“Cruising to the Cyclades” is Peter Sommer Travels’ first cruise in Greece in 2018. This year, to give an impression of the experience, we are providing a diary of sorts on our blog, following last year’s precedents in Crete and the Dodecanese and this year’s in the Peloponnese. Rather than describing every day in detail (you can check our itineraries on www.petersommer.com for that), every day we will pick one image we took that day, accompanied by some explanations and thoughts.
We spent most of today on the island of Santorini. After a short look at the old Archaeological Museum of Fira, we visited the island’s most important archaeological site, Akrotiri, before continuing for a wonderful seaside lunch and a superb wine-tasting, followed by a visit to picturesque, but over-frequented Oia.
The highlight of the day, and one of the highlights of the entire tour, was certainly Akrotiri. The site, first noted in the late 19th century, systematically excavated in the 1960s and 1970s and subject to detailed studies ever since, is an archaeological miracle, one of the most important archaeological discoveries of the twentieth century. It is quite rightly called the ‘Bronze Age Pompeii’, as it was destroyed and preserved in a very similar way to the famous Roman city near Naples: a volcanic eruption ended life in the settlement, its fine ashes burying the streets, houses and their contents, thereby encasing them in what was to become hardened pumice, ensuring their survival for millennia. This process famously preserved Pompeii since its destruction in AD 79, but Akrotiri is nearly seventeen centuries older, its destruction dating to some time before 1,600 BC, in the Late Bronze Age.
The houses of Akrotiri (that’s the name of the nearby modern village, we do not know the site’s ancient name) were built, as was standard in the Aegean Bronze Age, of stone foundations with a superstructure of wood, mud and rubble. In a ‘normal’ archaeological context, only the foundations and – more rarely – the lowermost elements of the ground floors would have survived. Since Akrotiri was buried in many metres of ashes, the walls of some of its houses are near-fully preserved, surviving to a height of three, even four, storeys, while the roofs and internal floors/ceilings have collapsed under the weight of the ashes. At no other place in the Aegean or beyond is it possible to see Bronze Age houses standing nearly to their full height – and if another such place will ever be discovered, it will almost certainly also be located on Santorini.
It is quite staggering to realise how much otherwise lost detail Akrotiri makes accessible, visible and understandable to the archaeologist and to the interested visitor alike. 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 many other such aspects are preserved. To a considerable extent, we can figuratively look over the shoulders of Akrotiri’s Bronze Age builders and understand what they did, how so and why.
Moreover, much of the buildings’ contents (probably not all, as the site appears to have been under repair from an earthquake that must have occurred not long before the eruption) has been discovered, permitting us some insights into the distribution of objects 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 (where we went yesterday). The remarkable beauty of even domestic items is one of the most striking aspects of Akrotiri, another being its wonderful wealth in complex fresco-paintings, many with narrative content, only few of which are on display as yet.
A very clever protective roof constructed in the early 2000s covers the entire excavated area, making it possible to appreciate the Bronze Age town, or more precisely the part of it that has been excavated so far, as an urban ensemble, with individual houses of one or two (or three) types, built along streets and lanes, interrupted by the occasional square. My image shows the so-called ‘Triangle Square’, overlooked (on the left) by the façade of the ‘West House’, one of the site’s most famous structures. It has been suggested that Triangle Square may have been a central focus in the town of Akrotiri, but we cannot be sure of this, as it is unknown how much of the total site has been uncovered – estimates range between a quarter, a tenth or even less.
The West House is worth a future blog post in itself. It was richly furnished and included interesting architectural refinements, such as a series of very large windows on the upper floor. Most intriguing is its complex fresco decoration, including the famous ‘fishermen‘ (nude boys carrying bunches of fish), the equally famous ‘priestess‘ (a well-dressed young girl carrying what is probably an incense-burner) and the enormous ‘miniature fresco’ showing a procession of boats proceeding from one seaside settlement to another. There are many untold stories at Akrotiri, and some appear to congregate around Triangle Square.
The experience of walking around the houses of Bronze Age Akrotiri, looking into them and into the items they contained, and finally of walking through Triangle Square and down the site’s apparent main street running southwards from there, is simply amazing. Time-travel is not available to us, but this comes close. For a fleeting moment, we are on a par with our Aegean forebears from about 150 generations ago.
Tomorrow, we will brave a choppy Aegean to make our way eastwards, to remote and beautiful Astypalea.