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High Art from the Time of Abraham, Christos G. Doumas, BAR 17:01, Jan-Feb 1991.

The West House AkrotiriWas this the lost continent of Atlantis? Did a volcano part the Red Sea?

BAR readers may well wonder what a small volcanic island—now a cluster of islands—in the Aegean Sea has to do with Biblical archaeology.

The answer is threefold. Most important, this article is about a high civilization that was destroyed about 1500 B.C. (or 1628 B.C., according to a recent dating—see the sidebar “Thera and the Exodus—When Was the Island Destroyed?” This dates it at least 300 years before Israel emerged as a people in the rustic highlands of Canaan, perhaps at a time when Israel’s patriarchal forebears were living as seminomads and certainly before the time of the Exodus and the Judges. To appreciate fully the ancient culture out of which Israel emerged, we must understand, even if by contrast, the contemporaneous world of the mid-second millennium. Thera, to use the Greek name of this Aegean island (today it is also called Santorini, a name given to it by the Venetians), was part of that world—reflecting a little-known but elevated culture that had maritime and trading contacts with much of the then-known world, especially to the east.

There are other reasons why students of the Bible will be interested in Thera.

Professor Hans Goedicke of Johns Hopkins University, in Baltimore, Maryland, has suggested that the volcano that destroyed Thera facilitated the parting of the Red Sea as described in Exodus 14-15–31.a

Finally, as we shall see, the volcanic eruption on Thera may have produced a legend with interesting parallels to the Biblical account of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.

As I have indicated, Theran civilization was destroyed by an extraordinary volcanic eruption about 3,500 years ago. Much of the island was simply blown away. Today Thera is a group of small islands of which the main one is still called Thera. We know where the center of the volcano was from what is left. Much of what was originally the central part of the island is now part of the Aegean Sea. When the volcano literally “blew its top,” the sides of the mountain collapsed into the abyss; then the sea poured into this great caldera—32 square miles of it. This internal sea, as it were, is partially bordered on the west by a curving rim of volcanic rock. On the other three sides is what is left of the island. And even this was covered with pumice and tephra (volcanic ash), sometimes reaching a thickness of 100 feet! The blast was so powerful that the eruption column reached an estimated height of 20 miles, sending particles of dust hundreds of miles away.

Thus life on Thera came to a dramatic end.

Archaeological excavations have been conducted at various sites on the island. Beginning in 1961, work began at a site called Akrotiri, named after a nearby village on the southern promontory of Thera. The excavation of Akrotiri was initially directed by Professor Spyridon Marinatos on behalf of the Greek Archaeological Society; when Marinatos died in 1974, I assumed responsibility for the dig. Even after more than 20 years, the exploration of Akrotiri is still in its infancy.

Thus far, we have removed several thousand tons of volcanic ash and pumice from an area of about one hectare (about 2.5 acres). As we dug down, the tops of ruined two- and three-story buildings began to appear. To protect the site, we put a corrugated metal roofing over the excavation area. Under this roofing about 30 separate buildings have been located. But of these only one (the West House) has been fully excavated. An additional five (designated Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta and Xesteb) have been partially excavated. The finds become even more impressive when you bear in mind that what you will learn about comes from just six houses, or one-fifth of those located, of which only one has been fully excavated.

In some ways Akrotiri is like a Middle Bronze Age Pompeii, to which it has often been compared. One of our most difficult problems is the preservation of the ruins. Very often third floors are still intact, but they are held in place solely by the volcanic ash that filled the buildings before the wooden beams that originally supported the structure could disintegrate. Technical difficulties in replacing supports of upper stories such as these inevitably slow our progress.

Even after uncovering this relatively minuscule area, however, certain general characteristics of the community that lived at Akrotiri are apparent. The site has all the features of an urban settlement- public works, craft specialization, social stratification.

Among the public works are paved streets with a drainage system running under them.

A diversity of skills was obviously required to construct the buildings. Architects, stonemasons and carpenters were among the specialists. The city also boasted excellent potters. In addition, shipbuilding, seafaring skills and metalworking all bear witness to a high degree of craft specialization.

But above all were the artists. Particularly their wall paintings, which decorated both public buildings and private houses, attest not only to craft specialization, but also to a high degree of affluence and economic surplus.

The Middle Bronze Age city at Akrotiri that was destroyed in about 1500 B.C. (or 1628 B.C.) was the culmination of a 2,500-year-old tradition. From the evidence uncovered so far it appears that the site was continuously occupied from at least about 4000 B.C. Neolithic pottery and marble vases and figurines of the Early Cycladic period (third millennium B.C.) have frequently been recovered in earlier deposits at the site, sometimes associated with building remains of that period. Evidence of Middle Cycladic occupation (c. 2000–1500 B.C.) is even more abundant and also includes building remains as well as pottery and figurines.

In the first half of the second millennium B.C., Akrotiri established contact with the Greek mainland to the north and with Crete to the south, as indicated by imports from these regions. As time passed, Minoan imports from Crete increased. A pronounced Minoan influence is apparent as well in the art and architecture of the island. Indeed, so strong is this influence that some scholars have suggested that Akrotiri was a Minoan colony. I do not believe this can be the case, however. In the Neolithic and Early Bronze Age phases of the site, we find purely Cycladic culture, devoid of any Minoan influence. The Middle and Late Bronze Age material reflects a remarkable continuity of these local traditions, which could only be maintained by the indigenous population. The apparent “Minoanization” of Akrotiri, I believe, simply reflects the high degree of cultural influence that Crete exercised, not only on Thera but throughout the Aegean.

Prior to the eruption of the volcano there was very little cultivable land on Thera. The island must have relied on food imports from Crete and the Greek mainland. One would therefore expect a rather poor economy in which the inhabitants could barely eke out a living. Yet the art and architecture of Akrotiri reveals a mentality quite different from what we would normally associate with subsistence communities. The most reasonable explanation for this situation is that an economic surplus was derived from maritime activities—shipping and trade. Since the island does not appear to have produced materials for export, it apparently lived on transit trade. This accords well with the Cycladic tradition of seafaring that dates back to at least the seventh millennium B.C.

That Middle Bronze Age Akrotirians were skilled seafarers and traders is also strongly suggested by the flotilla and exotic landscapes depicted on the walls of the West House. No doubt the owner of the building wished to project his own social status by this painting; but whatever its significance for him, the iconography of the paintings, as we shall see, indicates the collective involvement of the community in overseas expeditions.

Other evidence of trading activities by the people of Akrotiri includes an appreciable number of lead balance weights and a large number of stirrup-jars. The stirrup-jar is generally acknowledged as the vessel par excellence for the transportation of liquids, principally olive oil and wine. About 50 percent of the earliest known type of stirrup-jar found in the entire Aegean,—including Crete, come from Akrotiri, even though the site has barely been explored. Similarly with the lead balance weights—of the total number known from Aegean sites, nearly two-thirds come from Akrotiri.

The archaeological evidence indicates that for much of their trade, the Akrotirians looked eastward—toward what are sometimes called the lands of the Bible.

The lead weights, for example, have a discoid shape. These weights are an eastern invention. The handle attached to one heavy balance weight from Akrotiri closely resembles weights from Enkomi in Cyprus. But there is much more. The ostrich-egg rhytons (ceremonial drinking vessels) with faience mounts found in Building Delta at Akrotiri attest to contacts with Egypt. A Canaanite jar, also from Building Delta, must have come from Syria-Palestine. Some gypsum vases and tripod mortars for grinding grain appear to have come from Syria-Palestine as well.1 Certain vessels with polychrome decoration may also reflect Syro-Palestinian or Cypriot influence.

The art of Akrotiri also suggests relations with the East. Faunal species quite alien to the Aegean region, but certainly at home in Egypt or Palestine, are depicted in naturalistic landscapes in the wall paintings. Realistically rendered lions, monkeys, wild ducks, cats, antelopes and other animals indicate that the artists who painted them had actually seen these animals. Either they had traveled to the East or the animals were transported to the Aegean. In either case, there must have been traffic between East and West. The griffin is another element in the iconography of Akrotiri. That, too, has an eastern provenance.

Certain conventions in the paintings reflect an artistic vocabulary common throughout the eastern Mediterranean. We are reminded of the Egyptian gesture of mourners—touching their forehead with one hand while the other is brought to the ground—in the gesture of the wounded maiden in the fresco known as the “Lustral Basin” from Xeste 3; the woman supports her brow on her left arm while she holds her foot with her right hand, the big toe of which seems to be bleeding. Here we see that the Akrotirian artist chose a well-known gesture to depict sorrow, readily intelligible to all the peoples of the eastern Mediterranean.

Depicting young people with blue, probably shaven, heads also reflects Egyptian influence. Whatever its significance, both in Egypt and in Akrotiri, this treatment of the hair is confined to young people. Recently, it has been suggested that the figures with completely shaven heads are children about to acquire adult status, participating in some kind of puberty rite. Puberty rites are, of course, a common cultural trait of Aegean and Near Eastern peoples of this time.

The personification of animals is another eastern characteristic found in the art of Akrotiri, though it is restricted to monkeys performing human activities. In a fragmentary frieze from Xeste 3, we found an entire scene of such monkeys- One plays a lyre or harp; another brandishes a sword; the hand of another (or the same?) holds a scabbard; yet another is in a sitting position as if clapping its hands. Although it is difficult to understand this scene until it has been fully restored, monkeys were commonly depicted in such poses in Egyptian art. Monkeys as musicians, and especially as harpists, are also known from Mesopotamian art, typically found in seal impressions.

Other artistic conventions borrowed from the East include the way bulls, oxen and oxhides are depicted. Palanquins (litters) can be seen on the banners in Room 4 of the West House and on the ships depicted in Room 5 of the West House. The palanquins consisted of wooden poles and oxhides; the latter are all dappled, either by plain black patches or by stars of three or four rounded rays, which is exactly the way that the bull and its hide are depicted in Mesopotamian and Egyptian art. Similar depictions can be seen in Egyptian tombs. We see the same kind of dappling in sculptures of the goddess Hathor, pictured as a cow suckling Amenophis III. A similar cow appears on the head of the funerary bed from the tomb of Tutankhamun. From Mesopotamia, a crouched calf depicted on a shell figurine from Uruk applies this same convention.

Finally, dead or inert bodies are depicted in the same way in Akrotirian art as in examples from the eastern Mediterranean. In Room 5 of the West House, we see a shipwreck; human figures in the vicinity of the vessels are shown in the sea in awkward poses. Are they swimmers or divers? Interpretations differ, but their unnatural positions recall the artistic repertoire of Egypt and Mesopotamia. In battle scenes, dead bodies are depicted in similar poses to those we find at Akrotiri. See for example the bodies carved on the ivory handle of a flint knife from Gebel-el-Arak in Egypt (now in the Louvre), or on a schist plaque also from Egypt (part in the British Museum and part in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford). Warriors slain in battle are depicted in this same way on the mosaic standard from Ur, as well as on a painted box from the tomb of Tutankhamun.2

All this is convincing evidence of close contacts between Thera and the civilizations of the eastern Mediterranean. In short, there seems to have been a koinec of visual values, as revealed in their art.

Were these contacts direct or indirect? My own view is that the Akrotirians, and Therans in general, as well as the inhabitants of the other islands of the Cyclades, acted as middlemen in the trade between Crete and the Greek mainland, on the one hand, and between Crete and the lands of the eastern Mediterranean mentioned in the Bible, on the other. Crete, with its Minoan civilization, was different from the islands of the Cyclades. Crete was fertile. It was thus not only agriculturally self-sufficient, but it was able to produce a surplus. This she sought to dispose of in new markets abroad. Conversely, there was a growing demand for consumer goods by the emergent “upper classes” of Crete. Though successful farmers, however, the Cretans had only minimal involvement with the sea. This is in sharp contrast to Crete’s neighbors in the Cycladic islands to the north, who could not have survived on these barren rocks if they had not sought their fortune at sea. We know that they were involved in trading and seafaring even in earlier periods. What would be more natural than that the Cycladic islanders with their long tradition of shipbuilding and seafaring should supply Crete with needed vessels, mariners and traders to engage in overseas exchange. Inscriptions in the tombs of two viziers to Tuthmosis III, User-Amon and his successor Rekhmire (c. 1504–1450 B.C.), mention people from the “islands [not the island] in the midst of the sea.” The peoples referred to might well be the inhabitants of the Cyclades. In this way the wealth revealed in the excavations at Akrotiri, 60 miles due north of Crete, is explainable, despite the barrenness of the island on which these people lived.

Akrotiri was at the height of its prosperity when the end came—suddenly and violently.

Professor Goedicke has suggested that this tremendous volcano, which destroyed approximately 50 percent of the island and buried the rest of it with pumice and tephra, also created huge tidal-like waves called tsunamis that caused the phenomenon described in the Bible as the parting of the Red Sea.

According to Goedicke, the Israelites, with the Egyptians in pursuit, retreated to the high ground of Tell Hazzob, in the eastern Nile Delta, just south of Lake Menzaleh. Just as the Egyptians were massing on the plain in front of Tell Hazzob, a sudden, huge wave—the by-product of the Thera volcano eruption—burst beyond the normal boundaries of Lake Menzaleh and drowned the Egyptian forces. The Israelites witnessed the awesome scene from the security of Tell Hazzob’s heights. This was the momentous event, Goedicke says, chronicled in the Bible as the parting of the Red Sea (Exodus 14-15–31) and celebrated by Moses’ great Song of the Sea (Exodus 15-1–18), as well as by Miriam leading the women of Israel in song and dance (Exodus 15-20–21).

I am in no position to support or attack Goedicke’s theory, although it seems that few other scholars have accepted it. What I can do, however, is describe the volcanic eruption on which he relies. That it was an extraordinary eruption cannot be denied. Volcanologists compare it to the eruption of Krakatoa, west of Java in the Indian Ocean, which occurred relatively recently, in 1883, and which has been reliably described and well documented. Ships more than 150 miles from Krakatoa reported that they were covered with dust three days after the end of the Krakatoa eruption. It became dark more than 250 miles from the explosion. The darkness lasted more than a day. (Does a similar darkness, occasioned by the eruption on Thera, lie behind the plague of darkness visited on the Egyptians and recorded in Exodus 10-21–23?d) The blackout in the vicinity of Krakatoa lasted for three days; it was so total that not even lamplight could penetrate it. The tidal-like waves generated by the falling in of the volcano and the rush of water into the caldera rose to more than 100 feet more than 30 miles away. Nearly 300 villages on the neighboring coasts of Java and Sumatra were completely destroyed; more than 36,000 people lost their lives, mainly by drowning. A gunboat moored in a harbor 50 miles north of Krakatoa was carried two miles inland.

The caldera at Thera, by comparison, is almost four times greater than the caldera at Krakatoa!

Volcanologists who have studied the evidence from Thera suggest that initially minor earth tremors provided a warning to the people of Akrotiri of worse to come. Apparently they heeded this warning and evacuated the town. That is why no human victims have been found in our excavations. Then came several strong earthquakes that caused considerable damage to the buildings. A period of quiescence apparently followed these earthquakes, during which the townsfolk returned to the settlement and organized teams that undertook to clear the rubble from the streets and to demolish and/or repair damaged buildings. Our excavations provided us with a vivid picture of this work, though it is difficult to gauge how long it lasted. We can say, however, that it was never completed. We found among the ruins makeshift stone huts used by the workmen. These huts still contained their tools. They were evidently left when everyone who resumed once again hastily abandoned the town at the first sign of more to come.

According to the evidence, the eruption of the volcano occurred in several successive stages. The eruption was probably presaged by the escape of noxious gases and vapors that served as a warning to those who had returned after the earthquakes. The people evidently had sufficient time to collect their more valuable belongings and take them with them. So far neither human nor animal skeletons have been found, nor precious vessels or jewelry. Thus, when the first minor paroxysm came—which covered the whole island with a 1-inch layer of fine pumice, about the size of rice grains—the town was already deserted. After a short pause, there came a series of paroxysms, ejecting four successive layers of pumice. The total thickness of these layers of pumice varies from about 3 feet at Akrotiri to nearly 20 feet in the region of Phira, the island’s present capital.

Then came the final paroxysm, which was immense. A huge column of volcanic ash and steam approximately 20 miles high was ejected into the atmosphere, sending vast quantities of tephra over enormous distances. Recent excavations on other islands in the Aegean have brought to light a layer of Theran tephra, varying in thickness from 2.5 inches at Kos and at a lake near Smyrna in Turkey to 3 feet at Rhodes. In support of his theory regarding the parting of the Red Sea, Goedicke has cited deposits of Theran tephra in Egypt and the eastern Mediterranean littoral. Going even further, volcanic acidity attributed to the Theran eruption has been detected in ice layers in Greenland, as the sidebar “Thera and the Exodus—When Was the Island Destroyed?” mentions.

In addition to the layers of tephra at Thera, which sometimes exceed 100 feet, gigantic boulders were dislodged from the walls of the volcano’s crater and propelled nearly ten miles away. Many of these “bombs” hit Akrotiri, damaging buildings.

And so the town of Akrotiri came to an end.

Some scholars have suggested that this eruption of the Thera volcano was responsible for the mysterious demise of the Minoan civilization on Crete in about 1500 B.C. According to this theory, the tsunami waves created by the Thera eruption simply swept over the north coast of Crete, drowning everyone. Indeed, this theory, to which Professor Marinatos subscribed, led him to undertake the excavation of Akrotiri. Few scholars today, however, support this view. Contemporary sites around Thera, such as Rhodes and Kos, were not destroyed. Thus other reasons—most probably socioeconomic ones—must be sought to explain the decline of Minoan civilization.

Whether the theory that the eruption of the Thera volcano explains the parting of the Red Sea will prove to be more tenable, I do not know. This depends in part on whether the Exodus and the Thera volcano can be shown to be contemporaneous. According to most Biblical scholars, the Exodus occurred, if at all, in the 13th century B.C. A minority of scholars, however, opts for a 15th-century B.C. Exodus. But even this is too late, if, as now seems to be the case, the Thera eruption is dated to the 17th century B.C.

Some scholars have seen in the destruction of Thera—a high civilization that simply vanished from the face of the earth as a result of a volcanic eruption—the inspiration for the tale of the lost continent of Atlantis. Everything we know about this lost continent comes from two dialogues of Plato, the fifth-century B.C. Athenian philosopher. His geographical descriptions have led various scholars to locate Atlantis in such diverse places as the North Sea, the Azores and Bermuda, as well as at Thera and elsewhere. It is difficult for us to know whether Plato was referring to a specific continent or whether he simply invented the story of a continent that sunk into the sea. But in either event, stories of what happened at Thera a thousand years earlier might well have provided the core of the story.

According to Plato, Atlantis was the model of an ideal city-state. When its laws were observed, peace prevailed and the city prospered. But later the people became arrogant. They no longer respected the gods, whose wrath they thereby incurred. Soon they were beset with wars; eventually the whole continent sank into the sea. Here is how Plato describes it in the Dialogue with Timaeus-
“But afterwards there occurred violent earthquakes and floods; and in a single day and night of misfortune all your warlike men in a body sank into the earth, and the island of Atlantis in like manner disappeared in the depths of the sea.”3

Stories of wicked cities destroyed by earthquakes, inspired by events like the destruction of Thera, were apparently common in ancient times. The story of Atlantis is not the only one. In the Bible too is a story of two wicked cities Sodom and Gomorrah—destroyed in a fiery calamity—perhaps a volcanic eruption. Whether the story owes anything to the destruction of Thera, we can only speculate.

a. See Hershel Shanks, “The Exodus and the Crossing of the Red Sea, According to Hans Goedicke,” and Charles Richard Krahmalkov, “A Critique of Professor Goedicke’s Exodus Theories,” BAR 07-05; Eliezer D. Oren, “How Not to Create a History of the Exodus—A Critique of Professor Goedicke’s Theories,” BAR 07-06 and Queries & Comments, BAR 07-06; Queries & Comments, BAR 08-01; Queries & Comments, BAR 08-02; and Hershel Shanks, “In Defense of Hans Goedicke,” BAR 08-03.

b. Xeste means ashlar in Greek. The house designated Xeste is built of ashlars, or smoothly dressed stones.

c. Koine Greek is the dialect that flourished in the Mediterranean region during the Roman period; here it is used to mean a common visual language.

d. An Egyptian text dated after the end of the XVIIIth Dynasty (c. 1350 B.C.) describes a calamity as follows-

“The sun is covered and does not shine to the sight of men. Life is no longer possible when the sun is concealed behind the clouds. Ra has turned his face from mankind. If only it would shine even for one hour! No one knows when it is midday. One’s shadow is not discernible. The sun in the heavens resembles the moon….”

For a Biblical text with similar content, see Zephaniah 1-15.

1. The attribution of the gypsum vases has been made by Professor Peter Warren of the University of Bristol, England. The attribution of the mortars has been made by Professor Hans-Günter Buchholz of the University of Giessen, Germany.

2. This way of rendering dead bodies seems to have persisted for several centuries for it recurs on the seventh-century B.C. relief frieze from Nineveh depicting the battle on the river Ulai, as well as on a Greek Geometric oinochoe (wine jug), now in the Antikensammlung in Munich, on which there is a shipwreck scene. For a photograph of Tutankhamun’s box, see Alan R. Millard, “King Og’s Iron Bed—Fact or Fancy?” BR 06-02.

3. B. Jowett, The Dialogues of Plato (Boston and New York- Jefferson Press, 1871), vol. 2, p. 521.

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