|22 April 2007
The wave that may have destroyed Crete
The legend of Atlantis may be more than just a myth. Research on the Greek island of Crete suggests Europe's earliest civilisation was destroyed by a giant tsunami. Until about 3,500 years ago, the Minoan civilisation was flourishing in the Eastern Mediterranean. But around 1500 BCE the people who spawned the myths of the Minotaur and the Labyrinth abruptly disappeared. Now the mystery of their cataclysmic end may finally have been solved. A group of scientists have uncovered new evidence that the island of Crete was hit by a massive tsunami at the same time that Minoan culture disappeared.
"The geo-archaeological deposits contain a number of distinct tsunami signatures," says Dutch-born geologist Professor Hendrik Bruins of the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel. "Minoan building material, pottery and cups along with food residue such as isolated animal bones were mixed up with rounded beach pebbles and sea shells and microscopic marine fauna. The latter can only have been scooped up from the sea-bed by one mechanism - a powerful tsunami, dumping all these materials together in a destructive swoop," says Professor Bruins. The deposits are up to seven metres above sea level, well above the normal reach of storm waves. "An event of ferocious force hit the coast of Crete and this wasn't just a Mediterranean storm," says Professor Bruins.
One of Minoans' largest settlements was at Palaikastro on the eastern edge of the island, one of the sites where Canadian archaeologist Sandy MacGillivray has been excavating for 25 years. Here, he has found other tell-tale signs such as buildings where the walls facing the sea are missing but side walls which could have survived a giant wave are left intact. "All of a sudden a lot of the deposits began making sense to us," says MacGillivary. "Even though the town of Palaikastro is a port it stretched hundreds of metres into the hinterland and is, in places, at least 15 metres above sea level. This was a big wave."
But if this evidence is so clear why has it not been discovered before now? Tsunami expert Costas Synolakis, from the University of Southern California, says that the study of ancient tsunamis is in its infancy and people have not, until now, really known what to look for. Many scientists are still of the view that these waves only blasted material away and did not leave much behind in the way of deposits. But observation of the Asian tsunami of 2004 changed all that.
The scientists have obtained radiocarbon dates for the deposits that show the tsunami could have hit the Minoan coast at exactly the same time as an eruption of the Santorini volcano, 70 km north of Crete, in the middle of the second millennium BCE. Recent scientific work has established that the Santorini eruption was up to 10 times more powerful than the eruption of Krakatoa in 1883. It caused massive climatic disruption and the blast was heard over 3000 miles away. It is not clear if the tsunami could have reached inland to the Minoan capital at Knossos, but the fallout from the volcano would have carried other consequences - massive ash falls and crop failure. With their ports, trading fleet and navy destroyed, the Minoans would never have fully recovered.
The myth of Atlantis has had a hold on the popular imagination for centuries. Perhaps we now have an explanation of its origin - a folk memory of a real ancient civilisation swallowed by the sea.
Source: BBC News (20 April 2007)
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