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The Minoan Eruption

Svend Rasmussen

Fire in the Sea. The Santorini Volcano: Natural History and the Legend of Atlantis. Walter L. Friedrich. Translated by Alexander R. McBirney. xiv + 258 pp. Cambridge University Press, 2000. $34.95.

Tens of thousands of tourists visit Santorini every year; it is supposedly the most photographed of the Greek islands. Strictly speaking, the name Santorini covers a group of islands, some of them volcanic, but it has become almost synonymous with the main island, Thera. Other islands in the group include Therasia and Aspronisi, which with Thera form a ring around a marine basin, or caldera; islands within the caldera include Palea Kameni and Nea Kameni.

Walter Friedrich, a professor of geology at the University of Aarhus, Denmark (where this reviewer is an emeritus professor of inorganic chemistry), based this book on more than 25 years of his own research on the geology and archaeology of Santorini. The text is scholarly but can also be readily understood by readers without a scientific background. First published in German in 1994, the book has now been updated by Friedrich and translated into English by Alexander McBirney, an emeritus professor in the Department of Geological Sciences at the University of Oregon.

Fire in the Sea gives an excellent account of the archaeological and geological history of Santorini, which is located in a region of plate collisions and has experienced a number of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. The author describes the theory of plate tectonics in easily understandable terms, explaining how the collisions of continental plates cause phenomena such as earthquakes and volcanism.

One of the most violent volcanic eruptions to rock the ancient world, comparable in strength to the eruption of Krakatau between Java and Sumatra in 1883, was the Minoan eruption, which took place in the Santorini caldera about 3,650 years ago, in the Bronze Age. The form of the islands was altered and much of their surface was covered with a layer of pumice up to 60 meters thick; all life was extinguished.

Late in the 19th century, ruins dating from the Bronze Age were discovered beneath the pumice layer near the town of Akrotiri. Later excavations, particularly those done after 1967, yielded a wealth of details. Houses of two and three stories were found, containing rooms decorated with beautiful frescoes, and painted ceramics were found in abundance; it was as if a Bronze Age Pompeii had been uncovered. The findings bear witness to the high cultural level of the people who lived on the island at the time of the eruption, and the frescoes indicate that cultural contacts existed with Crete and Egypt. It is likely that the inhabitants had sufficient warning to evacuate the island before the Minoan eruption, since the excavations, in contrast to those of Pompeii, have not uncovered any human skeletons.

The author gives a detailed analysis, based on archaeological, geological and geophysical evidence, of events connected with the Minoan eruption. The eruption has been hypothesized to have been associated with the decline of Minoan culture on Crete. Friedrich observes that radiocarbon dating and studies of ice cores from Greenland point to the year 1645 b.c. as the most likely date for the eruption and notes that because the decline of Minoan culture on Crete is estimated to have taken place about 200 years later, it is unlikely that the two events were related. Friedrich also reviews theories connecting Santorini to the legend of Atlantis and concludes that they leave many questions unanswered.

Next follows an account of how Santorini again became inhabited and how new, small islands appeared and disappeared in connection with minor eruptions. At present the volcano is dormant, but it is well worth noting that an eruption occurred as recently as 1950 and that a strong earthquake devastated the town of Oia on the northern part of Thera in 1956.

The main text, which provides a readable overview of whatever topic is under discussion, is supplemented by boxed material that treats specific subjects in greater detail. There are three appendices: One contains Plato's dialogues on Atlantis, and the others are lists of fossils and flora.

Fire in the Sea could be used in an introductory course on geology, but it is written for a far wider audience. Its lavish color photographs, drawings and computer graphics will have broad appeal. It is indicative of the book's quality that the new archaeological museum at Santorini displays passages from it. Anyone who is interested in earth science, history or archaeology will find an abundance of information about Santorini and about modern methods of geological and archaeological research.

Although it is not a tourist guide, the book can add to a visitor's enjoyment of a great number of sites off the beaten track. On my previous trips to Santorini (some of which have included participation in field excursions guided by Dr. Friedrich), I have used the German edition to find interesting places to visit, and I will certainly take the English edition the next time I go.—Svend Erik Rasmussen, University of Aarhus, Denmark

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