How the Minoan civilisation on Crete was wiped out 3,500 years ago by one of the biggest volcanic eruptions since the Ice Age on the nearby island of Thira.
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3,500 years ago,
the first great European civilisation collapsed.
Desperate and bewildered people
resorted to sacrificing their own children.
What was it that brought them to this terrible end?
This is the story of a glorious civilisation and its total collapse.
The Minoan Empire was so rich and so inventive, it passed into legend.
At its heart on the island of Crete stood mighty palaces.
The largest of them all was Knossos.
But, why, at its very peak, did the Minoans' world crumble?
Floyd McCoy is a geologist determined to solve that mystery.
For decades, he's been captivated by the haunting ruins the Minoans left behind.
3,500 years ago, Knossos stood invincible.
Long before the Ancient Greek Empire flourished, Knossos was the biggest building in Europe.
Here, Minoans lived in luxury with Europe's first paved roads and running water.
From Crete, the Minoans controlled a vast trading empire.
So powerful were their navies, they lived centuries free from invasion.
But when mainland Greeks finally took over Crete,
the Minoans wealth and power had disappeared.
Their towns and palaces went up in flames.
The mystery here is - how and why has this been destroyed?
What has caused this devastation here?
This investigation will take Floyd on a remarkable journey
gathering evidence from other scientists.
Where better to start looking for clues than at Knossos itself
from an archaeologist who used to be a curator here?
Colin McDonald has evidence of something never seen before in Minoan culture - sheer savagery.
Whilst digging near Knossos, archaeologists came across the skull of a small child.
Nearby, were the skeletons of four more children.
When they studied these bones more closely, they came to a grim conclusion.
The children had all been murdered.
Those murders took place at the time when the Minoan Empire was collapsing.
A remarkable aspect of these bones were the great knife marks -
cut marks, slicing marks -
on the bones themselves which indicate that meat was actually sliced off these human bones.
There was also found a large storage jar
and inside were bones with cut marks on them
and an edible snail called the buburas snail.
It's highly possible that these were actually cooked together and that we are talking about ritual cannibalism.
What could make a civilised people devour its own children?
Floyd believes he's searching for a culprit so powerful it shattered the foundations of this society.
A disaster caused by a force the Minoans thought they understood -
It seems pretty clear that we're looking at a vast civilisation
and suddenly it's gone - it's been done in.
Something that big points towards natural causes.
This natural disaster has become a quest -
it's become something to look for that's hard to stop looking for.
Floyd is familiar with natural disasters.
He grew up in Hawaii, home to some of the most spectacular forces of nature -
As a child growing up, I was surrounded by volcanoes.
They were erupting every so often - in fact, VERY often - and they were wonderful to see.
In high school, we would spend all night staring at the volcano erupting. It was part of my life.
His experiences as a child inspired him to become a geologist and learn about all the world's volcanoes.
He was drawn to one in particular -
an ancient, mighty explosion that seemed on a scale like no other.
That volcano lies 100km north of Crete.
It's on a much smaller island called Thera - today, Santorini.
3,500 years ago, when the Minoan civilisation was at its height,
Thera erupted, blasting the island apart.
Despite its distance from Crete,
Floyd feels sure the eruption of Thera is the reason behind the end of the Minoans.
He has come to Thera to see the evidence for himself.
We're at the top of a volcano. Here's a huge hole in the ground excavated by a tremendous eruption.
In Hawaii, the volcanoes are as big in height but nothing like this.
They are tranquil compared to what happened here.
This is something of epic proportions - the stuff of legends.
The eruption ripped the heart out of Thera, and the centre of the island crashed into the sea.
All that remains is a necklace of islands surrounding a vast crater called a caldera.
Today, the caldera is filled by a deep sea.
The story of what happened that fateful summer is still written in the landscape.
In this cliff face is a depiction of what happened during this eruption - the sequence of events.
Each layer tells us such a story about how the eruption proceeded -
the dynamics of it, the explositivity.
To start off, the lower layer, that textured layer right at the bottom,
that's a layer of pumice. This is pumice.
Light stuff. Frothy material.
It flew up...and then plopped down.
The pumice was blasted up into the sky and it flew 36km high.
It plummeted back to Earth, blanketing the island in a layer up to ten metres thick.
Then the eruption dramatically changed character.
Sea water enters the vent there - it becomes ultra-explosive.
Out of the vent comes horizontal-sweeping avalanches of hot gas
that push pumice and ash across the landscape at roaring speed.
Deadly torrents of searing hot ash swept across the landscape, smothering the entire island.
Up there, big rocks start to fly in.
These are pieces of lava flows that are parts of the island that is now being blasted to bits.
Then, up there, another change.
Torrential rainstorms occur because there is lightning. Thunderstorms develop out of this eruption cloud.
Torrential rain rains down on the landscape. The slope starts moving downhill.
As it moves downhill,
it leaves the larger rocks behind and that's what that layer is there. Then the eruption is over.
How long did this take? From historic eruptions, the best estimate is four days.
Given a day for each layer to happen, you get an idea of the intensity of what happened.
Floyd knows the eruption was big.
What he doesn't know is how it could have devastated an entire civilisation.
This eruption happened about 3,500 years ago. 3,600 years ago, this eruption blew.
The timing of the eruption
is almost precisely when the Minoan civilisation goes into a decline.
There has to be a connection.
What could that connection be?
The clues are beginning to emerge from the ash.
This is Akrotiri - a town in Thera where the eruption claimed its first victims.
Completely buried by the volcano, the memory of it vanished.
It was only in the 1960s that Greek archaeologists
began to realise what wonders lay hidden.
A layer of pumice ten metres thick covered the town, creating a time capsule.
Buildings up to three storeys high were beautifully preserved.
But what of the people who once lived in these buildings?
Although it is risky to estimate, with the extent of the excavation we have so far,
I suspect, er,
the estimate of the population is about 2,000 and 3,000 people.
But there is a mystery about this bustling town -
no bodies have ever been found.
Christos Doumas believes the people were scared off by the first stirrings of the volcano.
This is the thin layer of ash,
and this is found all over the island - everywhere we have excavated.
And after... Probably this was the warning for people to leave.
Panicked by this first dusting of ash, the people must have fled Akrotiri,
but did they escape the island of Thera itself?
'To remove so many people, you need a whole fleet.'
So where did they go?
Christos Doumas thinks they fled to this barren patch of land,
desperately hoping enough boats would come and carry them to safety.
This port is one of the harbours. It is the most obvious place.
And, as an escape, what other place would be more convenient than the harbour,
where they could have found means to escape?
Then the pumice started to come pounding down.
The avalanches of blistering ash that followed erased everything from view.
It was a desperate situation.
Crowds of people could have been cornered, frantically scouring the horizon for boats.
But the eruption was unstoppable, and, on this very spot,
Christos believes the people of Akrotiri were smothered by the ash - the first victims of the volcano.
This is not the only time this kind of human tragedy has happened.
These are the people of the town of Herculaneum.
They, too, were waiting for boats that never came.
The avalanches of ash that killed them froze their bodies in time.
The first the Minoans on Crete would have seen was a terrifying sight on the horizon -
a plume of ash 36km high.
Fortunately, the winds blew the ash in the opposite direction,
but the volcano had a lethal legacy they couldn't escape.
Floyd believes that the blast hit the Minoans in three different ways.
He believes the first blow would have come within days
when Crete was hit by another terrifying force he knows all too well.
In 1946, he watched as giant waves battered the island of Hawaii,
killing scores of people.
As a child, I saw my home town destroyed by huge waves.
Those waves were 54ft high in front of our house.
I was terrified later to find debris still left from that wave...
that underneath there might be a body.
The explosive power of eruptions can bring volcanoes crashing into the sea,
pushing water up into giant waves called tsunamis.
The waves can travel thousands of kilometres across oceans.
When they hit land, the results can be cataclysmic as they were a century ago in South-East Asia.
Krakatau in Indonesia, 1883...
36,000 people killed by an eruption that was far less in intensity -
less than half the intensity of this eruption here.
Most people were killed by...tsunamis.
This means then that we should perhaps be looking for tsunami deposits left by these large waves.
Evidence of those deposits has eluded archaeologists for decades.
Now Floyd has heard of an intriguing find that may be what he's looking for.
In 1997, a team of geologists came to this salt-water marsh.
They drilled deep down into the ground and removed a core of mud.
At a laboratory in Britain, they started sifting through the core.
After much work, Dale Dominey-Howes found what he was looking for -
tiny fossilised shells called forams.
The forams are actually very helpful to us
as they live in a range of settings. Some live in marshes,
others prefer estuaries and some prefer deeper water.
They are actually very useful because each individual species looks very different.
Under the microscope the difference between the shells becomes clear.
The one on the right once lived in shallow water. The one on the left lived in deep water.
As Dale examined the mud core closely,
he found something peculiar.
As you go through the core, you go back in time.
All through the larger part of the core, we're finding no forams at all.
At this point, something exciting happens.
There is a very thin band or layer of sand. This sand is stuffed with marine forams.
These forams are fully marine and come from deeper water offshore.
This means something very unusual happened here.
A very unusual, high-energy event
that's brought these deep water species from offshore into the marsh.
So I suspect that this shows that a tsunami flooded into the marsh.
Dale's evidence suggests
the volcano on Thera produced waves that travelled 100km across the open sea.
Their effect would have been felt along the northern coast of Crete,
but most of all, at harbour towns like Palaikastro.
Floyd has come to Palaikastro to meet one man who can tell him
how destructive those waves might have been.
Costas Synolakis chases tsunamis around the world.
As they break, he rushes to the scene to map the destruction.
1n 1992, there was a tsunami in Nicaragua...
This time, Costas has come home.
He was brought up on Crete.
With his expert knowledge,
he has built one of the world's most sophisticated computer models of tsunamis.
Costas has spent weeks feeding data about the Theran eruption into his computer.
Now he's ready to show Floyd the results.
-Can we see the wave in motion?
-Yes, let's try to get to the animations...
-This is the initial wave...
-There it is.
-The eruption has taken place.
Oh, look at that!
Oh, that's really neat!
Costas's model shows the waves coming from Thera and hitting the coast of Crete.
At Palaikastro, the bay is enclosed and the waves would have become trapped - their effect magnified.
Look! The high water comes in, inundates things and stays there.
Yes, it does. You have waves that are getting trapped inside this bay.
Palaikastro is unique as you have the effect of the first wave coming in,
but you have the effect of the waves trapped inside the bay.
-So if one building wasn't destroyed, it will be destroyed.
The waves at Palaikastro would have formed a towering wall of water three metres high.
What kind of damage would that do?
A three-metre wave coming into a small harbour...
..would have been devastating.
All of the boats would have been strewn out on the coast everywhere.
Here is a civilisation that depended on boats.
One of the things that we find out in the field when we go there a week after a tsunami hits
is we cannot find absolutely any boats to use in our surveys.
-Because all of the boats are gone...
-They've been destroyed.
It wouldn't have been just the boats.
The wave would have travelled upstream and would have flooded the area surrounding the river.
Salt would have destroyed the soil.
Yes. And there is the fact that
all of their warehouses, storage areas, food supplies they were bringing in or exporting,
would all have been destroyed... or wet.
-All this by a three-metre wave?
The waves would have been even more destructive in other parts.
In some places, they would have reached 12 metres high.
Floyd is sure tsunamis devastated the coast,
but the huge waves weren't enough to wipe out an entire civilisation -
there must have been more.
His hunt for the eruption's longer lasting impact
begins with a fresco.
We are extraordinarily fortunate
that wonderful pieces of art were preserved in the ash that buried Akrotiri,
and among that art is an image of what the island looked like before the eruption.
And, in there, is a very nice depiction of an island
sitting inside another island with a ring of water around it.
But most extraordinary - it shows a huge city sitting on that island.
All of that may represent the pre-eruption landscape.
If so, then there were even larger cities sitting in that caldera,
and all of that island city vaporised by the eruption.
This evidence of another city on Thera is puzzling.
How could an island this small support so many people in such luxury?
Archaeologists are unearthing clues showing just how crucial Thera was
as a source of legendary wealth.
In this building alone, they discovered 400 pots.
So many, they must have been produced on an industrial scale.
Then they found a vast number of lead discs
precisely cast to the Minoan standard for weights and measures.
We have so far
discovered here two-thirds of the total amount of lead weights
found in the entire Aegean.
So trade was the main activity which produced wealth,
and therefore we could say that it is a kind of Hong Kong of the prehistoric Aegean.
Archaeologists already knew that the Minoans' trading empire spanned three continents.
Now they realised that Thera was one of the most important marketplaces in the Aegean
where the Minoans came to buy and sell goods.
When the eruption ripped the island apart, that marketplace was wiped out.
The impact of this eruption on the Minoans...
I mean, on Crete, suddenly their trading hub here is gone...vaporised.
This core of their trade has disappeared.
That had to have had a huge impact.
Floyd now believes the Minoans suffered a series of blows.
The people of Thera were engulfed by the ash.
Huge waves wrought havoc on the coast of Crete.
The marketplace of the Minoan empire was obliterated,
but he thinks even this wasn't enough to destroy the Minoan civilisation.
He is sure the volcano had another legacy - the most deadly yet.
This part of the story starts back on Thera with a brainwave from one British geologist.
Steve Sparks has spent decades studying the scale of the eruption,
but, over the years, one piece of the puzzle refused to fit...
Fossilised algae lie high up on the slopes of Thera, but that doesn't make sense.
This type of algae doesn't live on hillsides.
Steve saw that the algae must have been blasted up here by the force of the explosion,
but from where?
It could only have been from a place where these algae DO live -
a shallow sea.
That means there must've once been a shallow sea inside the crater.
A picture of the island BEFORE the blast was emerging.
This is what the volcano
might have looked like from above at that time.
You can see this large caldera already exists.
You can also see a large volcanic island which must have existed.
This island was blown up during the Minoan eruption. There are bits of it in the deposit.
This new picture with a differently shaped island and a shallow sea
had startling implications for the scale of the eruption.
I was walking along the caldera rim a few years ago, looking down into it,
when it struck me that the existence of the shallow sea before the eruption
may mean that the eruption was much larger than we had supposed.
Could it be that all previous estimates were too low?
The size of this eruption was estimated from the amount of ash that came pouring out.
Steve now suspected that tonnes of ash may not have been counted
because the shallow sea would have trapped that ash until it was filled to the brim.
If this hypothesis is right, an enormous amount of volcanic ash was trapped within the caldera itself.
When the caldera collapsed, this material would have been taken with it.
The force of the blast brought the volcano crashing down and created the deep sea that exists today.
Steve is convinced that at the bottom of that deep sea lies a thick layer of ash.
Add this hidden ash to previous estimates and the real size of the eruption doubles.
This would make it perhaps the second largest eruption on earth in the last 10,000 years.
Up to 70 cubic kilometres of ash were blasted into the atmosphere,
and with that ash came something else far more destructive - sulphurous gas.
If we are right about the scale of the eruption, then it could have been very bad news for the Minoans.
There would have been much volcanic ash in the atmosphere
and large amounts of volcanic gas - in particular, sulphur dioxide.
Large eruptions of this kind with huge amounts of sulphur dioxide can alter climate,
and this may have had a big effect after the eruption.
Steve's idea of doubling the size of this eruption on Thera
now brings it up to the same category as the eruption of, for example, Tambora, 1815, Indonesia.
That eruption was huge - the biggest in the last 10,000 years.
It changed the global climate for years afterwards.
The year after that eruption is known as The Year Without A Summer.
There was frost. In New England, in England and Germany crops would not grow and it led to mass starvation.
Might the Minoans on Crete have faced a climate change as severe?
The answer may lie with climate modeller Mike Rampino.
Large explosive volcanic eruptions put a lot of dust and fine ash up into the atmosphere,
but they also put sulphur dioxide gas.
This goes up into the atmosphere.
It's converted into droplets of sulphuric acid.
These droplets cut out the sunlight that would normally come in and warm the Earth's surface,
causing the Earth's surface to cool.
If Mike Rampino knows how much sulphur is produced by an eruption,
his computer model can forecast how much the climate will change.
We're using Steve Sparks' new estimate of the size of the eruption.
He suggested the eruption was twice as big as we had thought.
If we put that much volcanic aerosol into the atmosphere in our computer model and spread it around the world,
we see a significant effect on the Earth's climate.
We can see from the blue colours here a climatic cooling,
especially concentrated in Europe, Asia and North America, of one to two degrees celsius.
It doesn't sound much but that's the average ANNUAL temperature drop.
The summer temperature - the most important for crops - will drop even more than the average,
so the summer at these times will be especially cool and wet,
and so the crops will suffer accordingly.
Mike's model suggests years of ruined harvests,
but without physical evidence, Floyd would have no more than an enticing theory.
Proof has come from an unlikely source far away.
The bogs of Ireland.
Slices of trees from these bogs contain a record of climate stretching back over 7,000 years.
Each year, the trees put on a ring of growth.
During the good years, those growth rings are thick,
in bad years, so small, they can be hard to measure.
When Mike measured the tree rings in one particular sample,
something made him take notice.
This is a piece of Irish oak.
It grew for about 300 years, then was buried in a peat bog and has survived to the present time.
It was growing about 3,500 years ago. When you look at
the exactly dated rings across this period,
you find that the tree has been growing quite well up until 1628bc, which is this ring,
and in 1627, there is no summer growth, nor in 1626, nor for about ten years thereafter.
These are the narrowest rings in the life of this tree -
the worst growth conditions of its lifetime.
The trees can't tell us exactly what happened,
but the logic is that they were probably responding
to increased coldness or increased wetness or possibly both.
In a peat bog, if you raise the amount of water in the peat,
you're likely to cover up the roots of the trees and affect them that way.
So, I certainly became interested in whether this environmental downturn, probably involving cold and wet,
was due to the eruption of Thera.
Proof that the Irish oak trees WERE stunted by the eruption of Thera
has just been reported from a desolate part of the world.
The ice sheets of Greenland have built up over thousands of years from annual layers of snow.
As the snow falls, anything lingering in the atmosphere is swept up and locked into the ice.
Sulphur from volcanic eruptions is trapped as sulphuric acid.
The snow that fell 3,500 years ago is now over 700 metres deep.
When Danish scientists tested the ice at that level, they found a layer of sulphuric acid.
Embedded in that acid layer were tiny shards of volcanic ash.
The shards have just been chemically fingerprinted.
The unpublished results have convinced the scientists
that the ash came from Thera.
It's fantastic news because it gives us the final link in the chain.
You've got Thera linked to the acid in Greenland,
this acid occurs at the same time as the reduced growth in the Irish trees,
so you're seeing direct environmental consequences of the eruption of Thera,
and that is fantastic.
Floyd is now convinced that the volcano's aftermath so damaged the climate, harvests failed.
He's close to explaining how the Minoans were felled by the eruption.
Yet there is one last problem that threatens to jeopardise his entire theory...
Many were written decades after the eruption.
Covered with Minoan writing, they are proof that their culture survived well beyond the blast.
It was 50 years after the eruption that a new script appeared -
an ancient form of Greek - the language of the Minoans' conquerors.
The problem we have is that the eruption itself can't be said to have wiped out Minoan civilisation.
The civilisation continued, although it declined, for at least 50 years
after the eruption itself.
The Minoans had survived each successive blow from the volcano -
the eruption itself, the tsunamis and the failed harvests.
But these blows had gone deep.
How deep would only become clear with the final piece of the puzzle.
It was found near the royal palace of Knossos,
buried amongst the bones of the five murdered children.
The children's bones were found in this very, very small area here in a burnt destruction layer,
and with these bones, which were in a state of disorder,
were also found vases which we term "ritual".
The striking thing about the vases is the way they were decorated.
They are covered with sea creatures.
Some have starfish, several are painted with octopus.
The Minoans were painting the vases they used for religion with images from the deep.
For Colin, the timing is crucial.
He believes it's only after the eruption and the tsunamis
that they started using this so-called Marine Style.
This association of the Marine Style and ritual vases is very important,
because it indicates to us a totally new awareness of the power of the sea.
This was incorporated into their religion as a totally new aspect of their religion,
probably to try and ward off future disasters
which might have appeared to them to emanate from the sea itself.
The pottery suggests the damaging aftereffects of the volcano were as much psychological as physical.
Colin believes the Minoans began to see their natural world
in an entirely different way.
Before the eruption, the Minoans observed rigid hierarchy.
At the top stood the kings in palaces like Knossos, revered as priests as well as rulers.
They controlled the shrines to the gods.
They were even deemed capable of controlling the force of nature.
But a stunning archaeological find has convinced Colin
that, after the eruption, all this changed.
First, a glimmer of gold.
Then, an ivory leg.
Once they restored it,
the archaeologists realised they'd found a religious statue.
But what was so striking was WHERE it was found -
far from the palace where the priest-kings presided, in a humble building in Palaikastro
which lay beyond their control.
Colin believes that this shrine shows Minoan society had fallen apart from within.
After the eruption, communities such as Palaikastro
no longer believed in the divine authority of the big, palatial centres like Knossos,
and it is part of the fragmentation of society, seen in the 50-year period following the eruption itself.
And this actually created a vacuum,
and it was into this vacuum that mainland Greeks marched
and ended Minoan culture and civilisation as we knew it before.
Wonderful. This means the eruption had not an immediate effect
but a prolonged effect on society.
Floyd believes he's now worked out what happened to the Minoans.
Nature in the form of the volcano, the giant waves and the climate change
had betrayed them.
Desperate to end these new terrors, the people turned away from their kings.
They took their religion into their own hands - order turned to chaos.
Perhaps this is what explains the dreadful fate of the five children.
In desperation, some Minoans were driven to extremes to win back their gods.
They sacrificed their children -
the greatest offering they had.
For Floyd, the quest is over.
In the end, it wasn't only the physical damage that brought the Minoans to their knees.
He is convinced that Minoan society finally fell apart
when the world they thought they knew turned against them.
Did these people have a sense of conquering nature?
Did they have a sense that they could occupy this landscape and control it? ..Quite likely.
We have the same notion today, I think.
We think that we have conquered our environment and conquered nature.
But nature can strike back.
The cataclysmic event IS going to happen again.
In the next programme, the tragic tale of the Maya in Central America.
1,200 years ago, one of the most glorious civilisations the world has known collapsed.
Why magnificent cities were abandoned and millions died is a mystery that only now can be solved.
That's next Thursday at 9.00pm.
Subtitles by Caroline Tosh BBC Scotland - 2001
E-mail us at [email protected]
A look at how the Minoan civilisation, situated on the Mediterranean island of Crete, was wiped out 3,500 years ago by one of the biggest volcanic eruptions since the Ice Age on the nearby island of Thira. 21st century science reveals the horror the volcano unleashed.