The end of the Bronze Age was marked by a catastrophic event that would have strongly impacted humanity. This is the eruption of the Thera volcano, off the Cretan coast. A new study provides details on the chain of events that may have caused the fall of the Minoan civilization.

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Occurring at the end of the Bronze Age, the eruption of the Thera volcano, forming the island of Santorini off the coast of Crete, is recognized as one of the most devastating natural disasters known to humanity.

The island of Santorini is located in the eastern part of the Mediterranean, between Crete and the Turkish coasts. It is thus the entire Mediterranean region that would have been impacted by the violence of the eruption, causing numerous earthquakes, significant fallout of ash, but also several tsunamis. Traces of this eruption have been found all over the globe, even in the polar ice, indicating a global impact and in particular a change in the climate for several decades. Volcanic deposits are so extensive that they are often used in sedimentary studies as a stratigraphic marker. Some scientists even attribute the fall of the Minoan civilization to this catastrophic event.

Map of the Mediterranean and location of the island of Santorini. © Nzeemin, Wikimedia Commons, CC by-sa 3.0

However, despite the apparent violence of this event, no human victim had ever been found until now, even in the region most strongly impacted by the eruption. To explain this surprising absence, some scientists believe that the warning signs of the explosion pushed the populations of the closest areas to flee. It is also possible that the bodies of the victims completely disappeared in the fiery murderous clouds that ripped through the area, charring the bodies and leaving no trace of the victims.

The eruption occurred at the end of the Minoan period, which is contemporary with the 18th Dynasty of Egypt (16th century BCE). At that time, the town of Çeşme-Bağlararası seems to have been an important cultural site on the current Turkish coast. Paleogeographic reconstructions show that the site was located directly by the sea, less than 100 meters from the shore. A critical geographic location in the event of a tsunami.

Archaeological research began on the site in 2009 and revealed a level of ash associated with a very chaotic horizon containing reworked sedimentary debris, with in particular the presence of shells and other marine organisms. Typical signs of deposits associated with a tsunami. The site shows the presence of ancient fortification walls and constructions. It appears that sedimentary deposits are present outside as well as inside the old buildings. But the great discovery of the site was that of two skeletons. The bones of a dog were thus found at the level of the entrance of a building, buried under the stones of a collapsed wall. A little further on, the skeleton of a young man was identified. Its position and the context show that it is in no way a burial and that his death would be directly linked to the occurrence of a tsunami. The way the stones of the buildings are scattered is an additional argument in favor of a major, particularly violent event.

The island of Santorini, which is none other than the huge caldera of the Thera volcano. © Nasa, Wikimedia Commons, public domain

The researchers also found traces of what appears to be relief operations, just after the disaster. Many holes penetrating the tsunami deposits have indeed been identified. These rescue and body recovery operations could explain the striking absence of other skeletons.

Human and dog remains were found among the ruins of a building, amid sediment deposits typical of a tsunami. © Vasıf Şahoğlu et al. 2022, CC by-nc-nd

The analyzes made it possible to refine the date of the event, which would have occurred 1,612 years before our era.

Thanks to all the elements found on the site of Çeşme-Bağlararası, the scientists were able to reconstruct the sequence of events. The results were published in the journal PNAS. The researchers thus propose that the eruption of the Thera volcano caused a series of tsunamis which struck the coast of present-day Turkey, leading in particular to the destruction of the site of Çeşme-Bağlararası. Four distinct events could be identified, interspersed with ash deposits. The first tsunami would have been responsible for the collapse of the buildings and the death of the young man and the dog. The next two waves would have arrived soon after, certainly within a few hours of each other. The last tsunami would have occurred a few days or even weeks later, after the search phase for victims. These results show that there were several eruptive phases, interspersed with more or less long pauses during which a rain of ash fell on the region. After this disaster, everything indicates that the site was abandoned for at least a century.

Bas-relief dating from the Minoan period and representing the Prince of Lilies. © Zde, Wikimedia Commons, CC by-sa 4.0

It is difficult to estimate the impact of this disaster on the Minoan civilization and to know if it was really the trigger for its downfall. However, one can imagine that the destruction of all the port infrastructures, as well as the boats, could have undermined the dynamics and the economic structure of this society so dependent on the sea.

Santorini, a Martian volcano on Earth?

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