Thera is by no means the largest of the Greek islands, nor even of the Cyclades, the spill of central Aegean islands of which it marks the fringe. But in archaeology it is a gigantic presence due to one site in particular, for here we have, preserved to an extraordinary degree, a Bronze Age town.
Today we know it as Akrotiri after the modern village – its ancient name is lost to us. That there was something there was first noted in the late nineteenth century, but its emergence into the first rank of archaeology is a twentieth century phenomenon, the result of the first systematic excavations in the 1960s and ‘70s.
The work of interpretation and excavation has been going on ever since, indeed recent finds suggest tantalising new directions, as we’ll see. Since the early 2000s it has sheltered under an ingenious modern roof, installed because what is here has an importance – and vulnerability – far beyond the average ancient site.
Comparisons with Pompeii are bandied about perhaps a little too frequently, and with different meaning for archaeologists and the general public, but in this case the appellation ‘Bronze Age Pompeii’ is fully justified by the extraordinary discoveries and their ability to give us insights into daily life that simply don’t happen on the same scale elsewhere.
Of course, Akrotiri’s ancient settlement met its end just as Pompeii did in AD 79 (with the exception that the people seem to have escaped): through a violent volcanic eruption whose fine ash settled on the streets, houses and all within, shrouded them and hardened into a pumice that protected them until the archaeologists came. Our gratitude in this case should maybe be even more acute, since the Theran eruption opens a window fully seventeen centuries further back than Pompeii. While the dates are argued over, most would agree we’re walking back into the remains of the island world of the late 1600s BC.
And it’s an island world that is not so unfamiliar, since we get to see full streets and the houses within them – volcanoes are rather more democratic in what they preserve and reveal than the normal processes of survival and antiquarian rediscovery. Here more than anywhere one can grasp something of the everyday across the millennia.
The houses of Bronze Age Thera were fairly typical of the age: stone foundations, with a superstructure of wood, mud and rubble. In a 'normal' archaeological context, the foundations and - more rarely - the lowermost elements of the ground floors would be the sum of what we might gratefully recover and count as impressive remains.
Here, since Akrotiri was buried in metre upon metre of ash, the walls of some houses are near fully preserved, surviving to a height of three or even four storeys. The nature of the town’s end is told primarily though the absence of roofs and internal floors, collapsed under the weight of ash.
It is quite staggering to realise how much otherwise lost detail Akrotiri makes accessible to the modern visitor. There are the basic details that shaped the rhythms of commonplace life – the arrangement of doors and windows, the design of staircases, the interplay of wooden frames and rubble-and-clay fill in the upper levels – and allow us to figure out the cultural and structural factors influencing the builders.
One of those was earthquakes. One seems to have happened not long before the eruption, to judge by evidence of ongoing repairs, which also means some objects will have been removed. There’s enough left to give us insights into their distribution within the houses, the shape of wooden furnishings, the location of hearths, cooking vessels, food production, and areas where weaving and other productive activities took place.
Many of the finest finds are now on display in the Museum of Prehistoric Thera at Fira. The remarkable beauty of even domestic items is one of the most striking aspects of Akrotiri. Another, even more famous, is its wealth of wonderful, complex fresco paintings, made even more precious by their interaction with the daily items left as they were on that last day.
It’s an uncanny place – so much is recognisable, so familiar that you have to keep telling yourself this is a Bronze Age town. The houses have two or three basic forms, linked by streets and lanes interrupted by the occasional square. The best-known of these is the so-called 'Triangle Square', overlooked by the West House, one of the site's most famous structures and certainly important in its own time to judge by the rich furnishings and architectural refinements like the series of very large windows – for what? - on the upper floor. What gives it its particular fame today is the beautiful range of fresco paintings such as the fisher-boys clutching their catches, their youth shown by tufted hairlocks on otherwise shaved heads, a ‘priestess’ with an incense-burner and the exquisite, almost psychedelic, 'miniature fresco' showing a procession of boats proceeding from one seaside settlement to another.
It has been suggested that Triangle Square may have been a central focus in the town of Akrotiri, and that can be paralleled for similar spaces elsewhere in the Bronze Age Aegean. But we can’t be sure, since we don’t know how much of the town has been uncovered - estimates range between a quarter, a tenth or even less.
Whatever it is, the unknown percentage is being whittled down by ongoing excavations. In recent years we’ve seen work on the ‘House of the Benches’ at the southwestern edge of the excavation, separated by a lane from the richly frescoed building known as Xeste 3.
Xeste 3 is thought to have had a ‘ritual’ purpose related to the initiation of the young into adulthood; the structures and remarkable finds within the House of the Benches suggest it, too, may have had a special, similarly ‘ritual’ or ‘religious’ ‘public’ purpose.
The House of the Benches is not a new discovery, but expansion of the excavation – which still might not have taken in the whole structure – revealed a splendid gold ibex in a clay box (larnax) at the end of the 1990s. Much more recently a whole series of additional larnakes, still with their lids, have been found set into the ground, one seemingly containing a further organic box, perhaps of wood. Perhaps the most interesting held a second clay box in which was found a Cycladic figurine.
You’ll be familiar with these, the most famous type of find from the islands, influential on 20th century art, and this is typical – a stylised human with crossed arms. But while the type may be typical, the type of find-spot – in a box - is not. The box was pretty clearly not made for it – it had to be placed in diagonally to fit – and it seems to have been put in at the last minute of Akrotiri’s life: it had to be excavated from what seems to be pumice which covered it before the lid was closed.
It would probably be going too far to say that the room in which they were found was some sort of shrine, since the boxes suggest a place where special objects were stored (perhaps think of a Vestry here) to be used either elsewhere in the House or even over at Xeste 3. Interesting enough, so far. What raises it to another level is that while the function of Cycladic figurines isn’t entirely understood, by and large their dating is. It, and another figurine from a different box symbolise a period when the Cyclades were the cultural centre of the Aegean. But this was between the middle of the third millennium BC, down to about 2200 BC. That is 600 years or more, at least 24 generations, before the destruction of Akrotiri. Even if we allow that the newly-discovered deposit of larnakes might predate the destruction somewhat, the figurine, so deliberately placed and even buried within its boxes, must already have been of great age at the time of its final use and careful deposition, not to mention whatever future use was intended for it.
We already knew that Akrotiri was a long-lived settlement with layers far beneath that contained Cycladic figures, but here we have some that remained relevant till the settlement’s obliteration. It may not indicate full continuity, with them being handed down at the same site as an heirloom – it’s impossible to tell that, when it could also have been found and reused; nor do we know exactly why it was important: did the people of Akrotiri have a clear idea of connection to the period when it was made? Was it ‘ancestral’ or just ‘old’? Either way, it does seem to have been respected.
Until now, we knew that levels buried far beneath the final phase of Akrotiri contained such items, indicating that the Akrotiri destroyed by the huge eruption was the final phase of a long-lived settlement that had used such objects (perhaps also produced them) when they were current. Now we know that some of them remained relevant and in some kind of use long after. This does not necessarily imply full continuity: it is not a given that the inhabitants of Akrotiri just before its destruction fully understood the background and meaning of their Early Cycladic heritage and of the then-ancient objects they so evidently respected.
All of this impinges on a major question, that of the cultural identity of Akrotiri, which is controversial. To cut a long story short, some scholars since the 1970s see Akrotiri as essentially ‘Minoan’, as a settlement in full harmony with the then-prevailing culture of nearby Crete, even as an offshoot of that culture, or a ‘colony’ of it. This has always seemed a little overblown. It is indeed true that Akrotiri includes many elements known from Minoan Crete, contains Cretan imports and is geographically relatively close to the big island. It is also, however, true that the Akrotiri houses are of an architectural style and design unknown in Crete, that the locally-produced pottery uses Cretan influences selectively while mostly staying within a distinct Cycladic tradition, and that the all-important Akrotiri frescoes, often hailed as Minoan, are quite obviously different from the known Cretan wall-paintings, the vast majority of which are centuries later. Still, the jury's out on the important question whether or to what extent Akrotiri is Cretan/Minoan or whether its culture is essentially home-grown.
The recent finds are significant in this regard. They indicate that the inhabitants of Akrotiri, in an explicitly ritual and thus symbolic context, quite actively referred to their distant Cycladic forebears. The double-boxed figurine, an eminently Cycladic object to the modern scholar's eye, and most certainly not an eminently Cretan one, might already have carried such regional significance at the time, many centuries after it was first made and used. If the House of the Benches turns out to be a building of ritual significance after further excavation, it will suggest that the people of Akrotiri celebrated or commemorated or worshipped their local and/or Cycladic background there quite deliberately. That is an exciting thought and shows that there are still new perspectives on Bronze Age life to be wrung from the volcano’s grip.
You can see Akrotiri for yourself on our Cruising to the Cyclades trip, including the site itself and its site museum at Fira. You can also explore Cycladic figurines on Naxos and Paros on the same cruise, or in various museums in Athens, where you can also see some frescoes from Akrotiri. To encounter the remains of Crete's Minoan civilisation, you can join us on our Exploring Crete tour.
A number of the images in this post are from the Greek Ministry of Culture © ΕΦΑ ΚΥΚΛΑΔΩΝ / Archaeological Eforeia of the Cyclades.