Buried Treasure: The City of Akrotiri

There is a silence as I enter the climate controlled dome to see the ancient city of Akrotiri. This is partially due to being told “Shhhhhh” by our professor Lisa, but it’s also because everyone’s jaw dropped while staring at these ruins. The only thing that could be heard was the pitter patter of feet from children and even they weren’t saying anything.  It was like entering a 3600 year old church frozen in time by ash and pumice with even the colors of the frescoes being preserved.

Akrotiri laid hidden for thousands of years until 1967 when Professor Spyridos Marinatos began systematic excavations of the site. He quickly discovered this was an advanced civilization with siphoning toilets and multistory buildings that were quite extensive. There is also pottery and many pieces of slate found in the city that are foreign to Santorini indicating trade with cities from across the sea.

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Figure 1: The Porters Lodge where casts of food were found in the pithoi (storage jars)

How did the buildings, pottery, and colors get preserved so well? The key to this puzzle box is phase 1 of the Minoan eruption which has 5 phases or stages overall. Phase 1 is interpreted to be Pumice Fall which blankets the landscape like a sheet of snow. This requires a very large Plinian eruption that is by definition at least 11 km (7 miles) high. Plinian refers to a very powerful volcanic eruption which is measured by the amount of material ejected from the vent and how high it goes into the air. Now, take a second to imagine this giant mushroom cloud of pumice looming over a volcano. Do you have a good picture in your head? Good, Let us continue!

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Figure 2: Layers of Pumice Fall (Phase 1) and Pyroclastic Surges (Phase 2) found in Akrotiri

The first clasts of pumice that rained down from the sky were very small due to magma fragmentation. This refers to how efficiently or quickly the gas is expanding. The more efficiently the gas expands the more fragmented the pieces. It makes sense that the gas would expand very quickly at first making smaller pieces, and then expand less quickly as time went on creating bigger pieces. I imagine this like when you put mentos into a 2 liter container of soda causing it to explode magnificently at first, but then it uses up its fuel and dies down.

This process caused a layering of smaller pieces of pumice on the bottom and bigger pieces on top called reverse grading. Akrotiri was covered by this pumice shower very quickly protecting the frescoes, buildings, and pottery from the pyroclastic surges in phase 2 of the eruption (see Jessica’s blog The Forces that Drive Rock for more on pyroclastic surges). The pottery was protected so well that delicate handles and spouts remained intact (See figure 3).

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Figure 3: An intact piece of pottery from the museum in Santorini

The objects that survived this destructive force though were covered by ash and somewhat protected by the rest of the explosion. I say somewhat protected because there are giant blocks of basalt from the vent of the volcano scattered throughout the city. As I walked around the ruins of the ancient city I pictured a scene of Armageddon with giant flaming bombs of rock falling from the sky crushing whatever lies in their path.

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Figure 4: Blocks of basalt from the vent of the volcano

I like to think optimistically that they made it off the island before the eruption because there have been no bodies found at Akrotiri. The Pumice Fall would preserve their bodies the same way it preserved the pottery, frescoes, and the rest of the city. There has only been about 10,000 square meters excavated, and they estimate that that is only 3% of the city so there is still so much to discover. As the excavation continues, I remain with high hopes that there was a happy ending to their story. 

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Figure 5: The fourth day of excavation on June 9th 2016 after no activity for 42 years

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12 thoughts on “Buried Treasure: The City of Akrotiri”

  1. Aaron – I am VERY happy with the changes you made from our edit session. I particularly like your use of images in this post. They are well thought out, well annotated, and really support your story. Your writing style in this blog has improved and gives the reader a better picture of the purpose of your blog. Good job!

  2. Lisa- Thank you so much for the feedback! This second blog made me pretty nervous, but I’m really glad you liked it! I definitely think it sounds and looks a lot better after our edit session too.

    Kindly,
    Aaron

  3. Hi Aaron,

    This post was very interesting; especially to someone studying anthropology back here in the states!

    It’s important to keep in mind the platform you are using to share your discoveries. Blogs tend to be informal, and when used correctly they can be a source of valuable scientific sharing. While the post does talk about scientific topics, you utilized your voice throughout the post in the right spots. By doing so, I think you’ve managed to use the blog successfully!

    There were some slight typos in the post, but nothing a fresh pair of eyes can’t correct. For example in the fourth paragraph: “I imagine this like when you put mentos…” I’m sure you were thinking faster than you were typing and just missed a word there. Something else, however, that was a little bit confusing, was how you used the word “they” in the seventh paragraph. I’m assuming you were talking about the Minoan people, but it doesn’t hurt to use “Minoan” instead of “they” in order to remind your readers of who you’re talking about.

    Can’t wait to read your next post!

  4. Hi Aaron,

    I loved your opening paragraph and have to admit that I was immediately intrigued! My interest in this topic was sustained throughout your entire post due to your appropriate use of images, colorful narrative, and constant explanations of geological concepts.

    I am so excited that you used so many images in this post because they really helped me as a reader visualize the living spaces and artifacts that were left behind and how they have been affected over the years. In addition, your personal voice is perfect for a blog format as it is informal, while remaining informative. I like that you interacted with your audience because it made me feel included as an outside audience. This also kept my interest.

    I think the strongest part of your post is that you explained the geological concepts incredibly clearly for an audience unfamiliar with geology. Even when you gave a brief explanation in passing, it made your post so much easier for me to understand and I didn’t have to guess as to what you were referring to. I even like that you explained why you chose to say “somewhat protected” because you explicitly explained your reasoning based on the facts presented.

    This is an excellent post! Keep up the amazing work!

    Marisa

  5. Well done my son. I greatly appreciated your geological explanations for those of us unfamiliar with geology. Definitely kept my interest till the end. Very proud of you!

    Love,
    MOM

  6. I really enjoyed how you used imagery to describe the Plinian eruption column and how the blocks of basalt may have rained down like a fiery Armageddon. Nice summary of Phases 1 and 2 also. Thanks!

  7. Aaron,

    This was an incredibly well written post. I love how you defined complicated processes like magma fragmentation to support your topic.

    I agree with Lisa, your use of photos was excellent and really kept my focus.

    Thank you for the wonderful read, Aaron!

    Jenna

    1. Thank you so much for the wonderful feedback Jenna! Your comment means a lot, and I hope you’re having a great semester! I can’t wait for the NAU in Greece 2016 reunion!

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