This Week: natural disasters

Aerial view of Santorini (ancient Thera), the site of a huge volcanic eruption in the 17th century BC. IMAGE: Wikimedia Commons/The Santorini Caldera.

It is a question that has been debated by archaeologists and historians for decades: to what extent can one of the worst disasters in human history, the catastrophic volcanic eruption in c.1600 BC that devastated the ancient Aegean island of Thera (now known as Santorini), be linked to the mysterious collapse of one of the first European cultures, the once-dominant Minoan civilisation centred on the nearby island of Crete?

It has long been thought that the Thera eruption – one of the most powerful to happen anywhere on Earth in the past 10,000 years – set off a devastating tsunami. This, in turn, is said to have smashed into Crete, about 100km away, with such force that the Bronze Age Minoans – famed from Greek myth for their palace at Knossos and its labyrinth of the Minotaur – became an easy target for outside forces, such as the mainland Mycenaeans who conquered them a century and a half later.

But though some experts can agree on the bare bones of the dramatic story – including how the eruption threw an estimated 30-40 cubic kilometres of stone, ash, and lava into the air – argument still rages over the precise but crucial details of timelines, mechanics, and cause and effect.

As we learn this week on The Past, however, recent discoveries in another part of the Aegean are allowing us finally to see through some of these swirling clouds of confusion, and to understand more clearly what happened when Thera blew its top.

In the new issue of Current World Archaeology magazine, Vasıf Şahoğlu and Beverly Goodman-Tchernov explain how archaeologists working more than 200km away from Thera (at the popular resort of Çeşme on the Turkish coast) have uncovered evidence that the eruption was actually divided into four separate phases – each of which produced a powerful wave of its own – suggesting that this extraordinary tragedy may have been more protracted, and perhaps even more terrible, than had previously been suspected.

Also this week on The Past, we have been delving into the archives in search of more about natural disasters: we travelled to Japan to see what happened to its ancient treasures after the worst earthquake in 1,000 years was followed by a deadly tsunami; and we returned to the country 10 years after the Fukushima disaster to see how restoration efforts were proceeding. Elsewhere, we travelled further back in time, as we looked for evidence of the Storegga tsunami that raged across the North Sea 8,150 years ago, and asked: was this the event that flooded the lost area known as Doggerland?

Meanwhile, on the next episode of The PastCast (out later this week), presenter Calum Henderson hears more about the Spiro Mounds of Oklahoma, as featured in the latest issue of Minerva magazine.

And finally, if all that simply whets your appetite, don’t forget to have a go at our latest themed Quiz, which this week is focused on volcanoes. Good luck, and we hope you enjoy The Past!

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