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Ancient Apocalypse: Mystery of the Minoans

I'm always on the lookout for interesting documentaries about volcanoes, the ancient world, lost civilizations, etc.  And since I'm a sucker for anything having to do with the Aegean Bronze Age, I was happy to find this little gem on YouTube.

There's some great material here that I'd never seen or read before, such as Akrotiri director Christos Doumas's theory on exactly where the people of Akrotiri sought refuge while awaiting rescue by sea; he had mentioned the idea of a Theran Herculaneum boathouse scenario in another documentary, but this is the first time to my knowledge that he's identified an actual site.

I should point out that the main researcher, who's trying to identify the "mystery" of what happened to the ancient Minoans, bugs me, because it's absolutely no mystery what happened to Thera in the 17th century B.C.

A few years ago, PBS's Secrets of the Dead featured Knossos expert Sandy MacGillivray and specialist Costas Synolakis presenting the same material; Synolakis makes an appearance here, too, with his tsunami model.  And several decades ago, archaeologist Spyridon Marinatos theorized that a massive tsunami hit the north coast of Crete as a result of a volcanic eruption on Thera, and found evidence of it at Amnissos.

The documentary concentrates on evidence found at Palaikastro, near Zakros, mostly because, unlike Amnissos, which is on the outskirts of Herakleion, Palaikastro isn't near any densely populated centers, and there's more evidence on the ground.  Eastern Crete was badly hit by the Theran catastrophe.  From other sources, I can tell you that ash fell heavily on that part of the island, which was also in the path of the final pyroclastic surge cloud; there is evidence of sudden conflagration at the palace of Zakros.  Thera contributed to the long-term depopulation of eastern Crete.  However, the documentary focuses almost entirely on the damage caused by the tsunami.

From the statistics given, especially considering the size of the caldera, the estimate of the volcanic aerosols thrown into the atmosphere, and the estimate of the period during which the eruption affected the weather, it's possible Thera was a greater event than Tambora in 1815, which is considered the largest volcanic eruption in historic times.

Dating the eruption isn't as straightforward as it's made to seem.  There's debate among experts between the older, 1628 B.C. radiocarbon date, which is based on ice core samples, tree ring data, and the dating of an olive branch considered to have died around the time of the eruption; and a younger, 1500s B.C. radiocarbon date, based on the chronology of various Aegean, Egyptian, and Near Eastern artifacts found at Akrotiri dated to long after 1628 B.C.  Volcanic eruptions have a unique chemical signature, but the signature from the Greenland ice sheet doesn't quite match Thera; it may have come from a major VE6 eruption of the Alaskan volcano Aniakchak.  The tree ring evidence from North America, Ireland, and Sweden could also be linked to Aniakchak.

More On Zakros

Zakros, as the smallest of the Minoan palaces, might not attract the same attention as the larger centers at Knossos and Phaistos, but it doesn't lack for mystery or presence.

In Minoan times, this is the view that the palace would have commanded of its natural harbor.

Kato Zakro b
And from the harbor, this is what incoming sailors, merchants, and travelers would have seen.


The cliffs behind the palace form part of the evocatively named Ravine of the Dead.  In some places, the Minoans practiced cave burial.  Whole families might be buried in a single cave tomb over a period of many generations.

One noticeable difference in Zakros's plan is the large, round lustral basin.  A number of lustral basins have been found at the site.  The bottom picture shows the sloping entrance into one of these.  In ancient times, the basin was probably roofed over to protect the fragile gypsum with which these basins are often floored, so descending into the bath might have been a very claustrophobic experience; as you can see, the space isn't very large.




The easternmost palace of Minoan Crete, Zakros was smaller than the other palace/administrative centers at Knossos, Phaistos, and Mallia.  By land, Zakros is very remote, in a part of Crete that was never heavily populated to begin with, but with its proximity to the sea via its main northern gate, Zakros probably acted as a hub for trade from the Near East, as archaeological finds such as Canaanite jar, ox-hide ingots, and an elephant tusk suggest. 

The upper portion of the palace complex is known as Epano (Upper) Zakros, and the lower portion, nearest the sea, is called Kato (Lower) Zakros.  A ravine called the Ravine of the Dead runs through both parts of the site, and is so named for the many burial caves cut into the cliffs.

Zakros is unique for its many water features, which include an open-air "swimming" pool that might have been used for ritual bathing or rites to ensure the safe return of merchant ships, sailors, and fishermen.  12 houses were excavated in the town below the palace at the turn of the last century, and a small archive of Linear A tablets has been found.

From Linear B documents we know that in the Bronze Age Zakros was known as "o-du-ru-we."  Linguists have not been able to normalize the name because it's probably of Minoan origin.

The apparent suddenness of the palace's destruction meant that many artifacts were left in situ.  It has been argued that Zakros lay directly in the path of the Theran pyroclastic cloud and was destroyed at that time.

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