AKROTIRI - The buried prehistoric city

By: Mimika Kriga, Archaeologist
The Greek island of Santorini is among the most well known destinations for tourists. It has inspired, and still does, many photographers and painters with its magical blue hues, breathtaking sunsets and whitewashed villages. The island is situated next to a live volcano and a caldera, a basin of very deep sea water. The basin was shaped when the volcano erupted around 1650 B.C.

Santorini is unique not only because of its serene heavenly beauty, but for its archaeological site located in the southern part of the island. The promontory of Akrotiri is the location of a settlement of the Late Bronze Age (1700- 1650 B.C.). When the nearby volcano exploded, it spewed forth volcanic materials (pumice and volcanic ash) and buried the contents of Akrotiri. The site was never inhabited again.

Akrotiri is one of the most important archaeological sites all over the world, as it mirrors the high level of preservation found at Pompeii. It is a real prehistoric city buried under tons of pumice and volcanic ash, found almost intact the way it used to be before the fatal volcanic eruption that caused its end. Visually, Akrotiri looks like a snap shot of a deserted city.

The city flourished around the mid 17th century B.C. and its life ended suddenly, when the nearby volcano erupted and covered the whole island with pumice and volcanic ash and sank the other half of it. It is then, that the island got its crescent- shaped shape with the vocano- crater island in the middle.

The buildings of various types standing right in front of the visitor (villas/mansions, block buildings, buildings of public use, storerooms and shops), the big and small interconnecting streets, the open squares, the sewage system, possibly the drainage system and many other characteristic architectural features exist in Akrotiri the way they were 3500 years ago, when the city was in use.

Some of the buildings stand at a height of three floors, and their windows and doors are still visible, as their frames were made of wood. Since the wood left its negative print and a hole in the volcanic pumice, which became visible during excavations, the conservators could use a technique of throwing gypsum in the form of fluid in the hole. When it dries, the gypsum turns into a cast of the initial frame.

The people of this city were building their houses with stones of volcanic origin, big and small, or of cut blocks of volcanic stones. They were strengthening their constructions against earthquakes with wooden beams and they were placing schist flagstones in some of their floors or beaten earth, while they were covering their streets with cobblestones. Within the houses, we see still today the prints of wooden shelves, clay partition walls, built constructions of brick, even cupboards.

In the houses still stand frescoes (wet lime plaster on which they were drawing) of unique importance, as they show a number of scenes (human figures in procession or daily activities, an imposing seated female goddess, rocky landscapes, mythical animals, children boxing, swallows and ducks, animals, objects), which they used to cover a good number of walls and it is for sure that their existence had a certain symbolism. Their clay vases are so vividly painted and well preserved, that most of them are still intact, with no difference from the moment they were in use. The potters of that time liked the decorative motives on their vases (crocuses, lilies, dolphins, ibexes, bulls, griffins, beans, objects etc.).

The inhabitants of Akrotiri were also working with bronze, as we find metal vessels (bronze basins, jugs, open bowls, etc.), lead weights and some bronze weapons. In general, this was a society living in prosperity, which ended suddenly.

For me, I have been living and working at Akrotiri as an archaeologist for the past 4 years. It was and still is an experience of a lifetime. I have gained much scientific knowledge by working here, and many new ideas about the site and the everyday life in the islands of the Aegean Sea. Living at Akrotiri has allowed me to ponder more clearly the map of the ancient city. The daily visual contact with the area has helped me see that the small streets that cross each other and open in small squares, the small windows, doors, and the flat roofs, are similar to the houses of the Cycladic traditional architecture, in that they were a protection against the piracy at all times.

Akrotiri is also a great school for life and human personalities, as I had to live and work with the same people for four years. For us it was like playing in a reality game with no cameras around: everyone waking up at 7.00 a.m., getting ready for work, working together in the excavation trenches till 3.00 p.m., eating lunch together at the excavation cafeteria, resting, returning to the trenches and then going out for beer together. After a while living together stops being exciting and the problems of close quarters start. But after all these experiences we get along with each other successfully, because we know each other very well, in the good and the bad, like family members of perhaps a marriage.

As I come from Athens, I grew up in the city, and so I never had the experience of life in the nature. Now, I enjoy looking at the sea and the moon and thinking in the silence of the night. At the same time, I enjoy an escape from the stress that Athens causes and the hectic way of life we all experience in a modern city.