Monday, June 7, 2010

Thera as Atlantis - Not!

I have never felt comfortable assigning the name Atlantis to the Minoan culture which ended abruptly around 2600 BCE when Thera exploded.  This is a wonderful description of that fully organized maritime bronze Age civilization.  It is my claim that it was superseded by the rise of the Atlantean polity anchored at Gibraltar and drawing people and goods from the Atlantic littoral and also astonishingly the Americas.

The collapse of Crete allowed the Atlanteans or the Sea Peoples to dominate the Mediterranean from 2600 BCE through 1159 BCE with successor states hanging on until full recovery with the Greeks.

Prior to the Atlantean era, the Minoan polity dominated the Eastern Mediterranean and likely controlled trade flow into Asia Minor and the Levant.  This dominance evolved over centuries and was fueled by the rising flow of copper coming in from the Americas that possibly started well before 2000 BCE.

The copper trade drove the development of the palace based economy throughout the Mediterranean that reached full flower during the Atlantean period.  It was the money of the era and flowed through and was controlled by the choke point at Gibraltar.

Thera was another natural choke point for shipping wanting to pass through to the coastal trade of Asia Minor and was a perfect place to impose control with an active pirate fleet.  It may have evolved into something much more civilized but I am sure it all began as a pirate port.  This means that it had the necessary fleet to even challenge Crete.

From Egyptian history we know that a major coastal trade operated along the Levant in support of the state building projects.  They needed Levant timber.  This also suggests a healthy trade to the west along the African coast also existed during the life of the Egyptian civilization.  This merely confirms from one known source that the ports existed and that trade was underway.

It is likely that the palaces of the Greek mainland and Ionia and Tuscany, for that matter were established by the rise of the Atlanteans after the fall of the Minoans.  The vacuum existed and the customers, however damaged (and damaged they were as shown in the archeological record) still needed metal from the Atlantic and that include tin from Britain and Bolivia and copper from Lake Superior and Bolivia and many other locales in the Americas.

It is actually astonishing just how extensive Bronze Age copper mining was in the Americas and how it drove the rise of palace based societies throughout.  It lasted at least one thousand years and survived in the form of successor states after the trade itself ended with the demise of Atlantis in 1159 BCE.

Has the real Atlantis finally been found... under a modern holiday paradise?

Last updated at 11:16 AM on 31st May 2010

Picture your dream home on a Mediterranean island. The walls are whitewashed and sun streams in through wide olive-wood windows. The view as far as the eye can see is a stretch of perfect blue water.

In the evenings there are the most magnificent sunsets imaginable. The doorways and stairs in your three-storey house are decorated with the vivid red, black and cream rocks of the island.

Fragrant herbs grow in the courtyard. On the walls there are exquisite paintings: antelope leaping through exotic landscapes, lithe young men, their bodies glistening with oil, catching fresh fish or hoisting the sails on richly decorated boats and beautiful, bare-breasted women walking through fields of saffron flowers.

Wonder of the ancient world or fantasy? The story of the fabled Atlantis has captivated humanity for centuries

Outside, the delicate lilac crocuses from which saffron comes, their yellow stamens more precious than gold, carpet the hillsides, nodding and dancing in the sea breeze.

And now imagine the horror as, one fine spring day, the earth beneath your dream house starts to groan and shake. The ground cracks. Steam vents scream and hiss - the bowels of the earth are on the move.

And then the real onslaught begins. Spewing out of the centre of the island comes a plume of pumice and ash, a staggering 35 kilometres high. One hundred and fifty billion tonnes of the earth's guts (equivalent in power to 600 megatonnes of TNT, 40,000 times the power of the Hiroshima bomb) is released into the atmosphere.

Electric storms rip through the sky. Lava bombs - solid rocks as big as trucks, weighing up to eight tonnes each - obliterate everything you have worked your whole life to create.

Ash filled the air and turned their lungs to cement

What makes this scenario even more horrifying is that it's not a fantasy. It's real - a catastrophe that struck Europe's first civilisation more than 3,500 years ago.

What's more, as a new television documentary shows, the sequence of events endured by the island of Thera (modern- day Santorini), bears an uncanny resemblance to the famous story of Atlantis.

Just like in the Atlantis legend, over a long, dark day and night, a whole culture was swallowed up by the sea.

Even i f Thera's unfortunate inhabitants had tried to run, the ash in the air combined with the fluids in their bodies would have turned their lungs to cement.

Blisteringly hot rocks and gas hurtled down at speeds of up to 180 kilometres per hour. For those who were not instantly vaporised, death was agonising. But the nightmare didn't stop there.

Huge swathes of the island sank into the sea, and pulse after pulse of tsunamis were sent juddering out across the known world. 

Bettany Hughes on the island of Santorini - which is believed to be one of the possible sites of Atlantis

The sonic impact of the explosion was so great that everyone within a radius of 80 kilometres was immediately deafened. As far afield as Egypt, eastern Turkey and Ireland the sky turned black, temperatures dropped and crops failed.

In just a few days, this wholesale destruction brought to an end the Bronze Age culture of Thera.

Here, beautiful women - their eyes piercing beneath their smoky kohl make-up, hair oiled and perfumed and bare chests decorated with semi-precious stones - laughed together as they harvested flowers or made offerings of incense to their gods.

Men leapt over huge bulls for sport - a prehistoric breed called aurochs that stood six feet high at the shoulder and had a horn span to match.

Engineers developed the first sailing ships and life centred around the buzzing harbour, where as many as 15 languages could have been heard - including the islanders' native form of early Greek.

Situated in pole position between three continents - Africa, Asia and Europe - Thera was a linchpin for all trading nations.

Luxurious goods passed through its harbours and the Therans were famous for their precious saffron crop - used as a painkiller and as highly prized then as it is now. Theran sailors travelled far and wide - the antelopes, palm trees and big cats painted on the walls of their houses are so perfectly represented that they surely must have been seen first hand.

Architects made advanced models of the homes they planned to build. Children played board games and toddlers drank out of beakers of exactly the same design as our Anyway-up cups.

Men and women, their gauzy clothes dyed saffron-yellow or a rich purple, shared herbal teas in stylish patterned mugs - of precisely the same dimensions as the coffee cups we use today.

Evidence suggests that the tyrannical aristocracy so often found in other ancient societies did not exist in Thera. Instead, the merchants met together in large public spaces - men and women mixing together.

There's no getting away from it - the evidence from the elegant works of art they left behind suggests that women in Thera were very special.

They sit proudly on elegant daises and are shown in the presence of gods. Unlike almost everywhere else in the ancient world, they are conspicuous in their presence. But while Theran society is recognisable to us in many ways, it was also strange and distant.

Some wall decorations depict giant bull horns painted above doorways - and in one case the doorway appears to drip with blood. Bone evidence from the island of Crete suggests that at times of crisis this was a civilisation that may have indulged in human sacrifice or even cannibalism.

But all this was to be destroyed. Over a period of a few days, this largely sophisticated population was wiped out and a fabulous civilisation was forced to its knees.

We know this happened thanks to new evidence coming fresh from out of the earth. Excavations in the ghost town of Akrotiri on the island have uncovered - buried under 30 metres of solid ash and pumice - what many have described as a Bronze Age Pompeii. But this does not do it justice.

Here you can walk through perfectly preserved streets between rows of houses, two and three storeys high.

Wooden furniture has decayed to leave perfect imprints: a comfortable, roomy bed, an elegant three-legged table that wouldn't look out of place in the Palace of Versailles, a favourite vase wrapped in cloth to protect it from the devastation.

The humanity that dreamt all this up was exterminated in a space of between one and five days. Elsewhere on the island, all life was utterly destroyed, buried deep under up to 100 meters of pumice and ash as the sea boiled and rushed into the void left by the collapsing crater.

A whole culture was swallowed by the sea

Sound familiar? In the Atlantis myth, a brilliantly sophisticated world is punished by the gods for becoming overbearing and arrogant. Their penalty - a massive geophysical disaster designed to wipe the Atlanteans off the face of the earth.

There are other startling similarities. Like Atlantis, Thera was destroyed in a matter of days. We are told that after the catastrophe in Atlantis, ' shoalmud' made the ocean impassable - the Theran volcano would have thrown out rafts of volcanic pumice, some of them three feet thick, making the oceans all around impossible to navigate.

Just like Atlantis, Theran homes were decorated in 'red, black and white stone'.

The Atlanteans were said to host 'bull-games' in the central sanctuaries of their city and we know now that the inhabitants of both Thera and Crete practised bull-leaping - almost certainly in their central courtyards and perhaps even in the hearts of their palaces themselves.

Just as in legendary Atlantis, in the world of Bronze Age Crete and Thera the god most feared was Poseidon - the mighty lord of the sea and storms - he who could bring so much pain and destruction to mankind.

I have often wondered about the possible connection between the Atlantis myth and the Bronze Age eruption of Thera, but cutting-edge science is now making that connection impossible to ignore.

Underwater vulcanologists have, since 2000, been studying the sea bed around modern-day Santorini.

The latest data shows that the eruption was two times, possibly even three times, larger than was previously thought. This was the greatest natural disaster ever in the human experience. The volcanic deposits reveal that a bed of super-heated steam carried the deadly cloud of gas and rock a full 30 kilometres out to sea.

Even today if you dive here you can see volcanic deposits on the seabed up to 260 feet thick. Walk on the nearby headlands of Crete and you might pick up Bronze Age pumice deposited by the tsunamis, which, in the space of a few hours, killed at least 75 per cent of the population living along the coastline.

Archaeological evidence reminds us, too, of how devastating this event really was. At the Cretan palace of Knossos, the setting sun's slanting rays reveal a secret sign on one of the perimeter walls. The carved double-axe head, a symbol of the island, has been mutilated - into its side three-pronged trident is now rammed - Poseidon's lethal weapon.

The vases here are decorated with ghoulish creatures of the deep; octopuses, squid and shell-fish - almost as if by immortalising these slithering animals the islanders can somehow face down their demons.

For me, one of the most poignant pieces of evidence is an ancient craftsman's workshop, half-a-mile inland on Crete
Half-used paint pots with their pigment and brushes have been scattered and left. Sea-shells are flung about the room. This was truly a world turned upside down.

The destruction came out of the blue. The scale of the eruption that devastated this unique lost world, we now realise, was 400 times the size of the current activity in Iceland.

Surely this was a cataclysm - an apocalypse that could never be forgotten.

Plato was first to set down the story of Atlantis. This classical Grecian, the 'father of Western philosophy,' was not composing a history or an eyewitness account, but using the tales he'd hear on the backstreets of his hometown Athens (just a day's sailing from Thera) and at his local port to write a moral fable.

His story of Atlantis was meant to teach a lesson: that pride comes before a fall, and that even the mighty can be brought down through greed and ambition - a stark warning that is only too familiar to us today

For him, the Atlanteans were a useful example, a vivid morality tale he could use to educate and entertain his followers.

But inadvertently, it seems certain to me that he was passing on the oral history of a terrible event that shocked the ancient world. A nightmarish tale passed down through generations as a warning of the dreadful power of nature and the gods - and the uncomfortable truth that all great civilisations must come to an end.

Plato's myth is, if you like, history by accident.

Some of his story is clearly simple fantasy. Herds of elephants roam free, magical metals sparkle like fire, the city-state itself is laid out on a complicated system of interconnecting circles.

But what rings absolutely true are the extraordinary achievements of his plucky island civilisation.

Because, against the odds and despite living in a seismic landscape with saltwater all around, the real inhabitants of Thera and Crete, 3,600 years ago, made a wonderful life for themselves.

They traded, they worshipped their gods, they laughed and loved in the Mediterranean sun.

They draped themselves in fine jewellery, they made their homes beautiful, they gathered together on grandstands to shout and roar at nail-biting sporting events and they clambered into sailing boats to reach out beyond the horizon to other societies.

They forged the notion of civilisation itself.

The human tragedy of the Thera eruption is unimaginable. So far no bodies have been discovered in the remains. One theory suggests that the islanders, warned by the initial earthquake, managed to flee. It is improbable though that they had a fleet conveniently waiting idle at one of their ports.

Head of the excavations Professor Christos Doumas says: 'God only knows where these people are. I believe they were camped somewhere on the island waiting for the earthquakes to finish. And one day we will find them.'

The modern-day excavations have had their own tragedies. One of the first archaeologists to work on the site was killed by collapsing masonry. Just three years ago the same happened to the partner of a visiting British tourist.

There have been many mavericks, lunatics and treasure- hunters who have gone in search of the fabled Atlantis.

But I think, at last, those speculations can be put to rest. Now science has come to the aid of history.

Thanks also to our own experience of recent natural disasters, we appreciate more acutely the global impact a volcano can have and the horrors just one tsunami wave can bring.

For me - cradling the delicate cups last touched by a Bronze Age woman 3,600 years ago, staring into the face of a raven-haired beauty who seems to have had significant standing in society, piecing together the swallows, lilies and dolphins used to decorate their walls and feeling the warmth of the filigree fine gold earrings, necklaces and ankle-bracelets used to make their world a more beautiful place - this really is a magical lost world.

Whether or not I am staring at Atlantis, I am certainly face to face with a glittering, powerful, sensuous and utterly ravaged civilisation.

These progressive people were truly the ancestors of our Western civilisation and their story deserves never to be forgotten.

Atlantis: the Evidence is shown on BBC 2, 9pm, 2 June. Bettany Hughes' book Helen Of troy: Goddess, Princess, Whore is out now in paperback. see www. for details

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