About 3,600 years ago, Thera erupted. The blast was a monster, causing earthquakes, raining volcanic ash around the Mediterranean and, as is the custom of coastal volcanoes, triggering massive tsunamis.
Since eruptions couldn’t be predicted in the Bronze Age, and given the population density in the Aegean and the human predilection for living by the sea, one would expect tens of thousands of deaths – and that they would leave behind some sign. Yet deaths from that horror were never uncovered, with one possible exception reported in 1866, who could have died from other causes such as an earthquake.
The thinking is that some people managed to flee, maybe also because of the earthquakes caused by magma moving underground. The rest burned up. As for tsunami debris, scientists didn’t believe that major tsunamis reached as far as the western Anatolian coast hundreds of kilometers away.
But they did, it turns out, and now victims directly connected to Thera’s wrath have been discovered where they died: a teenager and a dog.
Buried in seawater
Their remains, not together but near each other, lie in debris found at the Bronze Age coastal village of Cesme-Baglararasi, 200 kilometers (124 miles) from Thera on the Turkish coast. So say Beverly Goodman Tchernov, head of the Marine Geosciences Department at the University of Haifa, Vasif Sahoglu of Ankara University and colleagues in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.
The collaboration by Turkish and Israeli researchers has greatly added to our understanding of Thera’s eruption and aftermath. One aspect is the timing of the explosion, a conundrum on which whole careers have been spent. Organic remains in the tsunamis’ deposits have been radiocarbon-dated to around 1612 B.C.E.
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Is that the end of the dating controversy? No, because that result overlaps both the “low” and high” chronologies for Thera, but it’s helpful, Goodman Tchernov says, adding, “We are continuing to work on that.”
How did this collaboration come about? She and Sahoglu met back in 1999, and he contacted her to examine what he thought might be an ash layer from Thera at Cesme-Baglararasi, and to consider if there were tsunami-like features. “At first I didn’t think so – I was very surprised by the analysis,” she says.
Sahoglu adds: “In 2012, as I was excavating, I came up with an ash layer that I suspected must be volcanic ash from Thera.” Volcanic ash is completely different from, say, forest-fire ash; it consists of tiny glass particles.
Indeed, the analysis confirmed that the ash layer was volcanic. But Sahoglu considered the chaos at the site in general – devastation by the beach and just 10 or 20 meters away perfectly preserved homes and streets. He began to suspect that Cesme-Baglararasi was a tsunami field, and in the middle of the decade he asked Goodman Tchernov to take a look.
“The ruins were at the edge of the site by the fortification, and that’s where the tsunamis came and hit the town,” he says.
They began to realize that they had evidence not of one major tsunami triggered by Thera but four. “This was an amazing scientific process, working together in the field and then completing the process by Zoom. It was an incredible experience,” Goodman Tchernov says.
The volcano blows
Thera produced an eruption with a volcanic explosivity index of 7 – that’s a lot – and has been blamed for the extinction of the Minoan civilization on the not-far-off island of Crete. First of all, the Minoans weren’t wiped out, separate work has shown, so Thera didn’t do that. The Minoans who survived integrated with the surrounding Greek culture – even though other separate research has shown that the eruption at Thera was even more massive than originally thought.
Let’s begin with the revelations on the nature of the explosion. As is the norm for volcanoes, it isn’t that they burp once, grimace and beg your pardon. Eruptions may last for days, weeks, even years, and in the case of the Siberian Traps for instance, millions of years.
Thera erupted in phases for about two weeks, Goodman Tchernov and the team deduced by studying the sediment layers at Cesme-Baglararasi. That fits with geological evidence indicating that the eruption had multiple phases, each causing its own tsunami.
It’s normal for a tsunami-producing event to cause multiple waves, but they’re closely spaced in time. At Cesme-Baglararasi, the researchers studying the chaotic deposit deduced that there had been significant time gaps, hours or even days, between layers of ash and tsunami debris.
Think of it this way. Your volcano erupts and belches ash high into the sky, but any that falls quickly will be washed away by the tsunami. So ash accumulating on the land will be post-tsunami. But over a postulated two weeks there was ample opportunity for ash to accumulate. Thinner layers of ash attest to short breaks between the Thera tsunamis, and a thicker layer attests to a longer break, hours or days, Goodman Tchernov says.
All in all they detected four major waves at Cesme-Baglararasi, a much worse tsunami event than had been expected that far from the volcano. Among the evidence, the team cites seashells and collapsed structures at a place that was a flourishing coastal village.
How high were these tsunamis? There just isn’t enough evidence on the Thera-related ocean movements to say, Goodman Tchernov explains. That said, based on this site, she thinks that at least one of the four tsunamis had to have been 4 to 5 meters high, which is a lot. But she notes that tsunami impact isn’t only about height, it’s about inundation – how far inland it goes.
And finally, after a century of scholarly inquiry into Thera and its horrors, victims have been found.
A boy and a dog
The tsunamis that slammed into Cesme-Baglararasi were just part of the devastation wreaked by Thera around the Mediterranean – note that its impact has been detected in Israel, but the massive loss of life caused is largely theoretical, if plausible. It’s also possible that pre-eruption seismic activity persuaded many to seek safer shores.
“The wild thing is that with all the evidence of the ash, all over the region and in the deep sea, and the tsunami deposits we have, we do not have the tens of thousands of victims one would expect. We find nothing,” Goodman Tchernov says. “We argue that our victim was a witness to the event – a person who actually experienced the largest natural disaster in recent human history.”
The teenager was found in the rubble. There are no indications that he was instead buried in a funeral – no grave goods, no grave, and in general his skeleton shows “classic signatures” of having been deposited by a wave.
The dog was found lying nearby in an entryway beneath collapsed stones, though painfully nearby – “a few meters from the collapsed and damaged area, structures were undamaged with intact pathways and walls,” the researchers write.
The scientists also found strange uneven pits throughout the ruins that, they speculate, may have been the result of survivors desperately seeking other survivors. Or the dead. But the boy, if swept away by the water and drowning, might have been buried deep beneath debris.
Apropos rubble, theoretically that could have been caused by quakes (which are common in Turkey), not tsunamis. But the researchers found signs of intrusion into the buildings atypical of earthquake evidence; for example, the damage was only in one direction.
And if this story isn’t weird enough, when Thera blew and the tsunamis hit, the part of the Bronze Age village the waves washed over had already been abandoned, Sahoglu says.
He has been excavating there since 2009, so he knows that this area wasn’t peopled anymore. Why? Probably because of the terrifying seismic activity.
“This site is geomorphologically very dynamic,” he says – it can move dozens of meters in a quake. The tsunami washed into a largely abandoned spot, not that the people had moved far. The teenager and the dog may simply have been supremely unlucky.
And then the village was left forsaken and derelict for at least a hundred years, the soil salted by the encroaching seawater and poisoned by ash, the land strewn with debris.
But it’s the nature of humanity to forget; lessons of the past are not learned. Today the tsunami-stricken Bronze Age village where a teenager and a dog died are at the heart of modern Cesme, a major resort. The village is in the harbor.
Cesme lies next to the island of Chios, but not only didn’t that island protect the Bronze Age village from the waves, if anything the narrow strait between them would have made the wave even higher, according to the researchers’ model of the tsunamis coming from the south, Sahoglu explains.
What are we to learn from all this? Some information about identifying paleotsunamis and mainly that we may not appreciate learning about the risks of coastal living, but the truth is out there.
The excavations were conducted as part of the Izmir Region Excavations and Research Project by an international team headed by Sahoglu between 2009 and 2019 under the aegis of Turkey’s Culture and Tourism Ministry.