Three and a half thousand years ago, the tiny Aegean island of Thera was devastated by one of the worst natural disasters since the Ice Age – a huge volcanic eruption.
This cataclysm happened 100km from the island of Crete, the home of the thriving Minoan civilisation. Fifty years after the eruption, that civilisation was in ruins. Did the volcano deliver a death blow to the Minoans? It’s a whodunnit that has haunted historians and scientists for decades.
The lost world of the Minoans has intrigued people for thousands of years. Their palace at Knossos was vast and elaborate, with Europe’s first paved roads and running water. The ancient Greeks wove its magnificence into their myths; it was the home of King Minos and his man-eating bull, the Minotaur, which roamed the palace labyrinth.
In the 1900s, British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans excavated and restored the ruins at Knossos. Beautiful and delicate frescoes of bulls and dolphins revealed a highly artistic civilisation and a people who apparently lived in harmony with nature.
Early 20th-century archaeologists knew of the devastating volcano and some concluded it must have snuffed out the Minoan civilisation almost instantly. But was it really as simple as that?
For a start, they discovered little ash had fallen on Crete – as luck would have it, the prevailing winds took the volcano’s ash in the opposite direction. Then archaeologists found clay tablets that proved the Minoan civilisation survived for about 50 years after the eruption. So if the volcano killed the civilisation, what accounted for this long gap?
Vulcanologist Floyd McCoy, from the University of Hawaii, has been inspired by volcanoes since his childhood on the volcanic islands of Hawaii. His passion is the most romantic volcano of all time – Thera. He went on a journey of discovery, gathering evidence from other scientists around the globe, to try answer this question: was there a connection between the eruption of Thera and the end of the Minoans on Crete?
His journey started on the island of Thera. It was home to thousands and a flourishing trading post for the Minoans until disaster struck. So massive was the volcano it had an extraordinary effect, preserving forever the town of Akrotiri.
Mysteriously, no skeletons have ever been found on the island. Akrotiri’s chief archaeologist, Christos Doumas, believes the people of Akrotiri didn’t survive, and that the bodies are still to be uncovered, huddled at the harbour where they were trapped by the eruption as they waited to escape. He believes it’s highly unlikely that scores of boats were waiting in the harbour to save them.
Floyd McCoy was convinced that giant waves, or tsunamis, had been unleashed by the volcano. He believed these waves travelled across the open sea to batter the northern coast of Crete – but proof was hard to find.
In 1997 a young British geologist, Dr Dale Dominey-Howes of Kingston University, found what he believes is firm evidence of tsunamis on Crete. He drilled deep into the mud at an inland marsh near Malia in Crete, and took the mud core he found back to England for analysis.
The mud had been deposited, layer upon layer, over thousands of years. At one place, deep in the core, Dr Dominey-Howes found a type of tiny fossilised shell that only lives in very deep sea water. He felt sure the shells were brought into the marsh by an ancient tsunami. A Minoan palace near the marsh was buried at the same level as the shells, suggesting the tsunami could have hit soon after the palace was built.
If a tsunami had been unleashed by the eruption of Thera, Floyd McCoy wanted to know how big it might have been. He turned to Professor Costas Synolakis of the University of Southern California.
Professor Synolakis grew up on Crete, playing amongst the palace ruins as a child. He became one of the world’s top predictors of tsunamis, travelling the world with his computer models to predict the waves of tomorrow.
Professor Synolakis can also use his technology to determine the size of a wave from the ancient past. He estimated that waves from Thera battering northern Crete could have been up to 12m high in places. Such waves would have destroyed boats and coastal villages, even travelling up rivers to flood farmland.
But however terrifying these waves, they can only have been part of the story. McCoy was convinced the volcano must have had wider effects.