Thera Volcano

19 May 2022

In Current World Archaeology 113 June 2022, see … there are various stories on archaeology such as the stone jars of Assam, similar to those in Laos, a Phoenician religious temple with a sacred pool in Sicily, Mesolithic mummification, and the discovery of Endurance, the ship that sank during an expedition to the Antarctic in 1914/5. The wooden ship was trapped in sea ice, frozen in the water and unable to move. The pressure of the ice began to squash the ship and it sunk.

However, the most interesting story from the perspective of SIS members was made at Cesme in Turkey. It has unveiled some interesting data on the eruption of Thera. Cesme Baglararasi was a prosperous port on the Aegean coast of what was then western Anatolia, during the Bronze Age. Its fortunes changed abruptly in the immediate aftermath of the tsunami wave generated by the explosion of the Thera volcano. Ash, carried on the wind, carpeted sites hundreds of km to the north and east, including Cesme. Archaeologists have discovered that prior to the grey rain of water and ash a tsunami wave struck Cesme.

The date of the Thera eruption is controversial, subject to rival ideas. It has traditionally been associated with the low growth event at 1628-5 BC but more recently, some have favoured a date in the 16th century, around 70 years later. Baillie and McAneney fall into the latter, having written a paper to the effect several years ago. What was surprising to all concerned, was that marine deposits, such as foraminifera shells, were below, and above, the ash layer. This problem was solved by the recognition that more than one tsunami wave struck Cesme. Four separate tsunamis occurred, over a fairly short period of time. They were detected in the sediment layers. The article provides a schematic sequence of what occurred and how they were interpreted. Two were above the ash layer, and two below.

The next point they had to ascertain, was how these waves could be dated. In fact, volcanologists and geologists had already recognised the eruption could be divided into four phases. The sedimentary sequence merely confirms that analysis. Again, the new evidence seems to support a 16th century date for the eruption. This makes sense if 1628BC is kept for the end of the MB period, with the volcano in LBIA, or thereabouts. The archaeology nomenclature is therefore similar to the Near East, as it should be as they were closely connected via trade.

The first wave probably occurred a matter of hours prior to the second wave – followed by the ash debris falling out of the sky. The third wave was smaller, and less disastrous, and carried in still burning and charred animal bones etc. This shows no evidence of ash which means the ash fall had occurred prior to the third wave. It was followed by evidence of human activity – digging holes. They might have been looking for bodies engulfed by the tsunami or they were digging out masonry for re-use. There were a lot of holes dug into the layer at this point, prior to the fourth wave. This was as powerful as the first wave. Afterward, there was no evidence of human activity [in the area excavated]. Apparently, for several centuries. How did this affect the Minoans? They were a maritime trading people and must have lost a lot of ships at sea or in their ports. Archaeology reveals a major setback for the Minoans with the Mycenaeans on the mainland, gaining the ascendancy.

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