Life in 1600 BC was wonderful on the island of Crete. By all accounts, the Minoans that inhabited the island enjoyed a high standard of living. Many of the problems that plagued civilizations on the mainland of Europe and Southwest Asia did not affect the Minoans. Their boarders were secure because they were the world’s most powerful navy to protect their island. Their soil was fertile and their climate mild, so food surpluses were easy to obtain. Political stability added to the strength of the Minoans. But with the eruption of a volcano on the island of Thera, all of this changed in an instant.
Volcanoes are powerful forces of nature. According to Ritter et al., volcanism is simply the manifestation of processes that occur in earth’s mantle on the surface of the earth (1). Rocks and minerals are liquefied into magma in earth’s mantle due to heat produced by extreme pressure. Weaknesses in the earth’s crust allow vents to form that allow magma to escape. This magma can emerge through the crust under the sea or on dry land. These vents will create three possible types of volcanic landforms. The type of landform is dictated by the mineral make-up of the magma that is expelled through the vent (2). Shield volcanoes, such as the Hawaiian Islands are made of magma that has low viscosity. It is mostly basalt and runs like water. Cone volcanoes are made of magma that is high in silica. The magma is sticky so it builds up making the steep sides of a cone shaped mountain. Similar to these are composite cones that are made of magma and ash. They are irregularly shaped volcanic mountains. A final landform created by volcanoes is called a caldera. This is a huge empty space in the volcanic mountain created by a massive eruption. This is a prominent feature that was created by the eruption of Thera.
The Greek island of Thera is located in the Mediterranean Sea just northeast of the island of Crete. The island is known in modern times as Santorini. The geologic shape and structure of the island is typical for volcanic islands in the Aegean and Mediterranean seas. The island was a mixture of ash and silica based materials with gentle slopes near the shoreline rising to an inland, conical peak. Thera had been slowly building for at least a million years. The current arrangement of the small islands of Santorini did not happen with just one eruption. As many as twelve eruptions over the past million years have made Santorini what it is today (3). The eruption that occurred around 1600 BC was, however, the largest of them all.
Very little is known about the timeline leading up to the massive eruption. It does appear that typical seismic and volcanic activity had warned the inhabitants of Thera. According to Burstein and Shek, there are some accounts that seem to indicate that all of the Minoans living on Thera left the island prior to the eruption (4). There is no conclusive evidence to show that the evacuations mentioned actually are referring to the Thera eruption.
Thera was quite possibly the greatest volcanic explosion ever (5). Other scientists estimate that is was in the top four. The affect on the culture of the Minoans was immediate and catastrophic. The first and most immediate affect on the Minoans and Crete was a massive tsunami. Scientists believe that the waves that hit Crete may have been 40 feet high and traveled at 200 miles per hour. These waves would have destroyed the powerful navy and merchant fleets of the Minoan civilization. Other ways the civilization was affected were not as immediate but were just as devastating. The aerosols emitted by the eruption of Thera changes the climate globally for many years. These aerosols acted as a filter for sunlight entering the atmosphere. As a result, the climate would have been cooler and wetter on Crete, leading to failed harvest for several years.
The demise of the Minoan civilization has long been a mystery to historians. Their Linear B script has not been translated as of yet. All historians know is that around 1600 BC their once thriving civilization began to rapidly decline. The aggressive Mycenaean’s from mainland Greece soon conquered them. The eruption of Thera appears to have played a key role in the decline of the Minoans. The massive eruption of Thera physically altered the present day island of Santorini. The large caldera flooded with seawater, creating a small archipelago instead of a single island. Some have even hypothesized that this massive eruption gave rise to the legend of Atlantis. Whether Thera is Atlantis or not may never be known, but what is indisputable is the fact that the eruption of Thera was among the most powerful in the history of the world. The eruption of the Thera volcano has given us the scarred islands of Santorini and clues about the demise of the Minoans.
1. Ritter, Dale F., R. Craig. Kochel, and Jerry R. Miller. Process Geomorphology. Dubuque, IA: Wm. C. Brown, 1995. Print.
2. Lutgens, Frederick K., and Edward J. Tarbuck. Essentials of Geology. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1995. Print.
3. How Volcanoes Work-Eruption of Santorini. San Diego State University, Jan. 2010. Web. Feb. 2010. .
4. Burstein, Stanley Mayer., and Richard Hon-Chun. Shek. World History. Orlando: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 2008. Print.
5. "How The Eruption of Thera Changed the World | LiveScience." LiveScience | Science, Technology, Health &. Environmental News. Web. 04 Mar. 2010. .