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Skeletons From Ancient Santorini Volcano Eruption Found in Turkey

Skeleton Santorini
A skeleton of a man who was a victim of the Santorini volcano eruption was found along the coast of Ionia in what is now Turkey this week. The man and his dog had been killed by the tsunami that resulted from the cataclysmic eruption of the volcano almost 3,600 years ago. Credit: Vasif Sahoglu/

A skeleton of a man who was a victim of the Santorini volcano along with his dog were unearthed recently by archaeologists in Turkey. The 3,600-year-old skeletons were discovered earlier by archaeologists in what was the ancient Greek province of Ionia near Smyrna.

The cataclysmic eruption of the volcano on the island of Thera, now known as Santorini, in 1,646 BC, which may have even been the origin of the legend of the lost island of Atlantis, caused gigantic tsunamis in the Mediterranean.

It was thought, however, that the only fallout that those living in the region of Ionia would have felt from the blast was ash that covered the area. Now, however, scientists have conclusive evidence that tsunamis caused by the giant eruption caused destruction even as far away as current-day Turkey.

Santorini tsunami
The track of the tsunamis caused by the vocal on Santorini as discovered by scientists in Turkey. Credit: The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

Santorini volcano likely destroyed Minoan civilization

The almost unimaginable power of these waves caused a great deal of damage in the area, according to archaeologists working at the excavations in Çeşme-Bağlararası, a Late Bronze Age site near Çeşme Bay on Turkey’s western coast.

Thera—now a caldera at the center of the Greek island of Santorini—is famous for how its tsunamis are thought to have ended the Minoan civilization on nearby Crete.

Based on radiocarbon dating of the tsunami deposits at Çeşme-Bağlararası, the team believes that the volcano’s eruption occurred no earlier than 1612 BC rather than in 1646 BC as scientists have thought for some time.

The study was undertaken by archaeologist Vasıf Şahoğlu of the University of Ankara and his colleagues.

Santorini’s volcanic eruption spurred formation of tsunamis north and south of the island

“Despite the eruption of Thera being one of the largest natural disasters in recorded history, this is the first time remains of victims of the event have been unearthed,” Şahoğlu states.

“Moreover, the presence of the tsunami deposits at Çeşme-Bağlararası show that large and destructive waves did arrive in the northern Aegean after Thera went up,” he explains, adding that “previously, based on the evidence available, it had been assumed that this area of the Mediterranean only received ash fallout from the eruption of Thera.”

But his research has now shown that that was not what happened at all, with the residents of Ionia suffering cataclysmic effects after the Santorini volcano blew. “Instead, it now appears that the Çeşme Bay area was struck by a sequence of tsunamis, devastating local settlements and leading to rescue efforts,” he states, adding “Thera—now a caldera at the center of the Greek island of Santorini—is famous for how its tsunamis are thought to have ended the Minoan civilization on nearby Crete.”

Santorini Tsunami victims
The skeletons of a man and a dog who were victims of the volcanic tsunami were unearthed recently in Turkey. This was what the scene looked like in 2012, before the most recent excavations took place. Credit: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

The scene in Ionia was almost as devastating, according to Sahoglu. In the middle of  stratified sediments at the Çeşme-Bağlararası site, he and his team found the remains of damaged walls which they believe had once been once part of a fortification of some kind.

However, they must have failed completely to shield the city, because they were destroyed; now their remains lie next to layers of rubble and haphazard layers of sediments that are characteristic of deposits laid down by tsunamis.

Completing the picture of the destruction, the team discovered two layers of volcanic ash along with a layer containing many bones, charcoal and charred remains, in these deposits.

Şahoğlu states that the deposits represent at least four consecutive tsunami inundations, each separate but all nevertheless resulting from the eruption at Thera.

Perhaps most tragic of all, the archaeologists came upon traces of misshapen pits that had been dug into the tsunami debris in various places across the site, showing what the researchers believe to be an effort “to retrieve victims from the tsunami debris.”

Şahoğlu explains that the man whose skeleton they found wasn’t one of the lucky people who may have been able to be rescued after the disaster. “The human skeleton was located about a meter below such a pit, suggesting that it was too deep to be found and retrieved and therefore (probably unknowingly) left behind,” he explained.

“It is also in the lowest part of the deposit, characterized throughout the debris field by the largest and heaviest stones (some larger than 40 cm [16 inches] in diameter), further complicating any retrieval effort,” he added.

He states in the scientific paper that the young man’s skeleton, which shows the hallmarks of having been swept along by a debris flow typical of a tsunami, was discovered up against the most damaged areas of the fortification wall that he believes failed due to the onslaught of the water.

The complete findings of the study were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Ionia was an ancient region on the central part of the western coast of Anatolia in present-day Turkey, the region nearest Smyrna. It consisted of the northernmost territories of the Ionian League of Greek settlements. Never a unified state, it was named after the Ionian tribe who, in the Archaic Period (600–480 BC), settled the shores and islands of the Aegean Sea. Ionian states were identified by tradition and by their use of Eastern Greek.

Ionia proper comprised a narrow coastal strip from Phocaea in the north near the mouth of the river Hermus (now the Gediz), to Miletus in the south near the mouth of the river Maeander, and included the islands of Chios and Samos. It was bounded by Aeolia to the north, Lydia to the east and Caria to the south. The cities within the region figured large in the strife between the Persian Empire and the Greeks.

According to Greek tradition, the cities of Ionia were founded by colonists from the other side of the Aegean. Their settlement was connected with the legendary history of the Ionic people in Attica, which asserts that the colonists were led by Neleus and Androclus, sons of Codrus, the last king of Athens. In accordance with this view, the “Ionic migration,” as it was called by later chronologers, was dated by them one hundred and forty years after the Trojan War, or sixty years after the return of the Heracleidae into the Peloponnese.

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