The birth of the Aegean

The Aegean Sea has a tumultuous history. Long before it became the subject of disputed claims and diplomatic tensions, it was rocked by volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, violent weather phenomena and many more dramatic events. The history of how its distinctive archipelago was formed over the course of 20 million-plus years, and how the islands became the cradles of culture and in many cases the fields of great battles, is the subject of an exhibition at the Eugenides Foundation in the southern Athenian suburb of Palaio Faliro.

An initiative of the Natural History Museum of the Lesvos Petrified Forest, this original exhibition, titled “Aegean – Creation of an Archipelago,” is taking place in cooperation with the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki’s Geology and Paleontology Museum and the University of Crete’s Natural History Museum. It has already been shown at the Noesis Science Center and Technology Museum in Thessaloniki and will remain on display in Athens – in an enriched version – through October, before continuing to other venues in Greece and abroad.

Accustomed to measuring time in eras, centuries and, at best, millennia – when, for example, referring to archaeological discoveries or historical events – we tend to regard the Earth’s landscapes as being relatively stable, a set for the rise and demise of human civilizations that leave a trace yet lack the power to bring about radical changes. Rivers and marshes are drained, canals forged, forests destroyed and mountains quarried, but the mountain ranges themselves, the islands and the seas are seen as constants, maintaining a sense of the historical continuity of mankind through the passage of time. This sense of permanence is challenged by the “Aegean” exhibition, which illustrates that everything we take for granted had a beginning and, inevitably, an end, shaped by unstoppable geological forces.

Fossils of flora and fauna, recent findings from underwater research, traces of the predecessors of modern man, impressive videos and panoramic photographs of island clusters tell the story of Aegeis, a vast landmass that emerged from the Tethys Ocean, covering the area from the modern-day Ionian Sea to Asia Minor. The Mediterranean Sea as we know it today was also once a part of the Tethys, though for several hundred thousand years the entire basin was an arid desert, which was eventually flooded with water from the Atlantic. Gradually, as a result of tectonic shifts and ruptures, the landmass of Aegeis fragmented and a large part of it was submerged beneath the waves again. This is how the Aegean islands were formed, along with the geological monuments attesting to these changes, such as the Petrified Forest on Lesvos, which was formed 18 million years ago and preserved under a layer of volcanic matter. Though the Eugenides Foundation exhibition mainly focuses on the developments of the past 20 million years, some of the events described date back 150 million years or more.

A 14-meter petrified trunk of a subtropical forest tree resembling the sequoia and which covered Lesvos some 18 million years ago is perhaps the most impressive display in the exhibition, which also includes unique items such as petrified shells from the Tethys Ocean as well as two fragments of volcanic debris containing petrified leaves: The oldest of these is around 20 million years old and was discovered in Sigri on Lesvos, while the other is an olive leaf from Santorini, which is much younger at 60,000 years.

According to the director of the Lesvos Petrified Forest Museum and associate professor at the University of the Aegean Nikos Zouros, the petrified tree trunks do not just come from land excavations, but also from underwater research that is currently being conducted off Lesvos’s western coast.

At the Eugenides Foundation, the “Aegean” exhibition is split into three sections. The first goes back to the beginning, telling the story of how Aegeis emerged from the Tethys and eventually broke up to become the Aegean, explains Zouros. Intense volcanic activity in the region and how this shaped the archipelago through the eons is the subject of the second section, which explains how the still-active volcanoes of Santorini, Nisyros, Methana and Sousaki in Corinthia, which form the Aegean Volcanic Arc, helped shape islands such as Milos, Lemnos, Santorini, Kimolos and Samothraki. The third section explores ecosystems in the region by explaining the evolution of its biodiversity through displays of primal flora and fauna – such as a short-necked giraffe from Chios, a dwarf elephant from Tilos and an early antelope from Samos. The predecessors of modern man are also present in this section in the form of plaster casts of three humanoid skulls.

Geological activity was not only responsible for geographically shaping the Aegean archipelago as it is today; it also played a key role in the evolution of civilizations by revealing an abundance of mineral wealth, such as obsidian on Milos and copper on Kythnos and Serifos. Furthermore, for many thousands of years, natural phenomena and disasters gave rise to the creation of myths, artwork and metaphysical theories as imagination stepped in where knowledge proved insufficient.

The exhibition is suitable for adults and children alike, offering two separate approaches: The first focuses on the tangible exhibits and the rich audiovisual material available, while the other is more profound, focusing on the Aegean’s geological history, with texts and a 15-minute informative video.

Zouros advises visitors to set aside at least an hour to take in the whole display and explains that the exhibition – which is the first ever to explore the beginnings of the Aegean – took two years to put together after a more ambitious plan for a show on the birth of the entire Eastern Mediterranean had to be scrapped due to financial constraints.


“Aegean: Creation of an Archipelago” will remain on display through October 23. Admission is free of charge on a first-come, first-served basis. Opening hours are Wednesdays-Fridays 5-8 p.m. and Sundays 10 a.m. – 8 p.m. More information is available at Eugenides Foundation, 387 Syngrou, Palaio Faliro (entrance from 11 Pendelis), tel 210.946.9600.

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