Thursday, 13 November 2014

Atlantis: Part Three: The Thera Theory


While some believe that Plato's Atlantis was inspired by ancient mythology, others contend that it is in fact based on a real, historical civilization which was destroyed by some kind of natural disaster.  Today we will look at the Thera volcano theory which presents Crete or the Island of Thera as the potential Atlantis and the Minoan civilization as potential Atlantians.

The Minoan Civilization and the Thera Volcano

The Minoans flourished on Crete, the largest Greek island, from around 2000BC to 1500BC.  Their settlements, cemeteries and tombs have been found throughout the island.


They were sophisitcated civilization, with evidence of hieroglyphic and Linear A scripts, art, a range of pottery and hand-turned ceramics, decorated with depictions of flowers, plants and sea life.  Within the palaces were spectacular frescoes from wall to floor revealing the peoples love of nature as well as giving us an idea of their religious, funeral and communal practices.  Their craftsmanship with stone, ivory, faience and metal was excellent, with examples including minutely carved rings and seals made of gold, delicate ivory sculptures and beautiful jars of alabaster.


The Minoans influence over both Egypt and the Near East, making their contact with the people throughout the Aegean, evident and being due to their sea-faring abilities.  Later trade in pottery and consumables like wine and oil for precious materials like ivory.


Minoan inhabitation of Crete can be dated by looking at four complex palace structure sites which were discovered in Knossos, Phaistos, Malia and Zakros.  Each structure is two or three stories high and covered several thousand square metres.  It has been suggested that these structures acted as centres for trade, religion, administration and politics.  The buildings can be dated to two periods - 2,000BC and, following earthquakes and fires, 1,700BC.  Their final destruction, which was caused by an earthqyake, fire or possible invasion, dates to between 1,500 and 1,450BC.  While the lack of fortification suggests a reasonably peaceful existence between communities, the presence of swords, daggers, armour and other objects used in times of war might suggest that peace was not a constant within Minoan society.


Sometime between 1630 and 1500 BC the Thera volcano erupted.  The eruption has been compared to 40 atomic bombs and is believed to be the second largest volcanic eruption in human history. 
Earthquakes preceeding the eruption itself would have plagued the Minoan people, then ash would have plunged large areas of the Mediterranean, followed by the collapse of the island of Thera into the sea.  'Pre-eruption Thera was a large island dominated by water-filled embayment to the south and a central highland to the north.  During the Thera eruption, the central highland collapsed to form the full extent of the present-day caldera and the three islands of the Santorini archipelago.'



The collapse of the island of Thera caused a tsunami which would have destroyed coastal ports and settlements in the surrounding region.  'A two-hundred-foot-tall wall of water swept over Crete and wreaked havoc.., which accompanying earthquakes badly damaged the inland captial, Knossos.' 
Scientists have suggested that the eruption of Thera may be connected to the decline of the Minoan people of nearby Crete.  However, the destruction of the Minoan people has been controversial and is often disputed.

The reason for this dispute is the dating of the Thera eruption which was originally believed to have taken place in 1450BC, around the same time as the downfall of the Minoans.  However, more recent findings placed the eruption between 1627 and 1600BC meaning '...it is unlikely that either eruptive fallout or the associated tsunami played a direct, decisive role in the fall of the Minoan civilization on Crete.'  However, Despite this being the popular opinion, 'this massive explove eruption on Santorini does not seem to have been recorded, either by the Cretan Minoans or the ancient Egyptians...' and some argue that the eruption played a significant role in the downfall of the Minoans.


The fate of the Minoan people who inhabited the island of Thera is also fiercely disputed.  These are those who believe: 'It is likely that the inhabitants had sufficient warning to evacuate the island before the Minoan eruption, since the excavations ... have not uncovered any human skeletons'  And there are those that believe the Minoans never left 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.'

The Minoan World in Comparison with Atlantis

The lost world of the Minoans has intrigued humanity for thousands of years and many historians have suggested that, 'The whole description of Atlantis... has features so thoroughly Minoan...' that Plato must have used them as a basis for his Atlantis.  With vast and elaborate palaces, the first paved roads in Europe and running water, Minoan civilization has been described as 'very structured, heirarchical and rather complex'.  Comparison can be drawn between 'the great harbour, shipping, elaborate bathrooms, stadium and the bull sacrifice which can all be found in Minoan archaeology.'


This theory first arose in 1909 with K.T. Frost, a professor of history.  While the theory was dismissed by academics because of both the timing and the location, it was revived by archeologist Professor Marinatos in the 1930s, after the discovery of substantial Minoan ruins and pumice stone in Amnistos in Crete, as well as evidence of a tsunami.  In 1950, he expanded on this theory, having excavated a Minoan era town near Akrotiri on Thera.  However, the question of the date and location still plagued the theory.

In the 1960s, the seismologist A.G. Galanopoulos claimed that he could make Plato's Atlantis fit Minoan Crete with the suggestion that Plato had overestimated the age of the eruption tenfold, meaning that Atlantis should be dated to around the 1st millennium BC.  Professor Archibald Ray commented, 'Professor Galanopoulos... suggested that an additional zero had been added in translation to all large numbers.  Consequently, the date would be more like nine hundred years before Solon's visit to Egypt.  If so, we apply the same logic to population and island size, produce a more acceptable description more in accordance with Minoan Crete and its destruction by the explosive eruption of Thera.'  Galanopoulos also suggested that Plato's 'Pillars of Hercules' referred to 'two promontories (a promontory is a raised mass of land declined abruptly from only one side) on the south coast of Greece,' and that the island of Thera was the centre of Minoan life, with the islands slopes being adorned with temples and palaces which were then buried during Thera's eruption.


'From the island you could easily pass to other islands, and from them to the entire continent which surrounds the interior sea.  What there is on this side of the strait of which we are speaking resembles a vast gateway... and the land which surround it is a real continent.' 

Those that support the Thera theory point to Plato's description of the surrounding area, stating, '... Atlantis was a large island... there were other islands near Atlantis and these were in an interor sea near to a continent.  These geographical data apply perfectly to Crete and the Aegean Sea. '
Supporters of the theory also tell us, 'Even the concentric arrangement of the Atlantean captial, as described by Plato, may to this day be seen in the waters of Santorini Bay.'


In Plato's Critias we are told, 'The stone which was used in the work they quarried from underneath the centre island, and from underneath the zones, on the outer as well as the inner side.  One kind was white, another black, and a third red...'  Santorini is one of the few places in the world which has beaches of white, black and red sand, which supporters of the theory claim reinforces the claim that Atlantis is based on the rise and fall of Minoan civilization.

Supporters also claim that further description of Atlantis within Plato's Criteas gives credence to the theory, being 'an accurate description of Crete and Knossos...' 

Plato writes: '...a plain located near the sea opening in the central part of the island and the most fertile plains; about it a circle of mountains stretching to the sea, a circle open at the center and protecting the plain from the icy blasts of the north; in these superb mountains, numerous villages, rich and populous; in the plain, a magnificent city, the palaces and temples of which are constructed from stones of three colors -white, black, and red - drawn from the very bosom of the island; here and there mines yielding all the minerals useful to man; finally the shores of the island eat perpendieularly and commanding from above the tumultuous sea.'  


Plato also tells us that the kings of Atlantis 'had under their dominion the entire island as well as several other islands and some parts of the continent.  Besides on the hither side of the strait they were still reigning over Libya as far as Egypt and over Europe as far as the Tyrrhenian.'  So Atlantis was a kingdom of power and supporters believe that this can be applied to Minoan Crete.  'Crete may easily have ruled over many islands of the Aegean, it may well have riled over the Peloponnesus at the time of Mycenae and Tiryns, it may well have ruled over the North African coast of Cyrenaica.'

While the theory that Thera's eruption being the inspiration for Plato's is the most accepted by archeologists, it is not without its critics, who believe there are simply too many details which don't match up to Plato's description of Atlantis.

'The problem with this apparently neat soloution to the Atlantis mystery is that the culture and history of Minoan Crete is a very poor match for Atlantis.'


The island of Thera is believed to have only provided a small outpost colony for the Minoans.  It was not their city of the Minoans, unlike in Atlantis.  The Minoans never attempted ' to occupy Italy or Libya, nor did they threaten to invade Egypt, as the Atlantians were supposed to have done.'  The Minoans are believed to have been mostly peaceful, being more interested in trade than they were in waging war, while Plato portrays Atlantians as aggressive, with war acting as a central theme in Critias.

While supporters state that the presence of concentric circles 'may to this day be seen in the waters of Santorini Bay,' Dorothy B. Vitaliano, a geologist who specialises in volcanology, reported that these concentric arrangements were 'not in existence before the Bronze Age eruption of the volcano; it has been created by subsequent activity which built up the Kameni Islands in the middle of the bay, to which a substantial amount of land was added as recently as 1926.  Any traces of the precollapse topography would long since have been buried beneath the pile of lave whose highest portions emerge to form these lands.'

When looking at Plato's writings, we are told:  'The entire circuit of the wall, which went round the outermost zone, they covered with a coating of brass, and the circuit of the next wall they coated in tin, and the third, which encompoassed the citadel, flashed with the red light of orichalcum... All the outside of the temple... they covered with silver, and the pinnacles with gold... the roof was... curiously wrought everywhere with gold and silver and orichalcum, and all the other parts, the walls and pillars and floor, they coated with orichalcum.'

There is no evidence on either Crete or Thera of walls plated in metal and Plato's description has been said to sound 'like a Bronze Age Phoenician temple' with the statues of Poseidon, the kings and queens being 'more reminiscent of Egyptian or Classical Greek... or even Etruscan.'  The Minoans had no inscribed pillars and they had no sculptures to match Plato's colossal statues.


Another difference lies in the religious worship of their deities.  Plato tells us: 'Here was Poseidon's own temple which was a stadium in length, and half a stadium in width, and of a proportionate height, having a strange barbaric appearance.'  Here the kings would come every fifth or sixth year to offer sacrifice to their god.  However, the Minoans worshipped their deities in sacred caves and hilltop sanctuaries.  The Atlantians worshipped Poseidon, god of the sea, where the Minoans had a variety of deities including the Earth Mother, Goddess of the Hunt and the God of Beasts.


There is no evidence of the immense and complex canals or irrigation systems which are described by Plato.  Nor is there a possibility for Plato's deepwater ports, 'because the main channel would have been fould by the ebb and flow of the tides that do occur 'beyond the Pillars of Heracles.''


Plato writes that 'there were a great number of elephants in the island...'  but elephants were not known to the Minoans.  Nor is there any evidence that the Minoans suffered a military defeat by a weaker, poorer, less technologically advanced civilization as was the case in the relating of Atlantis.

And, while Crete was hit by a tsunami following the eruption of Thera, 'few significant Minoan towns or cities were on that shoreline.  Of those that were, most were built well back from the sea or on high bluffs - perhaps to avoid the threat of tsunamis.'  The ash of the Thera volcano has been theorized to have devastated Minoan crops, but in actuality 'the ash dumped on Crete was only a few centimeters deep - and only on the eastern end of the island.'


It's also important to remember that Plato dated Atlantis to around 9,600BC.  Those that object to the theory of Thera  and Crete being the basis of Atlantis think it 'unlikely that the age of the inundation could be overestimated by tenfold.  Without this 'convenient' overestimation of times and sizes, Marinatos's theory does not have much merit.'

Despite the many differences between the Minoan civilization and Atlantis and the many differences in opinion, the Thera theory remains the most accepted theory by archeologists.

What do you think?

There are many other theories on Atlantis.  Many propose that the location of the lost city might be found somewhere in the Mediterranean - with islands, apart from Thera and Sanotrini, such as Cyprus, Malta and Sardinia having been suggested.  There are those that claim that the true site of Atlantis might be found in Antarctica, Indonesia or the Caribbean.  There are the theories that present the Black Sea as a plausible place for the inspiration of the legend and others which believe the submerged island of Spartel near the Straits of Gibraltar is a plausible location.  Despite the many theories and the many people which are for or against, the city of Atlantis remains lost and may never be discovered.

That's it for today. Until next time.

Roots of Cacaclysm: Geopulsation and the Atlantis Supervolcano in History by Richard Welch
Sunken Realms: A Survey pf Underwater Ruins from Around the World by Karen Mutton
Atlantis or Minoan Crete by Edwin Swift Balch
Island Colonization: The Origin and Development of Island Communities by Ian Thornton and Tim New
The Destruction of Atlantis: Compelling Evidence of the Sudden Fall of the Legendary Civilization by Frank Joseph
The Lost Empire of Atlantis: History's Greatest Mystery Revealed by Gavin Menzies



BBC - The Fall of the Minoan Civilisation by Jessica Cecil
BBC Article  - Thera Eruption Was Bigger Still
Ancient History Encyclopedia - Minoan Civilization
American Scientist: The Minoan Eruption by Svend Rasmussen