Shot from the documentary: Atlantis: End of a World, Birth of a Legend (2011): Director: Tony Mitchell. Source: Far Future Horizons (2016).

The World Ended When Gods Turned against the Minoans

The Bronze Age. Dusk in the eastern Mediterranean (Westbrook 1995). The people on the island of Thera felt something frightening and cataclysmic in the air (Ibid.). They were preparing to abandon their home island (Ibid.). They had filled storage jars with wine, olive and wheat as if one day they would have come back to reclaim them (Ibid.). They carefully closed each lid (Ibid.). They also hid some valuables in their houses’ basements or under door frames (Mitchell 2011). Yet, their most precious possessions, like gold and jewels, they took with them (Westbrook 1995). They carefully sealed their houses as if protecting them from thieves and rushed to their boats (Mitchell 2011). What those people felt was the earth itself trembling beneath them but they had already survived similar earthquakes in the past (Westbrook 1995). That time, however, it was not a mere earthquake (Ibid.). Those people were to never return to their olive, wine and idyllic life they had depicted in their frescoes (Ibid.). They would have simply fled into the night and into the sea (Ibid.).

Sunset at the northern coast of Crete. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Idyllic Island

In the Mediterranean region, in the wide expense of the Blue Aegean Sea, a group of islands stands out in a Greek archipelago (Masjum 2006). They are thrown north of Crete, with a huge caldera at their center (Wengler 2009). The archipelago’s dark and brooding nature appears in contrast to the white limestone and pristine marble of the buildings (Masjum 2006). This islands are collectively known today as Santorini (Ibid.). The terraced landscape and rich volcanic soil make the them ideal for vineyards (History Channel 1980s). For this reason, Santorini is home to some of the finest wines in the world (Ibid.). But while tourists travel to Santorini for sun and the island’s quaint village life, archaeologists keep searching there for more clues about the destruction of the Minoan empire (Ibid.).

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

For years, teams of various scientists, each specialized in a particular field, have joined their forces to solve the mystery (Lilley 2006). They are still finding new evidence of a dreadful disaster that overwhelmed Europe’s first civilisation (Ibid.) ‘Did their terrible fate create the myth of Atlantis, the continent-city that drowned?’, speculates the archaeologist, Dr Sandy McGillivray (Ibid.). ‘They worshiped the sea and the sea [eventually] turned against them’ (Ibid.)

Everlasting myths

More than two thousand years ago, the Greek historian Plato wrote about Atlantis, the fabulous civilization that had been swallowed by the sea but no one has been able to trace the origins of Plato’s story yet (Lilley 2006). Appearing evidence from the island of Crete led some archaeologists to speculate that the Atlantis legend was in fact created in the Mediterranean (Ibid.). Is the legendary destruction of Atlantis just a folk memory of what happened to the Minoans, who flourished on Crete in the Bronze Age, over two thousand years before Plato? (Ibid.)

One of the most charming and visited cities on Santorini, Oia, also known as Pano Meria. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Atlantis was mentioned in Plato’s works Timaeus and Critias, in the fourth century BC. (Westbrook 1995; Harpur, Westwood 1997:18). The great Athenian philosopher claimed the story had originally come from Egypt (Westbrook 1995; Harpur, Westwood 1997:20). It was handed down to him from an Athenian lawmaker, Solon, who had in turn heard it from Egyptian priests from Sais, the capital of Lower Egypt (Ibid.). Solon, and after him Plato, both claimed these were facts, no fiction (Westbrook 1995; Harpur, Westwood 1997:20). According to their accounts, a highly advanced civilization would have developed on the island of Atlantis (Westbrook 1995; Harpur, Westwood 1997:18-21).

The Minoans

In the Bronze Age, the Greek islands were in fact home to an advanced civilization, competing for cultural, artistic and commercial influences in the region, even with the pharaohs of Egypt (Mitchell 2011). These were the Minoans (Ibid.). Centuries before the Greek built the Parthenon, Minoan artists recorded their achievements through exquisite carvings and stunning frescoes (Lilley 2006). They were the first Europeans to use writing but at the height of their powers they were wiped from the pages of history (Ibid.). Their disappearance is still one of the ancient world’s greatest mysteries (Ibid.). Some think the Minoans were slaughtered by conquers from overseas (Ibid.). Others claim that the cataclysmic eruption destroyed them (Ibid).

The Bull Chamber with the relief fresco, probably representing hunting for a bull. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Apart from the legend of Atlantis, there are also other famous stories passionately haunting human imagination. Until the twentieth century, the Minoans had been the mysterious people known only from Greek myths about hybrid monsters and human sacrifice (Lilley 2006). The archaeologist, Dr Sandy McGillivray has been studying Minoan culture on Crete for twenty-five years (Ibid.). He has explored ancient caves in the centre of the island (Ibid.). For hundreds of years, people have believed their winding corridors were actually the Cretan labyrinth, which was the home of legendary Minotaur (Ibid.). Greek myths describe the beast as a feeding on human flesh, half-bull and half-human creature, who was imprisoned in the subterranean chambers by King Minos (Ibid.). According to the myth, the Minotaur had a very particular taste (Ibid.). He liked to consume its human prey alive (Ibid.). ‘To keep a Minotaur fed, Minos executed the tribute of seven maids and seven youths from the Athenians and once they entered the labyrinth, they never left it’, recounts Dr Sandy McGillivray (Ibid.). The myth suggests that Minoans practiced human sacrifice and were even cannibals (Ibid.). Or was this simply a propaganda generated by Greek fears of a powerful people? (Ibid.).

Remains of the so-called palace of King Minos with architectural elements characteristic of the Minoan culture. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

When the explosion of Thera occurred, the Minoan empire must have been at its highest (Westbrook 1995). However, despite their power and remarkable achievements, the Minoans disappeared after 1500 BC (Lilley 2006). Their fate is still a mystery (Ibid.). Were they wiped out by ancient Greek invaders, described by Homer in his epic poems about the Trojan war? (Ibid.). Or was it a catastrophic natural event, like the one that supposedly destroyed the Atlantis? (Ibid.).


In 1900, the British archaeologist Arthur Evans started excavating at Knossos in northern Crete, near the modern capital of the island, Heraklion (History Channel 1980s; Lilley 2006). The whole western world was astonished by his discovery (Lilley 2006). Evans devoted forty years of his life to this endeavour, for which he was eventually knighted (History Channel 1980s).

The Minoan ‘Prince of the Lilies’ (copy) on the wall of the “Knossos Palace”. The original restored fresco is preserved in the Heraklion Archaeological Museum, Crete. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

After the excavations started, it shortly turned out that the archaeologist had come across the capital of the highly advanced civilisation of the Bronze Age (Lilley 2006). Whilst the ancient Europeans were living as barbarian warriors, building clay huts, Cretans were creating monumental architecture and living in overwhelming luxury (History Channel 1980s; Lilley 2006; Mitchell 2011). Men in Knossos must have moved about proudly and confidently (History Channel 1980s). Women were attired elegantly and glamorously (Ibid.). Evans exhumed in Knossos a huge architectural complex, he soon called a palace (History Channel 1980s; (Lilley 2006). It was a complex of buildings of the size of four football fields consisting of one thousand and three hundred courtyards, halls, passageways and rooms (History Channel 1980s; Mitchell 2011). All of them belonged to one single building, which was the heartbeat of the Minoan empire (History Channel 1980s). The palace was approached by massive entrance portals, leading  deep inside its subterranean complex (Ibid.). Above the surface, the palace was two to three storeys high and built of cut stone (Ibid.). The walls were decorated with serene motifs of flowers and animals (Ibid.). War was not glorified there (Ibid.).

Minoan ‘Ladies in Blue’ Fresco, largely recreated according to a modern interpretation, basing just on a few preserved fragments. Nobody can actually know how it looked initially. The original is exposed at Archaeological Museum of Heraklion, Crete. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The architecture was so bewildering that Evans was convinced that he had found the Minotaur’s labyrinth, incorporated into the King Minos’ royal residence (History Channel 1980s). He found there marble walls and alabaster floors, which had been protected by the earth for millennia (Ibid.). In the lavishly decorated private chambers of the priest-king, as Evans assumed, a bathtub was even found (Ibid.). Staircases functioned as ingenuously designed air-conditioners (Ibid.). Light shafts provided subdued lighting (Ibid.). Below the floors, complicated drainage conduits have been built for bathrooms and, first in Europe, flush toilets (Ibid.). Even rainwater, which was collected in the open courtyards of the palace, passed through a special system of drains (Ibid.).

In the storehouses of the palace of Knossos, archaeologists have found huge jars, also called pithoi, for wine, oil, grains and honey. Some are larger, some smaller but many a time they are approximately the size of a human. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

In the storehouses there were as many as four hundred storage vats for wine, oil, grains and honey (History Channel 1980s). The Minoans’ capital itself was a masterpiece of contemporary town planning, with its buildings being connected by Europe’s first paved roads (Lilley 2006). Surrounding the palace, there was a town with a population of more than forty thousand inhabitants (Ibid.).

The Empire

Based on what Evans found, archaeologists have built a more accurate picture of what this once great empire looked like (History Channel 1980s). Modern technology offers an impression of extraordinary splendour of the civilization around the whole Crete; ceremonial buildings, holy places, storehouses and workshops were once grouped around large central courtyards (Ibid.). Successively, archaeologists have discovered similar Minoan settlements with the so-called palaces throughout Crete and far beyond it (Lilley 2006). Among them, Knossos is believed to have been the most significant.

Representation of a probably dancing woman or goddess. The preserved fragment of the fresco is showing only the upper part of the woman figure with open bodice and tresses flying in the air. The original can be seen in the Herakleion Archaeological Museum. The copy is exposed in the Queen’s Megaron at Knossos, Crete, where the fragment has been found. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The Minoans were the contemporaries of the mighty ancient Egyptians, with a language of their own and a distinctive culture, widely revered by others (Masjum 2006). Highly cultured and civilized, the Minoans held much promise as a people (Ibid.). It was their culture that provided the seed of Greek civilization a thousand years later (Ibid.). They had an advanced state of bureaucracy and organization (Ibid.). The Minoans were equally skilled craftsmen capable of producing exquisite treasures and sophisticated objects of art (Lilley 2006). Their pottery was known throughout the contemporary world for its outstanding beauty and craftsmanship (History Channel 1980s). Its distinctive geometric patterns and naturalistic imagery were prized even by the pharaohs (Ibid.).

Merchants, not warriors

The source of Minoan wealth was their rule at sea (Mitchell 2011). They were peace-loving traders who placed strong emphasis on commerce and not war (Masjum 2006).

Fragments of the cup-bearers fresco found in the area of the South Propylaeum of the palace of Knossos, Crete. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

A geologist, Jelle Zeilinga de Boer, says  that the Minoans created a commercial empire (Masjum 2006). ‘They did not have any defensive walls or anything to protect themselves because they had the [powerful fleet], and they were known in the entire eastern Mediterranean as traders’ (Ibid.). Also artistic influences of the Minoans were far-reaching (Wengler 2009). Minoan pottery and other various artifacts carried by their ships have been found from Spain to Mesopotamia (Lilley 2006). Their distinguished artistic style and motifs, flourished in frescoes also in foreign palaces of Mycenaeans, Egyptians and even Canaanites, such as Tel Kabri, in modern day Israel (Cline 2013). In the Egyptian city of Avaris (also Awaris), in the north-eastern region of the Nile Delta, the Egyptologist, Prof. Manfred Bietak has found a Minoan fresco, dated back to the sixteenth century BC. (Wengler 2009). It represents a recurring theme of the Minoan iconography, especially on Crete, which is a bull-leaping (Ibid.). Bietak claims that the fresco must have been painted by a Minoan artist, probably living and working in Avaris and decorating an Egyptian palace in a typical Minoan style (Ibid.). At the time of the Eighteenth Dynasty, the artistic influence of the Minoans on Egyptian art became highly noticeable (Ibid.). The presence of Minoan frescoes in the Nile Delta is further evidence of close contacts between these two worlds: Egyptian and Minoan (Ibid.).

Reconstructed Minoan Fresco from Tell El-Dab’a, in Egypt. The archaeological site is also known as Avaris, the capital of the Hyksos, which was developed in the Nile delta region of Egypt. However, the fresco itself is dated back to the Eighteenth Dynasty. It represents a bull-leaping, which is a recurring theme in Minoan art. Photo by Martin Dürrschnabel – Own work by Martin Dürrschnabel, de:Benutzer:Martin-D1,(2005). CC BY-SA 2.5. Photo and caption source: “Minoan Frescoes from Tell el-Daba” (2017). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

In ancient times, the Minoans traded with the peoples of the Aegean and were amongst the first to sail to distant foreign lands (History Channel 1980s). After the British author, Gavin Menzies (2011), their boats voyaged westwards through the Pillars of Hercules to finally reach not only the British Isles but even northern America. Although scholars have rejected such theories as pseudohistory, all of them agree that the Minoan representatives surely travelled to the Near East and up the River Nile to the legendary city of Thebes, in Egypt (History Channel 1980s; Cline 2013). The palaces in their homeland of Crete, in Knossos, Phaistos and Malia were on a smaller scale than in Egypt but archaeologists claim to have observed in Cretan monumental architecture, structural designs similar to the temples dedicated to Egyptian gods, like Osiris, Isis or Hathor (History Channel 1980s). As Diodorus of Sicily writes in the first century BC. (Bibliotheca historica, Book I, 61), the architect of the labyrinth in Knossos, Dedalus, had first seen such an edifice in Egypt and designed a similar one for King Minos (Santarcangeli 1982:85). Although the Egyptian one was more monumental than the Cretan, it apparently served as its prototype (Ibid.:85).

The North Entrance to the Palace of Knossos, Crete. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

On the other side, the Minoans’ maritime empire was so vast that it even rivalled the ancient Egyptians (Lilley 2006; Mitchell 2011). Nonetheless, the islanders must have been popular and respected in ancient Egypt (Ibid.), particularly because they did not sail with warships on buccaneering raids but as peaceful merchants (History Channel 1980s). Apart from mutual trading, as some scholars underline, there may have also been other Egyptian – Minoan relations, especially in the context of religion and ritual (Santarcangeli 1982:73-85). Yet, all of the sudden, all records of the Minoans came to an abrupt end in the papyrus texts of the Egyptian scribes. Why? (History Channel 1980s).

Northern coast of Crete. Today it attracts flocks of tourists, especially because of the sun and warm sea. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

With time, the Minoans colonized Aegean islands also in the parts of mainland Turkey (Lilley 2006). Consequently, their powerful fleet could significantly control the Mediterranean’s trade routes (Mitchell 2011). At their intersection between Europe, Asia and Africa was Crete, the strategic centre of Minoan power (Ibid.). One hundred and twelve kilometres north lay the island of Thera, known today as the group of Santorini islands (Ibid.).

Restless island

The island of Santorini may provide a clue to solving the Minoan disappearance from history (Lilley 2006). The wild scenery and jagged cliffs draw countless tourists but they do not realize that this is in fact a highly explosive volcano (Ibid.). Nor did the colony of Minoans, who lived on Santorini in the Bronze Age and had built their town on the most dangerous island in Eurasia (Ibid.). At that time, the island was known as Thera. Its crescent shape testifies to a violent volcanic past (History Channel 1980s). Its harbour is now a gigantic caldera, so deep that no ship’s anchor can touch the bottom (Ibid.). In the middle, a volcanic dome rises out of the sea (Ibid.). Today it is an awesome monument to the fourth largest eruption in the last twenty thousand years (Ibid.). It was a cataclysm that some believed led the Minoan civilization to its final end (Ibid.).

“Some scholars identify [Atlantis] with the Greek volcanic island of Thera. […] The circular rim of [the island’s] crater is clearly shown in the aerial photograph” (Harpur, Westwood 1997). Copyright©Archaeotravel.

In 1967, archaeologists discovered the Minoan town of Akrotiri, located on the southern coast of Santorini (History Channel 1980s). It was buried on the slopes of the vast volcano crater (Lilley 2006). Traces of Thera’s wealth can be seen in the ruins of this town (Mitchell 2011). Kitchens and storehouses offered a glimpse of people’s daily life (History Channel 1980s). At the moment they were found, storage jars still contained green kernels and olive pips (Ibid). Along the streets stood buildings whose walls were richly decorated with sophisticated frescoes (Mitchell 2011).

Famous Minoan Spring Fresco in the West Wall Swallows Scene, Akrotiri, Santorini. Subjects undertaken in art by the Minoans on Thera mostly showed the beauty and serenity of nature, with its different colours emanating during the day. Colours intensified. Photo and caption source: W. Sheppard Baird (2010). “Minoan Spring Fresco West Wall Swallows Scene”. In: Official Art Gallery.

Prof. Floyd McCoy, a geo-archaeologist, pays attention to the way Akrotiri’s inhabitants may have celebrated their life, which is well reflected in Minoan art. ‘If you take a look at the wall paintings that have been discovered [there], they are portraying their landscape. This is a happy landscape: animal bouncing around and [girls] picking saffron’, he says (Lilley 2006). ‘They [are] showing a nice lifestyle, comfortable one. It’s a pity it was all destroyed’ (Ibid.). People living on Thera, like the Cretans, built a highly advanced  society, provided with such facilities as the world’s first home toilets combined with an underground sewage system (Mitchell 2011). For such a luxury most Europeans waited another two thousand years (Ibid.).

Island cursed by gods

In the rubble of the ancient town, scientists have found clues, which suggest that Thera eruption may have coincided with the downfall of the Minoan civilization (History Channel 1980s).

Unearthing the Spring Fresco. ©”Prehistoric Thera” by Christos Doumas, published by the John S. Latsis public benefit foundation. In 1974, Marinatos passed away and the following year Doumas himself took over running the excavation, bringing to light an amazing wealth of finds and information. Unlike in Knossos, Minoan frescoes of Akrotiri are better preserved due to having been covered by the layers of volcanic ash and pumice stones. Photo and caption source: Tassoula Eptakili  (2017). “A Life’s Work: The Excavation of Akrotiri in Santorini”. In: Greece Is Santorini. Colours intensified.

Gradually the buried city began to divulge its secrets (History Channel 1980s). However, working among the crumbling walls was dangerous and the man who first discovered Akrotiri, the veteran Greek archaeologist Spyridon Marinatos (1901-1974), was killed by falling rocks and buried in his town (Ibid.). His daughter, Nanno Marinatos, is carrying on his work (Ibid.). She says that most archaeologists agree that the Minoans established a theocratic empire of the seas (Ibid.). Still they do not know what their ruling class was like (Ibid.). Marinatos thinks that its representatives were priests and they claimed their special connections with a deity (Ibid.). Minoan priestesses apparently had the greatest power of all (Mitchell 2011).

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.

As Marinatos claims, Minoan priests usually appeared in front of the public dressed as deities, which is well defined by the preserved frescoes (History Channel 1980s). Indeed, the Minoan art represents the mysterious world, where powerful priestesses performed strange and dangerous rituals (Mitchell 2011). Their task as it seems was to communicate with the gods, often through complex rituals in which saffron served as a hallucinogen (Ibid.). Like all ancient civilizations, the Minoans believed that their gods were present everywhere (Ibid.).

Fresco of a fisherman with Coryphaena hippurus from Akrotiri, Thera. Probably an offering to gods. Photo by Marcus Cyron (2008). Public domain. {{PD-US}}. Colours intensified. Photo and caption source: “Fresco of a fisherman” (2015). In: Wikimedia Commons.

Deity was responsible for every natural phenomenon, from the birth of a child to earthquakes, from the seas to the mountain peaks (Mitchell 2011). And the ancient peoples seemed to treat them as flesh and blood figures. Minoan gods were not considered gentle and merciful beings, but rather impulsive and often vindictive (Ibid.). To obtain the favour of the gods sacrifices were made to them and rituals were a way for priests to know their desires (Ibid.). In many houses in the town, rich and colourful paintings reveal images of the Minoan spiritual life: priestesses paying homage to their gods, maids and youths depicted at different stages of their initiation (History Channel 1980s). Even the young man with his abundant catch of fish, archaeologists believe may be on his way to the sacrificial altar (Ibid.). But with time, the Minoan belief system had to begin to break down (History Channel 1980s; Mitchell 2011). It was due to the geological forces that contributed to the destruction of Thera and this glittering world sank in the chaos of the powers of nature (Ibid.).

Earth-shaker is getting furious

In the second millennium BC., Akrotiri was shaken by a violent earthquake but this was merely the beginning of the natural disaster and subsequently the collapse of the entire Minoan civilization (History Channel 1980s; Mitchell 2011).

Stone Staircase destroyed by a devastating earthquake in ancient city of Akrotiri, Thera. It was also one of the warnings, announcing the final explosion of the volcano. Photo and caption source: Alan V. Morgan (2020). “Stone Staircase in a Wrecked Building at Akrotiri”. In: The Greek Field Trip, 1994.

One of the most powerful Minoan gods was called ‘earth-shaker, also identified with Poseidon (Harpur, Westwood 1997:18; Mitchell 2011). As a deity, he was responsible for sea powers and earthquakes and for this reason he was particularly frightening (Ibid.). Structural damage discovered on Thera shows that just before the volcanic eruption there was an earthquake with magnitudes exceeding seven degrees on the Richter scale (0-9) (Mitchell 2011). The buildings on Thera had been designed to withstand weaker shocks, which usually happened in that region (Ibid.). The houses were therefore strengthened by a skeleton made of thick, wooden logs (Ibid.) However, that earthquake was strong enough to smash a stone staircase, as it is visible in ancient Akrotiri, and triggered a series of fatal events for the inhabitants of Thera (Ibid.).

Heralds of the coming disaster

Yet before the deciding earthquake came, the great eruption announced itself slowly and gradually (Wengler 2009). As the black mountain, the volcano was slowly coming to life (Ibid.). One of the first signals of volcano activity were hydrothermal explosions caused by heated groundwaters (Mitchell 2011). Boiling fountains of steam bursting from the sea were accompanied by the first tremors shaking the island (Wengler 2009). Sea quakes caused giant waves to form (Ibid.). These were the heralds of the coming disaster a few months ahead (Ibid.) A Minoan wall painting from the island of Santorini represents a giant wave and drowning people beneath it (Ibid.). Is this a portrayal of the events just before the eruption? (Ibid).

Detail of the so-called Naval Battle shown on the north wall frieze of Room 5 of the West House in Akrotiri, Santorini. Some scholars think that casualties in the water have resulted from the naval battle, others point to giant waves of the sea quakes, which were the heralds of the coming eruption. Source: Antiquated Antiquarian (2015). “The Minoans: Frescoes”. In: The Stream of Time.

For over seventeen thousand years, the magma reservoir beneath the island’s surface was closed but recurring tremors kept deepening cracks and lava began to rise (Mitchell 2011). The rising magma was accompanied by the larger release of sulphurous vapours and other toxic gases (Ibid.). It was another sinister harbinger of the approaching eruption (Ibid.). Foul-smelling sulphurous vapours emerged and spread (Wengler 2009).

Typical of the Minoan architecture, a column tapered at the bottom and larger at the top, with a pillow-like capital (bulbous). Minoan columns were made of timber and painted black and red. Designed is this way to be more resistant to seismic shocks. Copyright©Archaeotravel

Certainly, for the inhabitants of the island it became a race against time (Wengler 2009).  According to archaeological research, the damage after the final earthquake was so severe that residents of Akrotiri had to leave their weakened homes and probably moved to temporary camps, in the hope that they would be able to return to their town soon (Mitchell 2011). “There is evidence [that] people [even] started to repair the damage, but before repairs were complete, another set of quakes hit the town. It appears people abandoned it then and left fairly quickly, as many belongings were [found in Akrotiri]” (Jensen 2018). Undoubtedly, the residents had tried to save whatever they could (Wengler 2009). Just before the eruption, they managed to gather food and water supply and other domestic equipment, but eventually, food jars and the beds tied together and ready to go had to be left behind (Ibid.). The excavations at Akrotiri has showed that while some houses were almost completely emptied before eruption (Ibid.), in others, precious belongings were found safely under the bed or wooden frame (Mitchell 2011). Houses’ doors were shut tight (Ibid.). When the mountain belched hot volcanic ash, for the Minoan islanders it was high time to leave their island (Wengler 2009). Experts believe the population got off Thera just in time; unlike in Pompeii, no trace of human remains have ever been found in Akrotiri (Wengler 2009; Jensen 2018). Yet nobody knows where they sailed to take refuge (Wengler 2009). 

Stages of eruption

‘And suddenly [the volcano] exploded’, says Prof. Floyd McCoy, a geo-archaeologist (Lilley 2006). Thera was erupting (Ibid.). The vast volcano blasted ash, gas and rock up to into the stratosphere (Ibid.).

“Sheer volcanic cliffs bear witness to the terrible cataclysm that befall Thera” (Harpur, Westwood 1997). Copyright©Archaeotravel.

On Santorini, a team of geologists, volcanologists, botanists, archaeologists and physicists has regularly studied the site of the disaster (Wengler 2009). Evidence of the volcano power is all around the island (Lilley 2006; Mitchell 2011). There are deposits that are more than sixty metres deep in places (Lilley 2006). The scientists have made an attempt to reconstruct different stages of the Thera’s eruption (Ibid.). ‘There, in that cliffs face,’ Prof. Floyd McCoy points to the multicoloured high rock face on Santorini, ‘[there are] all four [visible] layers representing the four major faces of this huge dramatic eruption’ (Ibid.).

Ruthless gods

Following the final earthquake, the pressure of magma burst the rock, which for thousands of years had clogged the volcano funnel (Mitchell 2011). It was only a preview of an impending explosion (Ibid.). The volcano was only clearing its throat (Ibid.).

A number of the fragments of frescoes found at Knossos have been restored to give the sense of what the original image might have looked like. [The] ‘Cup-bearer’ from the South Propylaeum shows a young man carrying a large silver rhyton. This is the only life-size figure in a Minoan fresco whose head and torso are preserved. Today exposed at Heraklion Museum, Crete. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Earlier generations had already seen similar but minor eruptions and recognized them as signs from the gods (Mitchell 2011). These were signs whose understanding was the task of the priests (Ibid.). For the Minoans, there was no better way to satisfy threatening and unpredictable gods than through sacrifice (Ibid.). They performed such rituals in sanctuaries, high in the mountains, where they were physically closest to the gods (Ibid.). Twenty-three such places have been discovered in Crete itself, and in them the remains of thousands of clay figurines (Ibid.) Clay parts of the body were to heal the same human limbs, and animal figurines were to heal and protect livestock (Ibid.). In Minoan shrines, bones of animals have also been found, of goats, sheep, pigs and even bulls (Ibid.). Possibly blood sacrifice was considered the most powerful (Ibid.). The power of priests and priestesses depended on their ability to win the favour of the gods, but the forces released beneath Thera’s surface could not be stopped any more (Ibid.). Consequently, confidence in the powers of priests weakened, which eventually led to the collapse of Minoan social and religious systems (Ibid.).

From the earthquake to Plinian eruption

Plinian eruption of Mt. St. Helens on May 18, 1980. USGS Photograph taken on May 18, 1980, by Donald A. Swanson. Photo and caption source: Volcano Discovery (2020). “Illustrated Glossary: Plinian eruption. Volcanology”. In: Volcano Discovery.

From the structure of volcanic sediments in the initial phase of eruption, the island was covered with bright ash (Mitchell 2011). It was enough to poison the sources of drinking water (Ibid.). But it was not the worst awaiting the people living on Thera (Ibid.). What distinguished this eruption from all others experienced so far by the inhabitants of the island was the interaction of two types of magma that triggered a catastrophic chemical reaction (Ibid.). This reaction spewed about a hundred and fifty billion tons of magma onto the surface and made the eruption the greatest natural disaster of the ancient world (Ibid.). Columns of glowing gas of ash and stones flew at over nine kilometres up into the stratosphere, forming a cloud shaped like an atomic mushroom (Ibid.). Consequently, large clouds of rubble and dust rose into the sky after the explosion (Ibid.). Their force can be compared to the detonation of a nuclear bomb (Ibid.). The sound of explosion must have been heard even in Egypt, and clouds of smoke have been seen from Crete after a few minutes (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.

Thera’s eruption has been called the Plinian, which is the most devastating of all (Mitchell 2011). “Plinian eruptions or Vesuvian eruptions are […] marked by their similarity to the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD, which destroyed the ancient Roman cities of Herculaneum and Pompeii. The eruption was described in a letter written by Pliny the Younger, after the death of his uncle Pliny the Elder” (“Plinian eruption” 2020). Hence its name. Such “eruptions are marked by columns of volcanic debris and hot gases ejected high into the stratosphere, the second layer of Earth’s atmosphere. The key characteristics are ejection of large amount of pumice and very powerful continuous gas-driven eruptions” (Ibid.)

Shot from the documentary: Atlantis: End of a World, Birth of a Legend (2011): Director: Tony Mitchell. Source: Yesterday (2020). “Atlantis – End of a World, Birth of a Legend”. In: Yesterday.

During the first four hours of Thera’s eruption, the volcano ejected five billion tons of magma from the crater (Mitchell 2011). The day turned into night, because volcanic dust began to cover the entire island (Ibid.). The cooling magma began to fall as pumice (Ibid.). These were small stones filled with air bubbles but deadly in such large quantities (Ibid.). Prof. McCoy points out to the cliffs on Santorini, saying that at this stage of the eruption, the first layer was created (Lilley 2006). ‘[It] is that brown [one] at the bottom. [This] granular brown layer that’s pumice. Pumice is frothy rock. It represents magma frozen in place, a frozen explosion’, he says (Ibid.).

Deadly ashes

Probably one of the first stages of an initiation for Minoan women: a young girl gathering saffron. Fresco from Akrotiri, Thera. Anonymous author. Public domain. Created: 1600-1500 BC. Photo source: “Wall Paintings of Thera” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

But it was ash, not pumice stone, that posed the greatest threat (Mitchell 2011). Volcanic ashes are different from ordinary ones, as they contain silicone (Ibid.). Drawn into wet human lungs, volcanic ash turns into liquid cement (Ibid.). Breathing then is difficult and finally impossible (Ibid.). Although archaeologists have not found any human remains in Akrotiri, it is still possible some residents of the town could have been stopped on the island, imprisoned by subsequent deadly effects of the eruption, either in their contemporary camps (Ibid.), or elsewhere on the island. Some scholars estimate that in Thera’s case, there were probably only few survivors who had escaped the island (Mitchell 2011).

Pyroclastic flows and torrential rains

The layer on top of the pumice from the cross-section of the cliffs proves the real power of this mighty eruption (Lilley 2006). This is the ash left by pyroclastic flows (Ibid.). ‘Pyroclastic flows [are made by] hot gas material that comes up and flows laterally across the landscape, sometimes at supersonic speeds’, says Prof. McCoy (Ibid.). These gases were forced out by massive explosions in the heart of the volcano, the caldera (Ibid.). But what caused these blasts? (Ibid.).

The archaeological site of Akrotiri on Santorini island. The ancient houses were strengthened by a skeleton made of thick, wooden logs to avoid their destruction during often on Thera earthquakes. Photo source: photos of the archaeological site of Akrotiri. In: Print & Web Guides Ltd. (2020). “Akrotiri” In: Santorini Island, Greece.

When the magma first erupted, it left behind a huge empty chamber (Lilley 2006). The surface above the chamber collapsed, creating a vast cavity (Ibid.). Then seawaters rushed into the expanding crater (Mitchell 2011; Lilley 2006). Upon contact with magma, the water turned into vapour, starting another wave of eruptions (Mitchell 2011). ‘Magma and water do not mix [but] create an explosion’, explains Prof. McCoy (Lilley 2006). ‘The entire Aegean Sea [was] pouring in this vent, mixing with new magma coming up and explosion was tremendous […] and from that [came] these pyroclastic flows’ (Ibid.).

The violent reaction of water with magma led to a phreatomagmatic eruptions (Mitchell 2011). It is estimated that the sound pressure level of this explosion reached three hundred decibels (Ibid.). It was enough to burst the tympanic membrane of everyone within sixteen kilometres (Ibid.). Moreover, the power of this eruption threw rocks from the inside of the crater, turning them into deadly rockets – lava bombs (Ibid.). Such burning lumps of stone could reach the size of a small truck and weigh up to eight tons (Ibid.). As the crater widened, the pressure was pushing the column upwards (Ibid.). The gases and rocks forming it began to fall in all directions (Ibid.). Pyroclastic flows reached the speed of two hundred and ninety kilometres per hour and a temperature of seven hundred degrees (Ibid.). Finally, the sizzling wave of rocks fell into the sea, and when it made the water surface boil, it began to move even faster on the layer of hot steam (Ibid.). After the final monstrous pyroclastic flow, ten metres deposit of ash and pumice were left, which have eventually formed the third layer that the best demonstrates the awesome forces of this eruption (Lilley 2006).

Santorini cliffs encrusted with white buildings, standing out clearly against the brown background of the volcanic rock. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

And on their top Santorini cliffs are built of the final, fourth layer (Lilley 2006). ‘It started to rain’, says Prof. McCoy (Ibid.). ‘Torrential rains came down and then all this loose ash and pumice on the surface started to move downslope. That’s what we call debris flows and then it was over’ (Ibid.).

Far-reaching disaster

What caused Thera eruption to be so far-reaching? (Masjum 2006). Thera sat on a string of volcanic islands straddling four plates (Ibid.). This convergence of plates creates the chain of volcanic islands and makes Thera eruption highly potent (Ibid.). Magma is formed when the African plate gets pushed beneath the Eurasian (Ibid.). The result is a gas rich and thick magma that erupts explosively (Ibid.). Prof. McCoy believes that the explosion was so loud that it could be heard throughout southern Europe, northern Africa and the Middle East (Ibid.).

More importantly, the blast has changed completely the shape of the land (Masjum 2006). Thousands years before the Minoan eruption, Santorini was believed to have joined as one island but after several eruptions the single island was blasted apart into smaller ones (Ibid.). At the time of the Minoans, the volcano was situated at the centre of these islands (Ibid.). When it erupted, it again changed the shape (Ibid.). When the centre of the volcano eventually collapsed, it formed a huge caldera (Ibid.). Today all that remains of the volcano is Nea Kameni, a tiny uninhabited island within the flooded Santorini caldera (Ibid.). With the birth of this new island the volcano is slowly rebuilding itself (Ibid.). Prof. McCoy claims that ‘over next twenty thousand years, this island is going to get larger and larger and then possibly it explodes again’ (Ibid.). ‘In the course of history of this volcano, an eruption repeats itself every twenty thousand years’, he explains (Ibid.).

Shot from the documentary: Atlantis: End of a World, Birth of a Legend (2011): Director: Tony Mitchell. Photo source: Nigel Jones (2011). “Blast from the Past! With the Most Breathtaking CGI Effects ever Seen on TV, a Drama that Imagines Atlantis’s Catastrophic End Makes for Explosive Viewing”. In: Mail Online.

I sat down on a whitewashed fence interrupted by the deep blue of a wooden gate suspended over a steep cliff. Only the navy blue waters of the sea stretched further, fading into turquoise green, crashing against the feet of the island. The idyllic landscape and tranquility of the island contrasted strongly with the ragged nature whose dormant forces were likely to wait yet a while before they finally break free.

Was the Thera eruption in the Bronze Age powerful enough to have destroyed the Minoans on Crete as well? (Lilley 2006; see: Disaster of the Bronze Age Spreads Beyond the Epicenter).

Featured image: Shot from the documentary: Atlantis: End of a World, Birth of a Legend (2011): Director: Tony Mitchell. Photo source: Far Future Horizons (2016). “Atlantis: The End of a World and the Birth of a Legend”. In: Far Future Horizons.

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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