August 18, 2022

First victim of the tsunami that trashed the Eastern Mediterranean found

First victim of the tsunami that trashed the Eastern Mediterranean found
First victim of the tsunami that trashed the Eastern Mediterranean foundFirst victim of the tsunami that trashed the Eastern Mediterranean found
Sahoglu et al. 2021

Archaeologists working in what is now western Turkey recently unearthed the rubble left behind by a series of powerful tsunamis that slammed into a Bronze Age city. The giant waves were triggered by the eruption of the volcano Thera on the island of Santorini, hundreds of kilometers away—a cataclysm that toppled the Minoan civilization and shook the rest of the ancient Mediterranean world.

Among the ruins left by the event in Çeşme-Bağlararası, Ankara University archaeologist Vasıf Sahoglu and his colleagues found the skeleton of a young man and a dog; they’re the only victims of the disaster ever found by archaeologists.

Going out with a bang

From around 2000 BCE to around 1450 BCE, the Minoan civilization was the dominant force in the Mediterranean. Its power and wealth came from seafaring and trade, and its cultural and economic influence stretched from its home island of Crete all the way to Egypt. But sometime between 1600 and 1500 BCE, a volcano called Thera, on what is now the island of Santorini (about 200 km north of Crete in the Aegean Sea), erupted violently.

Modern geologists say Thera probably erupted with about the same force as Indonesia’s Mount Tambora in 1815, which blanketed the world in a high-altitude cloud of volcanic ash for over a year. The eruption destroyed the city of Akrotiri and submerged part of the island—possibly inspiring the story of Atlantis.

It’s hard to say that a single event brought about the end of an entire civilization, but it’s also nearly impossible to deny that the devastation Thera rained down played a crucial role in the Minoan decline.

Besides the immediate destruction, the volcano also blasted aerosols high into Earth’s upper atmosphere, blocking solar radiation and ushering in years, or maybe even decades, of cold summers and bad crops. We can see the record of that temperature change in polar ice cores and tree rings from around the Northern Hemisphere. It’s probably no coincidence that Minoan power began to decline sharply around 1450 BCE.

Hours after the eruption, people in the bustling port city of Çeşme-Bağlararası—which is flanked by two rivers at the end of Çeşme Bay—must have seen the waters of the bay draw back from the shore. Moments later, a rushing wall of seawater slammed into Çeşme-Bağlararası, knocking down walls and buildings in its path and leaving scattered stones, mud, and clumps of shells in its wake. At least two more waves followed, and a fourth came days later, disrupting the search for victims buried in the rubble.

Ancient disaster forensics

Sahoglu and his colleagues excavated a part of Çeşme-Bağlararası not far from a massive stone fortification. This part of the city was deserted at the time of the eruption, according to the archaeologists, but houses and other buildings still stood here when the wave hit. And Sahoglu and his colleagues found many of those buildings in ruins, completely or partially collapsed. The rubble of demolished buildings lay scattered across the area, mingled with Minoan-style pottery, seashells, and other objects.

It’s clear that this devastation was wrought by the sea, not a local earthquake. All of the collapsed walls fell in the same direction, as if pushed. Mixed with stone rubble from buildings and bits of broken pottery, Sahoglu and his colleagues also found seashells from clams, limpets, and other marine life washed ashore by the waves. And under the microscope, they saw the tiny shells of plankton in the sediment that filled the space between the stones.

Çeşme-Bağlararası is one of just a handful of sites where archaeologists have found evidence of tsunamis following the Thera eruption. That’s partly because the techniques for studying sediments left behind by tsunamis have improved drastically in recent years, so archaeologists are now better equipped to look for evidence of these natural disasters. And at Çeşme-Bağlararası, the evidence offers a hint about whether Thera erupted in one continuous outburst or in several stages that lasted for days—or even weeks.

A tragedy in at least four acts

The rubble at Çeşme-Bağlararası lay in four distinct layers, which marked the landfall of at least four tsunamis. And Sahoglu and his colleagues say their timing supports a theory that Thera erupted in several phases, with short pauses in between. Each new phase of eruption, they suggest, triggered a tsunami that left its mark at Çeşme-Bağlararası.

A thin layer of volcanic ash, mixed with bits of small rubble, covered the debris from the first wave. This told Sahoglu and his colleagues that a little time—maybe a few hours—passed between the first wave and the second. By the time the first wave hit, volcanic ash from Thera would have started falling on Çeşme-Bağlararası, and it had time to accumulate before the second wave came.

A thicker layer of ash lay atop the second wave’s debris, suggesting that a few more hours had passed before a third wave hit. It’s hard to imagine what the people of Çeşme-Bağlararası must have experienced during those hours. Two powerful waves had all but razed the city, no doubt leaving many people injured, dead, and missing, and ash rained down from a darkened sky.

Then the third wave came, carrying bits of charred and still-burning debris from elsewhere around the Aegean Sea with it. The third layer of debris lies beneath a layer of sediment rich in charcoal and burned wood.