980s; Mitchell 2011). “Like the Atlanteans, the Minoans were island-dwellers with shipyards, powerful fleets and a thriving maritime commerce. They had fine houses and superb artifacts, and were skilful builders and engineers – again like the Atlanteans. As in Atlantis, the bull, sacred to Poseidon the earth-shaker, was important in Minoan rituals (Harpur, Westwood 1997:21). Also Plato describes Atlantis as an island made of sea and land rings (Mitchell 2011). Thera’s reconstructions before the volcanic eruption show that the island could have fit this description (Ibid.). The unusual terrain was the effect of the most powerful geological forces on earth, always active beneath the island throughout its geological history (Ibid.). Nevertheless, there would have just been one concentric ring of land and two of water, building up the island, whereas Plato describes Atlantis as a fortified dwelling place with concentric rings, two of land and three of water (Harpur, Westwood 1997:18). Thera, as one of the Minoan colonies in the Mediterranean, was too small to be self-sufficient (Mitchell 2011), yet it was as wealthy and self-assured as much as the settlements of Minoans on Crete (Lilley 2006). Its geographical location made it an important trading point in the Mediterranean (Mitchell 2011). Its buyers acted as intermediaries by trading precious metals, oil, wine, ceramics and spices from Africa, Asia and Europe (Ibid.).

Bull-leaping fresco from the east wing of the palace of Knossos (reconstructed). Today in the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion. Photo by Jebulon and one more author – Own work (2015). Originally at Wikipedia. CC0. Bull-leaping was an important initiation ritual for young Minoan men, perhaps also for women (Mitchell 2011). Photo source: Dr. Senta German (2020). Bull-leaping fresco from the palace of Knossos. In: Khan Academy.

Also the bull, especially bull-leaping, is a recurring theme in Minoan art and there are many depictions of this powerful animal (Westbrook 1995). Such representations echo Plato’s description of Atlantis; there are described golden cups with scenes of bull ceremonies engraved on the sides, also analogous to Plato’s narrative (Ibid.). Such details as bulls being tied up by nooses and with rope furthermore match the author’s descriptions (Ibid.). Pellegrino also recounts the moment ‘early in [the twentieth] century, when the Minoan civilisation was being unearthed’ (Ibid.). ‘Some of the first archaeologists to arrive on the site, looking at the paintings of the bull ceremonies, and so on, said: ‘that’s Plato! That’s his Atlantis story!’, he claims (Ibid.). Plato also mentions that “first noble and innocent, the Atlanteans in time became power-hungry aggressors, seeking to subjugate neighbouring lands. Eventually, they were however, defeated by the Athenians, and then their island was destroyed by natural forces, earthquake and flood” (Harpur, Westwood 1997:18). As archaeological records suggest, the Greeks indeed invaded and conquered the Minoans in the second half of the fifteenth century BC. Moreover, like the wonderful civilization of Atlantis, Thera was destroyed by a terrible cataclysm during its greatest heyday and vanished (Westbrook 1995). “If Plato’s date for Atlantis, 9 000 years before Solon, were to lose a zero (a scribal error, perhaps, or storyteller’s exaggeration), [after some scholars], it would fit neatly into the timescale of Minoan culture” (Harpur, Westwood 1997:21).

Elephants on Thera?

“But problems remain, not least the fact that Plato explicitly states that Atlantis lay beyond the Pillars of Hercules, [on the Atlantic Ocean]” (Harpur, Westwood 1997:21). Although Thera’s explosion blew the island apart, it only precipitated the downfall of Minoan Crete, which eventually happened generations after the volcano eruption with the invasions of Mycenaeans from Greece (Ibid.:21). Correspondingly, the Minoans were not defeated by “the Athenians” before the natural disaster but long after it. There are also other differences between Plato’s story and archaeological facts about ancient Thera. Among animals living on Atlantis, there were elephants, which did not live on Thera, at least not in the Bronze Age (Ibid.:18). Thera was also too small to fit Plato’s description or to be divided into ten kingdoms between Poseidon’s descendants, like Atlantis actually was (Ibid.:18).

Found at Akrotiri, Minoan frescoes of Boxing Boys or Girls (on the left) and Gazelles (on the right) Today they are exposed in the National Archaeological Museum of Athens. Photo source: Ricardo André Frantz (User: Tetraktys). CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo source: “Wall Paintings of Thera” (2020). Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

What is more, Crete and not Thera was the headquarters of the Minoan empire. And, unlike the legend of Atlantis says, Crete did not disappear in a single night and day (Westbrook 1995). It was only Thera that vanished (Ibid.). Plato does not either mention any volcano eruption on Atlantis but the fact the island was destroyed by earthquakes and floods (Masjum 2006). Moreover, although recurring representations of bull ceremonies are the traces left by the Minoan civilization, the evidence is hardly found on Santorini (Westbrook 1995). Yet it is abundant on Crete (Ibid.). Or maybe was Thera (and the Minoans) just a legacy of the Atlanteans, and not Atlantis itself?

Fatal thread to Cretans

Prof. Walter Friedrich, a geologist, thinks that the volcano eruption was entirely fatal for Thera, but not for Crete (History Channel 1980s). For Cretans living on the northern coast of their island, the biggest thread came from the sea (Ibid.). Giant waves of tsunamis swept across the Aegean, destroying their glamorous architecture and powerful fleet (Ibid.). The tsunami was enough to bring a great civilization to its knees but there were survivors (Lilley 2006). Knossos, the Minoan capital was too far inland to be destroyed (Ibid.). According to archaeological evidence, the Minoans rebuilt their palaces, and although they never regained their full power and influence, they could still create exquisite works of art (Ibid.).

Detail of the Palaikastro Kouros. It is a statuette of a male figure, probably an idol, made of serpentine, hippopotamus ivory, and gold. The statuette was deliberately destroyed during social unrest following the volcano eruption. (Archaeological Museum of Siteia, photo by Olaf Tausch, CC BY 3.0). Source: Dr. Senta German (2020). “Statuette of a Male Figure (The Palaikastro Kouros)”. In: Khan Academy.

‘Did the volcanic eruption on Santorini directly destroy the Minoan culture’, asks Dr Don Evely, the archaeologist (Masjum 2006). ‘The answer is simply no. If, however, we ask a more subtle question: did it contribute to the decline? Did it undermine the Minoan power? The answer is almost certainly yes.’ (Ibid.). The devastating effects of Thera’s eruption on Crete are not limited to the number of dead and destroyed palaces (Mitchell 2011). Minoan society suffered a serious shock (Ibid.). Archaeological data testifies a deep social unrest; towns and temples were looted and set on fire (Ibid.). People were probably sacrificed (Ibid.).

Invaders from Greece

A final outburst of destruction overtook the Minoans in around 1450 BC (Lilley 2006). In western Crete, an excavation in the heart of the modern town of Chania has revealed evidence of arson, which proves strong fires once took place there (Ibid.). It is a pattern repeated also in other sites across the island (Ibid.). Was this a revolution within the Minoan society or is it the evidence of conquest by outsiders? (Ibid.). The archaeologist, Dr Maria Vlazaki, discovered a highly unusual cemetery in Chania (Ibid.). It dates from the same period as the widespread destruction in the Minoan world (Ibid.). ‘These are warrior graves’, she claims (Ibid.). ‘They are single burials, something that is in opposition with the traditional [Minoan grave. The buried were of the age] between twenty-four and thirty. They [were] tall, robust and they look [like] invaders’ (Ibid.). These invaders’ burials have been also found at Knossos and elsewhere on Crete so it suggests an invasion from the mainland of Greece (Ibid.). The invaders are believed to have slashed and burned their way across Crete, overwhelming the Minoans (Ibid.).

Flotilla fresco of the miniature frieze from the West House or House of the Admiral at Akrotiri, Room 5, south wall: detail. It probably represents a mountainous landscape of the island of Thera with its flourishing port and fleet. Source: Fritz Blakolmer (2012). “Image and Architecture: Reflections of Mural Iconography in Seal Images and Other Art Forms of Minoan Crete”. In: Minoan Realities. AEGIS Approaches to Images, Architecture, and Society in the Aegean Bronze Age, pp. 83-114. Diamantis Panagiotopoulos et Ute Günkel-Maschek (dir.), fig. 27.

Dr McGillivray believes that the tsunamis and forthcoming social unrest may have actually helped the Mycenaeans to attack Crete (Lilley 2006). Coastal towns of the Minoans, like Malia, had no protective walls (Ibid.). Minoan defences rested instead on their control of the sea as the leading naval power in the ancient world (Ibid.). ‘The [islanders] were so confident in their navy that they were living in unprotected towns and cities all along the coastline’, he explains (Ibid.). All that naval force must have been, however, smashed and lost in the waves of tsunamis (Ibid.). Meantime, the fleet of Mycenae had grown in power (Ibid.). ‘[Their] traditional homeland is on the southern shores of the Gulf of Corinth’, says Dr McGillivray (Ibid.). The archaeologist thinks that the tsunami could not reach into there because of its geographical landscape and natural closure from the sea (Ibid.). ‘Mycenaean Greeks up there were probably the only people who had survived with a navy, possibly in the whole eastern Mediterranean’, he explains (Ibid.). Hence their upcoming powerful empire.

Idyllic life on the coast of Crete. The town of Amnisos was believed to have served as the harbour of Knossos, which was located farther inland and so was not directly affected by the tsunamis. Shot from the documentary: Atlantis: End of a World, Birth of a Legend (2011): Director: Tony Mitchell. Source: Sherna Bhumgara (2004). Hooked on Inspiration’s Blog.

Did these invaders encounter a dark side of Minoan culture? (Lilley 2006). In Knossos, archaeologists have found grisly human remains (Ibid.). ‘One of the most telling and horrifying deposits from the post-Thera eruption period in Crete was a deposit recovered in the town of Knossos up along the Royal Road and that [were] these cannibalized youths’, says Dr McGillivray (Ibid.). ‘The analysis of these bones from this […] deposit strongly [suggests] that [the bones] have been hacked up in order to take the flesh off [and] eat [it]. This cannibalistic aspect of the Minoans is probably one of the things that was recalled when the Greeks first arrived in Crete’ (Ibid.). Was this an origin of the Minotaur myth? (Ibid.). Did the Greeks imagine that these unlucky victims had been led to the labyrinth to be sacrificed to the Minoan bull god? (Ibid.). Whatever is the truth of their myth’s origins, within a generation of their arrival, the Greeks had conquered Crete (Ibid.). The last embers of Minoan culture flickered out (Ibid.).

Between now and then

Today, the only things that have survived from the Minoan culture are the remains of their monumental architecture, being visited by flocks of tourists every summer (Masjum 2006).

Today, Crete is being visited by hordes of tourists, who usually prefer sandy beaches and the warm sea to spending time on archaeological sites, where the heat is quite unbearable. Yet, the Minoan legends are still very tangible on the island and their elements can be encountered and felt everywhere on the island. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Yet for most the real story of the catastrophic disaster smashing the civilization is too heavy for people’s relaxing vacation. Soon most tourists usually abandon the ancient stones and go to sandy beaches. But endowed with its natural grandeur, the Aegean islands and Crete fire people imagination. In this idyllic landscape the atmosphere of the past is still very tangible. And it makes them unconsciously listen to its legends.

Featured image: The refugees from the erupting Thera are trying to flee to Crete. Shot from the documentary: Atlantis: End of a World, Birth of a Legend (2011): Director: Tony Mitchell. Source: CDA.

By Joanna
Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology.
University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland;
Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland;
University College Dublin, Ireland.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

“Minoan Bull-leaper” (2020). In:  Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/2TJkdNa>. [Accessed on 27th May, 2020].

“Wall Paintings of Thera” (2020). Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/2XL26YH>. [Accessed on 26th May, 2020].

Blakolmer F. (2012) “Image and Architecture: Reflections of Mural Iconography in Seal Images and Other Art Forms of Minoan Crete”. In: Minoan Realities. AEGIS Approaches to Images, Architecture, and Society in the Aegean Bronze Age, pp. 83-114. Diamantis Panagiotopoulos et Ute Günkel-Maschek (dir.). Available at <https://bit.ly/2TF7bR1>. [Accessed on 26th May, 2020].

Bhumgara S. (2004) Hooked on Inspiration’s Blog. Available at <https://bit.ly/2ZKfCOH>. [Accessed on 28th May, 2020].

Bibi Saint-Pol (2012) “Illustration: A Map of Minoan Crete”. In: Ancient History Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3gvVoyi>. [Accessed on 27th May, 2020].

Carlina J. (2011) The Palace of Knossos: North Passage. 3D Digital Reconstruction. Available at <https://bit.ly/2TFQFQK>. [Accessed on 25th May, 2020].

German S. Dr. (2020). “Statuette of a Male Figure (The Palaikastro Kouros)”. In: Khan Academy. Available at <https://bit.ly/2LX6bTN>. [Accessed on 26th May, 2020].

German S. Dr. (2020). Bull-leaping fresco from the palace of Knossos. In: Khan Academy. Available at <https://bit.ly/2Pwgr81>. [Accessed on 27th May, 2020].

Harpur J., Westwood J. (1997) The Atlas of Legendary Places. New York: Marshal Editions.

History Channel (1980s) Crete. Death came from the Sea. Time Life’s Lost Civilizations. Available at <https://bit.ly/3d3mCKx>. [Accessed on 21st May, 2020].

Jensen M. N. (2018) “Dating the ancient Minoan eruption of Thera using tree rings” In: UA College of Science. Available at <https://bit.ly/36D5GI8>. [Accessed on 28th May, 2020].

Lilley H. (2006) The Real Atlantis. A Quickfire Media Wales Production for BBC and Arte France.

Masjum M. (2006) Inside the Volcano. Kraylevich Productions Inc.; Mechanism Digital.

Mitchell T. (2011) Atlantis: End of a World, Birth of a Legend. BBC Production.

Swindale I. (2020) “Malia”. In: Minoan Crete. Bronze Age Civilization. Available at <https://bit.ly/3d8jSv9>. [Accessed on 27th May, 2020].

Swindale I. (2020) “Palaikastro”. In: Minoan Crete. Bronze Age Civilization. Available at <https://bit.ly/2Xx4v9b>. [Accessed on 27th May, 2020].

Telegram.com (2007) “Layers of Mystery – Archaeologists Look to the Earth for Minoan Fate”. In: Red Ice.TV. Available at <https://bit.ly/3daXXnd>. [Accessed on 28th May, 2020].

Wengler G. (2009) The Biblical Plagues; Episode 2: Darkness Over Egypt. Taglicht Media GMBH; ZDF Enterprises.

Westbrook J. (1995) Time life’s: Lost Civilizations; Episode 4: Aegean: The Legacy of Atlantis. Time-Life Video & Television.

Following the Spiral of the Phaistos Disc’s Mystery

Here in the capital of Crete, the Phaistos Disc is preserved in the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion. Today, it is one of the icons of Minoan civilization and so one of the main attractions of the Museum attracting visitors from all the corners of the modern world (Gregor 2016).

Just like Zbigniew Herbert[1] once, during his visit to the Archaeological Museum in Heraklion, I devoted some time to this Disc, standing long in front of its private glass case. I was wondering that if it stood just among other Minoan artifacts, it would attract so much attention of many visitors who would not know its history, or what mystery it is associated with. Or perhaps their trained eye would notice that it differs from typical Cretan finds, especially the Minoan writing from clay tablets or from images of miniature seals made of gold and carved stone.


[1] Zbigniew Herbert (1924 – 1998), a Polish poet, essayist, drama writer and moralist. His trilogy (three volumes of essays: Barbarian in the Garden, Still Life with a Bridle and Labyrinth on the Sea-Shore) is the result of his trips around Europe, during which he describes, with a passion typical of art connoisseurs, particular places and artifacts he has seen.

The pearl of Italian Archaeology

A famous discovery in Phaistos was made by members of the Italian Archaeological Society, who were working at the same time as Sir Arthur Evans (1851–1941) in Knossos (Gregor 1997:24). ‘Glory to the Italian archaeologists to whom Phaistos has been entrusted,’ writes Zbigniew Herbert (2000:54). It includes sheer ruins, without pretentious reconstructions, a complete contradiction to Knossos (Herbert 2000:54).

Palace complex at Phaistos. Ruins of Phaistos; Municipality of Festos, Crete, Greece. Photo by Olaf Tausch (2007). CC BY-SA 3.0. Colours intensified. Photo source: “Phaistos Disc” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Dr Alessandro Greco says that Italian archaeology on Crete began in very special historical circumstances, when Greece had achieved an independence from the Ottoman Empire, in the middle of the previous century (Gregor 2016). Consequently, Crete was divided into several protectorates: Italian, French and British (Ibid.). It was due to this situation that archaeologists from Italy were able to work without any obstacles (Ibid.). Nevertheless, when an Italian archaeologist and the protagonist of the story, Luigi Pernier (1874–1937), landed on Crete, the island was still officially ruled by Ottoman Turks (Ibid.). At that time, archaeologists working in the south of the Island of Crete had far greater difficulties to deal with than Evans’ group working parallelly in Knossos (Ibid.). The coast in the south is bleak and uninviting; archaeologists there had to be good climbers because many of the sites have been set in the remote valleys or in high mountains, where access is still extremely difficult (Ibid.). In such mountainous landscape, it was possible to explore the island only on donkeys and the researchers themselves were continuously exposed to malaria (Ibid.). Although challenging, the mountains also provided once Minoans with the protection against foreign invaders (Ibid.). Beyond the mountains lies the Libyan Sea, which once connected the Minoans with the developed cultures of the Near East and Egypt (Ibid.).

From the hills of Phaistos the valley leads to the sea, and behind it, Mount Ida rises with a white cap on the top; there was the grotto of Zeus (Herbert 2000:54-55). The so-called Phaistos Palace, where Luigi Pernier was excavating, was also the site where one of the greatest puzzles of the Minoan Empire was discovered – the Phaistos Disc (Gregor 2016).

Mystery of baked clay

“In July 1908, […] Luigi Pernier [had] discovered a small disc of baked clay in a basement cell […] at the site of the Palace of Phaistos, on the south coast of Crete.” (Ward 2020).

The Phaistos Disc: Side A; the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion, Crete, Greece (2011). Copyright©Archaeotravel.

At first sight, the discovery must rather have seemed unexceptional; it was just a simple terracotta disc in the shape of a not quite regular circle, with a diameter of sixteen centimetres and about two centimetres thick (Gregor 1997:24; Herbert 2000:53). Nevertheless, soon it has turned out to be one of the most unique archaeological artifacts, which has ever been excavated on Earth (Georgievska 2016). Today it still “remains an enigma; its purpose and meaning and even its original geographical place of manufacture remain disputed, making it one of the most famous mysteries of [human history]” (Ibid.).

Invention of ancient Gutenberg

The Phaistos Disc’s mystery is inscribed on both of its sides, labelled as A and B, where its surface is covered with undecipherable pictographs (see: Ward 2020). Those are stamps pressed in wet clay yet before the Disc was fired (Ibid.). They are composed of various symbols, which involved making a movable type or rather sealstone for each pictograph (possibly for the very first time in the history of writing) (Gregor 1997:24-25; Ward 2020). As Zbigniew Herbert notices, creators of the Phaistos Disc must have been then Gutenberg’s precursors, because each character on the Disc was imprinted with a separate stamp, which could be satisfactorily called a prototype of a modern type used for printing (Herbert 2000:53).

The Phaistos Disc: Side B; the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion, Crete, Greece (2011). Copyright©Archaeotravel.

As such, the so-called Phaistos Disc is the oldest embossed inscription, yet significantly different from the hieroglyphic writing of the Minoans (Linear A) (Gregor 1997:24-25; Herbert 2000:53).

Signet seal with a spiral

By this occasion, it is worth mentioning that Minoans astoundingly mastered the craftsmanship of miniature, though highly precise, gold or hardstone seal-stones with intricate carvings in their own peculiar style, showing various mythological, ritual and everyday scenes, typical of the Minoan culture (“Minoan Sealstones” 2018).

A gem-grade seal-stone (top) and its impression. Minoan Seal, 1700 BC, Badisches Landesmuseum Karlsruhe – Special Exhibition. Photo by Andree Stephan (2001). CC BY 3.0. Photo source: “Minoan sealstone” (2018). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Even if the visual language of the scenes is still puzzling, the function sealstones is not such a mystery; they were possibly used by rulers, dignitaries and priests to place their official seals on documents and letters (Gregor 2016). But whereas on each of the Minoan sealstones, there is a ‘negative’ (embossed) image leaving a ‘positive’, three-dimensional impression on the soft surface, the pictographs from Phaistos were made in the other way round; the types with ‘positive’ images therefore have given ‘negative’ impressions in clay. The way the Minoan sealstones were used also suggests that such archaic types as those from Phaistos must have been used more than once, even if they had been intended uniquely for composing sacred texts (Ward 2020). Yet they had not been applied to any other known clay surface (Ibid.). At least, no other Minoan artefact bearing pictographs identical to those of the Phaistos Disc, has ever been found in Crete (Ibid.). There are, however, a few examples showing iconographical analogies present on the Phaistos Disc (Gregor 2016). One of the Minoan gold seals, which is a signet with a ‘negative’ image, has got the spiral form and includes an undeciphered pictorial inscription; the both characteristics resemble the features of the Phaistos Disc (Ibid.).

What is the Disc’s message?

The mysterious characters all flow around the Disc as spiral strings that may represent pictorial or hieroglyphic writing that archaeologists are still trying to decipher (Gregor 199724-25). However, so far they have not produced any decisive results (Ibid:25). What do the Disc’s symbols mean and what is their message? (Gregor 1997:25). The Disc has already been ascribed many different functions; a calendar, “poem, hymn [or] a prayer [ to the goddess of fertility], sacred text, magic inscription, curse, […] funerary record, almanac, court list, political treaty, proof of a geometric theorem, list of soldiers, a board game and even musical notation for a stringed instrument” (Ward 2020). For some it can be even a message from aliens or the Atlanteans (Gregor 1997:25); “[some] believe that it was a Token used in healing rituals or other ceremonies in ancient times” (Georgievska 2016), whereas others have recognised in it a report of the journey of one of the Minoan missionaries who visited Numidia, located in the northern coast of Africa (the ancient kingdom of the Numidians, 202–40 BC., situated in what is now Algeria and a smaller part of Tunisia and small part of Libya in the Maghreb) (Gregor 1997:25; “Numidia” 2021). On the other side, for a British researcher Alan Butler (TheHallOfRecords 2015), the Disc was a piece of a Bronze Age sophisticated calendar, and so it should rather be interpreted in terms of astronomy.

Fields numbering by Louis Godart (born in 1945); an Italian archaeologist of Belgian origins, a specialist in Mycenaean archaeology and philology, currently Director for the Conservation of Artistic Heritage of the Italian President. Image by D. Herdemerten (2009). CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo source: “Phaistos Disc” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Zbigniew Herbert (2000:53) mentions a French researcher, Marcel F. Homet, who basing on a certain similarity of the hieroglyphs from Phaistos and Indian rock carvings of South America, concluded that this Minoan artifact is no less than a letter of the last inhabitants of Atlantis, containing a description of the catastrophe and the fate of those few who managed to escape it safe. Academic scholars, however, ignore Homet’s theory placing it between fairy tales (Ibid.:53).

In the 1980s, an ancient history and languages specialist, Christian O’Brien (1985), puts forward another hypothesis related to the Phaistos Disc, comparing its pictographs to Sumerian cuneiform (Ward 2020), “wedge-shaped marks on clay tablets, made by use of a blunt reed as a stylus” (Ibid.). After the researcher, the inscription from Crete would have originated from the earliest systems of writing, which were invented in the fourth millennium BC., in Mesopotamia (Ibid.). Such an ancient writing is present in the world’s oldest religious text, known as the Kharsag Epics, which tells a story of the foundation of a settlement near Mount Hermon, in modern-day Lebanon (Ibid.). Accordingly, the Phaistos Disc would be a Cretan version of the story which had originated in the Middle-Eastern Kharsag, and had been written in the pictographs predating but linked to the proto-Sumerian language (Ibid.).

It is also worth mentioning another way of reading the inscription (Gregor 1997:25). It was proposed by a Norwegian linguist Kjell Aatrun in 1991 (Ibid.:25). He interpreted the signs as a Semitic writing (Ibid.:25). Semites represent the nations of the ancient Middle East, using the following languages: Aramaic, Hebrew, Syrian, Arabic, and Akkadian (Ibid.:25). During the Bronze Age, Semitic influences reached Ethiopia and Upper Egypt, and from there over 4,500 years ago came to Crete (Ibid.:25). Aatrun believes that he can decipher the secrets of the disk by comparing its writing to other old Semitic written records (Ibid.:25). Aatrun interpreted the signs in the Phaistos disc as an invitation to intercourse addressed by a woman to a man (Gregor 1997:25). In his opinion, these forty-five characters are a written rite celebrating the deprivation of virginity (Ibid.:25). Every spring in Phaistos, girls who were mature enough to begin their sexual life may have gathered in large numbers to sacrifice their virginity to some deity by participating in the initiation ritual and becoming women (Ibid.:26). According to Aatrun’s interpretation, the disc would be a songbook and instructions for priests (Ibid.:26). Massive deflorations made by Minoan priests as a part of the fertility rite would also occurred in Babylonia, so Kjell Aatrun’s proposition to interpret the disc is not without sense (Ibid.:26).

In a pile of valuable deposition

Most researchers agree that the Phaistos Disc is Minoan in its origins and it possibly dates back to the Middle Minoan (2100-1600 BC.) or Late Minoan (1600-1100 BC.) Bronze Age. Although the information board in the Archaeological Museum in Heraklion says that the Disc comes from the New Palace Period (1600-1450 BC.) (information from July, 2011, generally accepted period for the Disc is the end of the so-called First Palaces on Crete (1900-1700 BC.) (Georgievska 2016; Gregor 2016). Such a range of dating also shows how little is known about the artifact. Accepting the latter period, it was a very wealthy time in Minoan history but it was ended around 1700 BC by massive earthquakes (Gregor 2016).

Tablet of Linear A (Ph-1), found with Phaistos disc. From Arthur Evans “The palace of Minos”, 1921 (PD-license). Public domain. Drawing source: “Phaistos Disc” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The Phaistos Disc, which was found in the basement along with the remains of other clay tablets and Kamares pottery (Gregor 2016). For this reason it can be assumed that the Disc had been deposited in the part of the Palace, where other valuable objects were stored (Ibid.). After Luigi Pernier the Disc probably fell down together with other artifacts from the upper story during the earthquakes (Ibid.). But how did such a fragile object survive its fall from several meters down and the crash against the hardstone floor without any apparent damage? (Ibid.) An answer to this question is offered by another theory, according to which the Disc did not fall down but it had been originally deposited in the basement cell, where it was finally excavated.

Precursor of Minoan Linear A?

The date ascribed to the Disc is also the time of Linear A script development. “Comparisons of existing Linear A examples have led some scholars to believe the [Disc] actually is a version of Linear A” (Ward 2020); for example, Kjell Aatrun believes that the clay tablets with Linear A script found in the archives of the palace in Phaistos are a simplified working version of ritual-religious hieroglyphs from the Disc, collecting data from the field of administration or legal rulings (Gregor 1997:26). Perhaps the priests, using ‘holy’ archaic writing, recorded some spells or a mystery on the disc? (Ibid.:25). Some language experts studying the script argue that it may be a cult hymn because it is possible to find the rhythmic arrangement of symbols and the repetition of certain combinations of signs (Ibid.:25). Also Dr Alessandro Greco claims the Phaistos Disc originated in Crete; it is because its script features open syllables as much as all later Minoan scripts in Linear A and B, which are also an open syllable writing type (Gregor 2016).

How to read it?

Generally, it is believed that even a layman, after examining the artifact more closely, will realize that he Phaistos Disc’s narrative should be read from the outside to the inside (Gregor 1997:25; Ward 2020), that is to say “clockwise from the outside of the spiral into the centre” (Ward 2020).

After a researcher, Dr. Minas Tsikritsis (Menzies 2011:306), however, the idea of spiral is actually the key to the way of reading the Disc. He claims that the Minoans continued to use spiral patterns, as in the Disc of Phaistos, and unlike other researchers, Dr. Tsikritsis believes that the spiraling symbols printed in the clay can be read back and forth, that is to say, from the outside to the center and backwards, from the inside out (Ibid.:306). Supporting the thesis is the fact that characters printed on the outer edge also repeat inwards (Gregor 1997:25). Also Geoff Ward (2020) indicates the spiral format of the Disc’s writing can be significant itself in understanding its meaning. After the author “[the] spiral [is] the age-old symbol, found in cultures [in the whole world], of creation, life-giving and aspiration, of birth and rebirth, and of spiritual development and our identity with the universe” (Ward 2020). The spiral is also a universal symbol of the Mother Goddess to whom the Phaistos inscription has been equally ascribed as a prayer or a hymn (Ibid.).

The side A of the disc of Phaistos, as displayed in the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion after the 2014 renovation. Photo by C messier (2015). CC BY-SA 4.0. Photo source: “Phaistos Disc” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The spiralling string of symbols actually begin with a visible straight line marked with five or six dots at the edge of each side of the Disc, which is probably the point from where the reading of the text should also be started (Ward 2020). On side A, adjacent to the starting point there are two symbols; the first one looks like a plumed head, the second is a circle with seven dots inside it, possibly a warrior’s shield, a loaf or a sun symbol (Ibid.). This pair of signs keeps being repeated throughout the whole writing; they can be equally noticed on side B, also next to the straight line with points, matching exactly the position of the both pictographs on the opposite side (A) (Ibid.). Those symbols and others are grouped from three to five individual symbols, sectioned off by a dividing line (Ibid.). Yet on the outer edge, the number of pictographs included between the dividing lines is always limited to four. In turn, the vertical lines separating the signs are sometimes identified with punctuation marks (Herbert 2000:53).

Forty-five pictographs

“There are [two hundred and forty-two pictographs] on the disk, comprising [forty-five] distinct signs. […] The [forty-five] symbols were numbered by Arthur Evans from 01 to 45, and this numbering has become the conventional reference used by most researchers” (Georgievska 2016). Dr Gareth Alun Owens explains that there are “[too] many signs for an alphabet, too few signs for a system, like Chinese or Egyptian, so [it was decided] to progress with systematic, epigraphic work [in the case of the Disc; consequently, the linguistic studies have followed the rule according to which] if a sign is the same in different scripts, it has the same sound value. And all the forty-five signs, the sound values, can be found among the ninety sound values of Linear B, which is a script of roughly the same time, from the same place, which has [already] been deciphered” (Gregor 2016).

Unfortunately, in order to read some unknown language with absolute statistical certainty, it takes at least fifty-six symbols, yet, there are only forty-five different signs represented in the Disc of Phaistos (Menzies 2011:306). In his book, Gavin Menzies (2011:304-310) refers to the research done by Dr. Minas Tsikritsis on the Linear A. To proceed with his studies, the researcher first had searched for tablets and other artifacts, such as rings with spiral engravings, that could help him to translate the insufficient number of symbols on the Disc (Ibid.:306). In the course of his work, he has found that the artifact actually shows fifteen symbols identical to the characters of a script in Linear B (Ibid.:306). What is more, he claims that the meaning of individual symbols is likely to change depending on what word follows a given symbol (Ibid.:306). On the whole, the researcher’s systemic solution to the ancient puzzle of Linear Type A seems to be consistent and well-thought-out (Ibid.:307). So what is the thesis proposed by Dr. Tsikritsis? The results of his research reveals that the examples of ancient texts in Linear A mostly concern ways and the process of obtaining bronze, an alloy of special importance for the Minoans (Ibid.:307). Is it also the actual message of the the Disc of Phaistos?

Generally, researchers assume that each of the forty-five different characters on the Disc also stands for a syllable (Gregor 1997:25). The pictographs represent either easily identifiable things or abstract signs (Gregor 1997:25; Georgievska 2016). Among the stamps, which are all surprisingly clear, there are human heads, whole human figures, tools, vessels, birds, flowers, fish, weapons, and a series of difficult to define ideographs: dotted fields, rectangles, geometric figures, or wavy lines (Herbert 2000:53).

Philistines depicted in Minoan Disc?

More identifiable pictures show objects bringing to mind or even pinpointing various cultures developing in different periods in the area of the Mediterranean; for example, one “sign depicts a structure similar to a sarcophagus used by the Lycians of Asia Minor” (Georgievska 2016), whereas the mentioned above picture looking like a plumed head or ‘fluted crowns’ possibly portrays a helmet with crest (Ibid.). Strikingly similar headgears have been depicted in a famous scene from the north wall of the Temple of Medinet Habu in Egypt, illustrating the Egyptian campaign led by Ramses the Third (1198 – 1166 BC.) against the so-called Sea Peoples (“Sea Peoples” 2021). Such a helmet was also used later by Philistines, who settled down in Juda, in the twelfth century BC. (Georgievska 2016). They may once have been a part of  the Sea Peoples who plundered the Eastern Mediterranean region in the late thirteenth century BC. (Aleff 1982-2015).

This famous scene from the north wall of Medinet Habu is often used to illustrate the Egyptian campaign against the Sea Peoples in what has come to be known as the Battle of the Delta. Whilst accompanying hieroglyphs do not name Egypt’s enemies, describing them simply as being from “northern countries”, early scholars noted the similarities between the hairstyles and accessories worn by the combatants and other reliefs in which such groups are named. The original uploader was Seebeer at German Wikipedia (2006). Public domain. Photo source: “Sea Peoples” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

It is still difficult to precisely identify the Philistines’ origins, although it is certain they did not create homogeneous society in respect of their culture, apparently composed of elements typical of Asia Minor, Mycenae, the Aegean islands, and Cyprus (Aleff 1982-2015). According to the Bible, the Philistines had come from Caphtor, which is usually believed to stand for Crete (Ibid.). Taking into account the fact that the Phaistos Disk is impressed all over with the symbol of a plumed head, it can be assumed that the sea raiders sailed eastwards centuries after the Disk was buried in the south of Crete (Aleff 1982-2015; Ward 2020). The problem is, however, that the Disc dates back to at least the late sixteenth century BC. (most often 1700 BC), whereas the Philistines appeared as the invaders only in the late thirteenth century BC. and set up a historically recorded civilization in the twelve century BC (see Ward 2020). There is thus over three hundred years gap and lack of the continuous tradition; neither Minoan frescoes nor other artifacts show Minoans wearing such a headgear, especially if it is widely accepted the Minoan civilization was not based on warfare but mostly on trade.  

H. Peter Aleff (1982-2015), however, suggests that “the Disk is more firmly connected with the Philistines as religious descendants of its maker than it is with Crete”. Although the artifact was found in Crete, it might not have been made there (Aleff 1982-2015). Even if the Disc’s clay was compared by Luigi Pernier to the fine clay of Kamares, it has never been analysed in this aspect and so could have come from elsewhere in the Mediterranean region (Ibid.). Moreover, the Phaistos Disc in completely unique in its appearance among other excavated Minoan objects; some scholars have consequently claimed the Disk can have been either a hoax or an import from beyond Crete, or even the Aegean region, taking into consideration the fact Cretans sailed far and wide (Aleff 1982-2015; Ward 2020).  Therefore, as H. Peter Aleff (1982-2015) underlines “[the] place where the Disk turned up says […] nothing about where it was made”. Nevertheless, even if the Phaistos Disc is related to the Philistines, it predates the historical records of those ancient people for a few centuries, irrespective of the fact if they actually came from Crete or passed by the island on their way to the East.

Forged or genuine?

Due to the mentioned above anachronisms, discrepancies and questions, the Phaistos Disc is declared by some scholars as a modern forgery or a hoax made in the middle of the last century (Georgievska 2016; Ward 2020). “[Although the Phaistos Disc] is generally accepted as authentic by archaeologists” (Georgievska 2016), it has been long the subject of international debate regarding its authenticity and archaeological value (Ward 2020). As Geoff Ward speculates, “the suggestion it might be a forgery was probably generated by a hundred years of failure to decode it” (Ibid.). Moreover, an official request to conduct scientific tests of the Disc’s clay to resolve the question of its date and origins were definitely turned down by the Ministry of Culture in “Greece on grounds that the Disc [is] a national treasure and ‘untouchable’” (Ward 2020).

Similar accusations of forgery have also been made against such famous artifacts as the iconic bust of Nefertiti, preserved by the Egyptian Museum of Berlin, Nebra sky disk at the State Museum of Prehistory in Halle, Saxony-Anhalt, Germany or the Lady of Elche at the Archaeological Museum in Madrid (Gregor 2016; see: Mystery of the Lady). While, some of those artifacts were examined in this aspect and eventually turned out to be genuine, the Ministry of Culture of Greece still refuses such an analysis of the Phaistos Disc. The fact that “the Greek government [does not want it to be] tested [does not have to] mean its authenticity is problematic. Such a stance is not uncommon when such [examining of the fragile artefact] can cause damage to, or loss or theft” (Ward 2020).

Further doubts of experts

Although there are many voices of different specialists that the Disc is genuine, an art collector from New York, “Dr Jerome Eisenberg, an expert on ancient forgeries, [is] still convinced that Luigi Pernier […] forged [it]” (Ward 2020).After his opinion, the Italian archaeologist did ‘invent’ his famous discovery as “he was jealous of the successes of fellow archaeologists, Sir Arthur Evans and the Italian Federico Halbherr (1857–1930), at other excavations in Crete” (Ibid.). Moreover, there exists an artifact that may have served as a prototype of his potential forgery. In addition to archaeological excavations, Luigi Pernier was also employed in Florence as an Antiques Inspector (Gregor 2016). His jurisdiction included the city’s Archaeological Museum, where one of the most valuable artifacts in the Etruscan collection is the so-called Magliano Disc (Ibid.). The object is made of lead and “was found in Magliano in the Toscana near Grosseto (Italy) in 1883 and bears an Etruscan script dating to the [fifth or fourth century BC.]” (Luwian Studies 2019). It is half the size of the Phaistos Disc (Gregor 2016). The words and sentences sections on it are separated by dots, whereas on Phaistos Disc vertical lines are used instead (Ibid.). Despite such striking similarities, the Etruscan Disc originated thousand years after the Palace collapsed in Phaistos; for this reason, cultural exchange between Etruscans and Minoans would appear extremely unlikely (Ibid.). For Dr Jerome Eisenberg such a phenomenon is inexplicable (Ibid.). After the art collector, Luigi Pernier could have studied the Magliano Disc while staying in Florence (Ibid.). At that time, the Etruscan script on the Disc had not been deciphered yet, and so Pernier could have used it as a model for his forgery, when he later excavated at the site in Phaistos (Ibid.).

Line Art Drawing of a cestus. Drawing by Pearson Scott Foresman – Archives of Pearson Scott Foresman, donated to the Wikimedia Foundation (2007). Public domain. Drawing source: “Cestus” (2020). In Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Furthermore, Dr Jerome Eisenberg points to some examples of suspicious discrepancies regarding the Phaistos Disc (Gregor 2016). First, the inscription goes from right to left as Egyptians hieroglyphs do, whereas Minoan scripts, both Linear A and B, are read from left to right (Ibid.). Secondly, the pictographs are too highly realistic to compose an ancient script; for instance, there is a symbol of a gloved hand or cestus or caestus (Latin), an ancient battle glove, which only occurs in Roman period, which is fifteenth hundred years later (Gregor 2016; “Cestus” 2020). Thirdly, Dr Jerome Eisenberg points to the fact that ancient tablets accompanying the artifact are unevenly fired, which happened during the fire of the First Palace in Phaistos (Gregor 2016). Such a damage to clay objects was typical if they were long exposed to the heath (Ibid.). On the other hand, the Phaistos Disc was fired too evenly and thoroughly (Ibid.). Dr Gareth Alun Owens, however, claims the Disc was baked deliberately in the process of being created and not accidentally like the destruction level that saved other clay tablets with Linear scripts during the First Palace’s fire (Ibid.). It would then suggest the Disc must have fallen down from the upper floor as Luigi Pernier assumed (Ibid.). But then, how did it avoid being crashed into pieces? (Ibid.) In addition to that, Dr Jerome Eisenberg claims that the edges of the Phaistos Disc are still quite sharp and hardly defaced, whereas in other ancient tablets and anything made of clay have especially had their edges damaged (Ibid.). Next, the circumstances of the famous discovery are suspicious; the excavations in Phaistos were directed by Luigi Pernier and so has been naturally ascribed to the find of the famous artifact. Nevertheless, no archaeologist was a direct witness of the discovery, (Ibid.). According to the records, at the very moment of uncovering the Phaistos Disc, Luigi Pernier was taking a nap (Ibid.). Finally, the Ministry of Culture in Greece does not allow to take any tests on the artifact or even to handle it, which according to the expert is already questionable (Ibid.). He thinks that the government, unsure of results of the tests, is afraid of losing one of the most iconic ancient objects attracting tourists to Crete (Ibid.).

Who then made the Phaistos Disc if it is a forgery? (Gregor 2016). After specialists, It must have been an expert very familiar with archaeological material, like Emile Gilliéron (1850-1924), who worked for Arthur Evans at restoration and reinterpretation of Minoan frescoes, and other artifacts, and made very successful replicas (Ibid.). Only such a person was well positioned to be able to make forgeries like the Phaistos Disc (Ibid.).

Archaeology in favour of the authenticity

Despite all the claims against the Phaistos Disc, recent archaeological discoveries can indicate that it is actually genuine (Gregor 2016). Such evidence is provided, for example, by another artifact, also preserved in the Museum in Heraklion; it is a bronze double-axe, possibly a religious and ritual Minoan object (Ibid.). On the head of the axe, there are three lines with overlapping signs engraved upon them (Ibid.). Linguistic experts, like Dr Gareth Alun Owens, see in those signs parallels with stamped pictographs on the Phaistos Disc, and believe the script is a prayer to the Minoan Goddess from the top of the Mountains, where Minoans massively pilgrimaged with their offerings (Ibid.). A lately discovered sacrificial bowl from such a holy mountains’ peak also bear similar pictographs; they are almost identical to those on the Phaistos Disc (Ibid.).

The side B of the disc of Phaistos, as displayed in the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion after the 2014 renovation. Photo by C messier (2015). CC BY-SA 4.0. Photo source: “Phaistos Disc” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Similar clues are highly valuable in the quest for true origins of the Phaistos Disc and evidence needed to confirm its authenticity, and to defend the good name of its founder (Gregor 2016 ).Professor of archaeology and the director of the Heraklion Museum, Dr. Athanasia Kanta says that she has no doubt the artifact is authentic (Ward 2020). In her opinion, accusing an eminent scholar of fraud after a century of his discovery, without providing any strong evidence is highly unfair (Ibid.).

Everlasting mystery

For many scholars, the Phaistos Disc in another Minoan mystery, for others, a tantalizing message from the ancient world and a link to a lost and legendary civilization. Although archaeologists mostly agree it is genuine, its content and origins are still under debate. Generally, it is thought to have been either an import from Asia Minor or a local product of Minoans (Herbert 2000:53). Granting the last option, the Phaistos Disc would be the oldest script in Europe, whose message yet will possibly remain lost forever.

Featured image: Detail of the Phaistos Disc, side A. Photo by Geoff Ward (2020). Photo source: Geoff Ward (2020). “The mysterious Phaistos Disc: a lost message from the ancient world”. In: geoffward.medium.com.

By Joanna
Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology;
University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland;
Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland;
University College Dublin, Ireland.

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