For the third year in a row, I walk into Ancient Akrotiri, a 4,000 year-old Minoan town buried in meters of ash and pumice from the ~1613 BC caldera-forming eruption of Santorini Volcano. The excavation site is a gray labyrinth of 1-3 story houses, shops, narrow alleys and staircases built on gently dipping slopes and reflecting the modern pattern of towns on Santorini.
As I take the students through the 2.5 acre excavation site, I stop at all the usual spots. Immediately to the east of the entrance, there is an exposure of Minoan pumice fall (this layer preserved the lower stories of Akrotiri’s buildings and numerous artifacts within them). It is clearly blanketing one of the many unexcavated rooms in the town.
I point out the pyroclastic surge deposits that are directly on top of the pumice fall − ash, pumice, and rock were deposited by quickly moving, turbulent gas clouds shooting laterally across the landscape. The students all stare down at a 1.5 m sized block thrown to that location by the powerful explosions occurring in the center of the archipelago’s bay nearly 4 miles away. It’s this phase of the eruption that damages or destroys most of 2nd and 3rd stories of Akrotiri’s houses that were not buried by the pumice fall.
We walk east and northward through a post-apocalyptic town of windows, benches, terracotta rain gutters, staircases, and alleyways powdered with ash. There is a cast of an olive tree, vividly painted pottery of all sizes and shapes, casts of bed frames and other furniture, and a mortar for grinding fava (a yellow split pea that is still cultivated here on Santorini) − all preserved by pumice fall.
As I take the students through the vast ruin of Akrotiri, I have two conflicting feelings. The first of excitement – I feel like a giddy school girl when I get to show my students this place. They’ve sat through my lectures about this Minoan ruin, seen pictures of the staircase broken by high-magnitude earthquakes preceding the eruption, and have heard me speak many times about the power of volcanic eruptions to both preserve and destroy landscapes. Now they are there, experiencing Minoan life for the first, and likely last, time.
My second feeling is one of disappointment. Each time I walk into Akrotiri, that new, exciting, chilling reaction of “I can’t believe I’m here” dwindles. After many years of visiting the site, it has become familiar to me. I take all the same obligatory photographs (though this year I do have a newer, nicer camera), I walk the same paths in the same direction. I point out and speak about the same items, rooms, walls, blocks, and ash and pumice deposits. My geo-archaeological tours are beginning to become indistinguishable from one another.
THEN WE SEE THEM. What is that man doing with a pickax? And another with brushes and buckets of ash. Wait…those are wheelbarrows! Are they excavating?! This is unbelievable. After 42 years of suspended work, archaeologists under the direction of Dr. Christos Doumas (University of Athens) are excavating the building Xeste 3 and I am watching the building’s shape unfold before me.
I sat with my students for hours and intently watched the wheelbarrows of ash and pumice rush by me. How can I describe this experience? Is this what it feels like to meet a movie star? Win the lottery? Rocket into space? As I patiently watch (stalk?) the archaeologists, I wonder what they will find. Each piece of pumice and wisp of ash they remove hasn’t been moved from its place in 3,600 years. When it fell into this building they are now excavating, the elusive Minoans had just retreated from the island.
My disappointment has been replaced with elation and frenzy. I sit intently watching and anticipating what artifacts will be discovered under this grey blanket of pumice and ash. I feel so privileged that I have the opportunity to return again and again to check on the progress of the excavation. Over the next few months, Xeste 3 will once again be uncovered. What lies beneath?