Tue, Oct 28, 2003 - Page 16 News List

Scientists revisit Aegean eruption far worse than Krakatoa

New research supports previously discredited evidence that the gigantic eruption of Thera sounded the death knell of Minoan culture

By William J. Broad  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Scientists are reconsidering new evidence that suggests the explosion of the Thera volcano in the Aegean Sea may have triggered the eventual collapse of Minoan culture, the first major European civilization. Doubts persist, though, that the volcanic eruption was the main cause of the collapse of Minoan society, 150 years after the event. Shown above is Mount Etna, another Mediterranean volcano that threatens the surrounding area with a potentially catastrophic eruption.

PHOTO: AFP

For decades, scholars have debated whether the eruption of the Thera volcano in the Aegean more than 3,000 years ago brought about the mysterious collapse of Minoan civilization at the peak of its glory. The volcanic isle (whose remnants are known as Santorini) lay just 110km from Minoan Crete, so it seemed quite reasonable that its fury could have accounted for the fall of that celebrated people.

This idea suffered a blow in 1987 when Danish scientists studying cores from the Greenland icecap reported evidence that Thera exploded in 1645 BC, some 150 years before the usual date. That put so much time between the natural disaster and the Minoan decline that the linkage came to be widely doubted, seeming far-fetched at best.

Now, scientists at Columbia University, the University of Hawaii and other institutions are renewing the proposed connection.

New findings, they say, show that Thera's upheaval was far more violent than previously calculated -- many times larger than the 1883 Krakatoa eruption, which killed more than 36,000 people. They say the Thera blast's cultural repercussions were equally large, rippling across the eastern Mediterranean for decades, even centuries.

"It had to have had a huge impact," said Floyd W. McCoy, a University of Hawaii geologist who has studied the eruption for decades and recently proposed that it was much more violent than previously thought.

The scientists say Thera's outburst produced deadly waves and dense clouds of volcanic ash over a vast region, crippling ancient cities and fleets, setting off climate changes, ruining crops and sowing wide political unrest.

For Minoan Crete, the scientists see direct and indirect consequences. McCoy discovered that towering waves from the eruption that hit Crete were up to 15m high, smashing ports and fleets and severely damaging the maritime economy.

Other scientists found indirect, long-term damage. Ash and global cooling from the volcanic pall caused wide crop failures in the eastern Mediterranean, they said, and the agricultural woes in turn set off political upheavals that undid Minoan friends and trade.

"Imagine island states without links to the outside world," William B. F. Ryan, a geologist at Columbia's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, told a meeting of the American Geophysical Union.

Compelling evidence

Scientists who link Thera to the Minoan decline say the evidence is still emerging and in some cases sketchy. Even so, they say it is already compelling enough to have convinced many archaeologists, geologists and historians that the repercussions probably amounted to a death blow for Minoan Crete.

Rich and sensual, sophisticated and artistic, Minoan culture flourished in the Bronze Age between roughly 3,000 and 1,400 BC, the first high civilization of Europe. It developed an early form of writing and used maritime skill to found colonies and a trade empire.

The British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans called the civilization Minoan, after Minos, the legendary king. His unearthed palace was huge and intricate, and had clearly been weakened by many upheavals, including fire and earthquakes.

Nearby on the volcanic island of Thera, or Santorini, archaeologists dug up Minoan buildings, artifacts and a whole city, Akrotiri, buried under volcanic ash like Pompeii. Some of its beautifully preserved frescoes depicted Egyptian motifs and animals, suggesting significant contact between the two peoples.

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