Sailing into port in Santorini on a cruise ship is a breathtaking experience. Cliffs with five red and brown ribbons of pumice and ash rise above, with the picturesque, whitewashed towns of Thera and Oia at the crest. A donkey path or funicular are your only options to ascend from the sea.
In the Early and Middle Bronze Ages, things were much different. The island was an oval, not the C shape we observe from the satellite images today. Santorini was then (and is still) a live, active volcano. Santorini is the only place on earth where people live right on the caldera, the volcano's crater. Santorini is the Latin crusader name, based on the island's worship of St. Eirene (say it out loud three times fast, to see the connection).
When Santorini's volcano erupted in 1628 BC., it forever changed the island and the lives of those who inhabited it. Archaeological excavations began on Santorini in 1967, resulting in spectacular finds of a vibrant civilization that resembles life on Minoan Crete, but that disappeared almost overnight.
Villages and cultivated fields, springs and grazing grounds in the heart of the island were blown to dust by a catastrophic eruption 40 times greater than that of Mount St. Helens in the United States in 1980. Around the edge of the caldera, preserved because they were well above sea level, are the remarkable remains of an idyllic ancient city now called Akrotiri.
The excavators at Akrotiri faced technical challenges similar to those their Italian counterparts met at Pompeii, another ancient city buried in ash by an erupting volcano. The ash settled in quickly, soft as snow, then solidified as a filling like soft clay, penetrating every crack and crevice, holding together the walls some three stories tall and preserving the fresco surfaces and furnishings inside. Over time, wooden beams and tables or chairs disintegrated, but the solidified ashfall held their places as cavities in those exact same shapes.
Using concrete or plaster to fill those cavities, archaeologists recovered the shapes of chairs and tables from these natural molds, before removing the fill and working their way down to the floors.
As at Knossos, most wall surfaces were painted with active scenes—especially lively natural vistas and women in prominent situations. There are antelopes, monkeys, and swallows, along with scenes of boys fishing and boxing, and women picking flowers and papyrus. Thousands of whole jars and pots were found in perfect condition, broken only when earthquakes toppled them from the table to the floor. A few Linear A tablets were recovered along with pottery and artifacts from daily life. Remarkably, no bones or bodies have been found at all, and except for one piece intentionally buried under a floor, no gold. This leads scholars to think that early earthquakes or other signs gave advance warning to the inhabitants and that they were able to escape with their most precious belongings and their lives. Because of the remarkable state of preservation, visitors to Akrotiri can imagine a lively place, where apartment buildings sheltered families and neighbors, and where a triangular open area created space for trade, announcements, decision-making, and entertainment. Sadly, all of this vanished with the eruption in 1628 BC.
But if there was a bright side to this story, it is that what resulted from this ancient catastrophe is one of the most beautiful and idyllic places on earth.