The effects of the Indian Ocean tsunami of December 2004 are only too well known: It knocked the hell out of Aceh Province on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, leveling buildings, scattering palm trees, and wiping out entire villages. It killed more than 160,000 people in Aceh alone and displaced millions more. Similar scenes of destruction were repeated along the coasts of Southeast Asia, India, and as far west as Africa. The magnitude of the disaster shocked the world.
What the world did not know was that the 2004 tsunami—seemingly so unprecedented in scale—would yield specific clues to one of the great mysteries of archaeology: What or who brought down the Minoans, the remarkable Bronze Age civilization that played a central role in the development of Western culture?
Europe’s first great culture sprang up on the island of Crete, in the Aegean Sea, and rose to prominence some 4,000 years ago, flourishing for at least five centuries. It was a civilization of sophisticated art and architecture, with vast trading routes that spread Minoan goods—and culture—to the neighboring Greek islands. But then, around 1500 B.C., the Minoan world went into a tailspin, and no one knows why.
In 1939, leading Greek archaeologist Spyridon Marinatos pinned the blame on a colossal volcanic eruption on the island of Thera, about 70 miles north of Crete, that occurred about 1600 B.C. The event hurled a plume of ash and rock 20 miles into the stratosphere, turning daylight into pitch darkness over much of the Mediterranean. The explosion was recently estimated to be 10 times as powerful as the 1883 eruption of Krakatau in Indonesia, which obliterated 300 towns and villages and killed at least 36,000 people. So extreme was the Thera eruption that many writers linked it to Plato’s legend of Atlantis, the magnificent island city swallowed up by the sea. Marinatos’s theory was bolstered in 1967 when he dug up the ruins of Akrotiri, a prosperous Minoan town on Thera that had been buried in volcanic ash. Akrotiri became famous as a Bronze Age Pompeii because the ash preserved two-story dwellings, exquisite frescoes, and winding streets almost intact.
On further examination, though, the ruins did not confirm the theory. It turned out that the pottery on Akrotiri was not from the final phase of Minoan culture; in fact, many Minoan settlements on Crete continued to exist for at least a generation or two after the Thera cataclysm. Archaeologists concluded that the Minoans had not only survived but thrived after the eruption, expanding their culture until they were hit by some other, unknown disaster—perhaps some combination of fire, earthquake, or foreign invader. Thera’s impact, it seemed, had been overestimated. But startling new evidence is forcing archaeologists to rethink the full fury of the Thera explosion, the natural disaster it may have triggered, and the nature of the final blow to the once-great Minoan civilization.
Each summer, thousands of tourists encounter the Minoans at the spectacularly restored ruins of Knossos, an 11-acre complex four miles south of Crete’s capital, Heraklion. Late-19th-century excavations by Sir Arthur Evans revealed Knossos to be a vast, intricately engineered, multistory building, complete with flushing toilets, statuettes of bare-breasted priestesses, and frescoes of athletes vaulting over bulls. In 1900, Evans discovered an impressive stone throne, from which he believed the legendary King Minos and his descendants had presided over Bronze Age Crete. In the 1980s, however, a new generation of archaeologists, including Joseph Alexander “Sandy” MacGillivray, a Montreal-born scholar at the British School at Athens, began questioning many of Evans’s assumptions. Smaller-scale versions of Knossos have turned up at nearly every Minoan settlement across Crete, and scholars now suspect there was no single king but rather many independent polities.
MacGillivray also became interested in how the civilization ended. At Palaikastro, in the island’s far northeastern corner, MacGillivray and his colleague Hugh Sackett have excavated seven blocks of a Minoan town of perhaps 5,000 inhabitants, their plastered and painted houses arranged in a network of tidy paved and drained streets. One striking find was the foundations of a fine mansion, paved with fancy purple schist and white limestone and designed around an airy central courtyard “of Knossian pretensions,” as MacGillivray puts it. “But after the house was destroyed by an earthquake, it was abandoned and never rebuilt, and that preserved some things we had a hard time explaining.”
The house was dusted with a powdery gray ash, so irritating that the diggers had to wear face masks. Chemical analysis showed that the ash was volcanic fallout from the Thera eruption, but instead of resting in neat layers, the ash had washed into peculiar places: a broken, upside-down pot; the courtyard’s drain; and one long, continuous film in the main street outside. It was as if a flash flood had hosed most of the ash away, leaving these remnants behind. Some powerful force had also flipped over several of the house’s paving slabs and dumped fine gravel over the walls—but this part of the site lies a quarter of a mile from the sea and far from any stream or river.
That wasn’t the only oddity. Another building “looked like it had been flattened, the whole frontage facing the sea had been torn off, and it made no sense. And we asked ourselves, could a wave have done this?” MacGillivray says.
The strangest and most significant find, however, was a soil layer down by the beach that looked like nothing MacGillivray had ever seen in four decades as a field archaeologist. A horizontal band of gravel about a foot thick was stuffed with a mad jumble of broken pottery, rocks, lumps of powdery gray ash, and mashed-up animal teeth and bones. Perhaps an exceptionally violent storm had inflicted this chaos, MacGillivray considered, but he began to suspect that a tsunami was the more likely culprit.