Thera’s Akrotiri site soon to get shade

A roof over the Akrotiri archaeological site on the island of Santorini (Thera) will be ready in 12 months’ time, providing protection for the ruins and treasures of this unique prehistoric civilization that even today is surprising archaeologists. According to Professor Christos Doumas, head of the excavation, it will take centuries to complete the excavation work that began 37 years ago. Of the 50 buildings discovered over the 1.2-hectare covered site, only four have been properly explored so far. However, these four buildings have revealed quantities of plaster surfaces belonging to frescoes covering hundreds of square meters. As Doumas wrote in a recent publication, ALS, published by the Prehistoric Thera Studies Support Group, «the frescoes that have been restored to date constitute just one-third of those that have been recovered from the ruins. Many years of continuous work by a large team of restorers is required to complete the remainder, not to mention the others that have been found in buildings not yet fully excavated. In cooperation with the restoration department of the Culture Ministry and with funds obtained from various sources, an effort is being made to continue the restoration of these valuable examples of ancient art.» 10,000 ceramic pots An incredibly large number and variety of finds have been unearthed. Even on their own, these could fill the halls of a local museum. Managing these finds, along with the archives documenting them, is a considerable problem, as is storing them. However, the result, which is what counts, is a picture, albeit incomplete, of the history of the prehistoric city from its foundation to its burial under lava around the 17th century BC, a history of at least three millenia, marked by earthquakes and reconstruction as well as periods of great prosperity. A study of the finds has resulted in new information on the inhabitants’ daily lives, their economy and culture. «These pieces of information have revealed a cosmopolitan society of prosperous town-dwellers, whose economy was based mainly on shipping and trade. It was a liberal society with a central authority managed by the town’s economic elite,» he said. This was an early form of oligarchic democracy, forms of which were to be seen later in ancient Greek and then in European cities such as Venice and Genoa, where shipping and trade replaced ownership of land as the means of imposing power and as a sign of prestige. The discovery in Section 4 of a wall painting depicting a decorated boar tusk helmet with a crest and horsetail, found in excavations between 1999 and 2002, was indeed impressive. According to Natassa Akrivaki in the album «Argonaut» by Doumas’s Athens University students, «the existence of part of a second helmet leads to the assumption that the piece belongs to a frieze depicting helmets. It belongs to the boar tusk, or Mycenaean style. It is one of the earliest and yet most realistic depictions of the object, life-sized, with all the elements of a real helmet – the crest in the form of a horsetail, and cheekpiece.» More information is coming to hand as restoration work continues on the Akrotiri findings. In Section 5, which is mostly unexcavated, during the digging for the foundations of the columns, an impressive fresco 3 meters high was found almost in its entirety and in excellent condition. Its removal by the younger generation of restorers was an event in itself and was filmed for the Akrotiri archives. There is also a unique bath decorated with scenes of galloping animals and birds in flight being chased by a hunter – a masterpiece from the Middle Cycladic period. A large jar depicting a vulture (18th century BC) is also a Middle Cycladic artifact. Also interesting is the famous jug with a scene depicting guests being welcomed, and the clay wine press with a container for the must. Within it a straw basket was found that contained lime, which Doumas talked about at a recent meeting at the Archaeological Society on the use of fire in ancient Thera. The kitchens of the ancient islanders were fully equipped, with pots, baking dishes, portable stoves, grills with bases for skewers, flat stones for baking bread. Lamps were used to light their evenings and the portable stoves were used on cold nights. Fire was also used in dyeing their multicolored textiles, in smokers still used today by beekeepers, in censers for use in religious ceremonies or even in fumigating and perfuming rooms. Many uses of fire Anvils, large pincers and bellows, molds to make weights, ceramic floor tiles, drains and pipes, all indicate that Bronze Age Thera had found many uses for fire. «What I presented,» Doumas told Kathimerini, «is not a sudden discovery that has reversed something we already knew, but a synthesis of information that we have been gathered in recent years. The latest work has given us new information and so our knowledge of the use of fire has been pushed back another 1,000 years,» he said. The Akrotiri site has been closed since November of last year, but is to open again in summer. However, work will not be completed for another 12 months, according to architect Nikos Fintikakis, who has designed the roof. «All the infrastructure has been completed, together with the foundations of the final 95 columns and the frame as well as the first layer of the arched sections of the roof. The cover we see in the photograph is the final one on which the soil of Thera will be laid,» he explained. International interest The work on replacing the old roof, along with the new finds that have been uncovered, has attracted the interest of many experts from abroad and from major universities. Every year, experts come from Italy, Belgium, Canada and the USA to observe what is being accomplished here. Both Doumas and Fintikakis have received many invitations from foreign universities. «I will shortly be going to a visit a network of 50 European agencies to discuss virtual reality in archaeological sites. That is, an attempt is being made to digitally reproduce the scene. Akrotiri has been chosen as the largest prehistoric site. There is also an invitation from Ohio in the US,» said Doumas, who recently visited Princeton University to make a presentation and is soon to make another at Cambridge. «At the moment, funding is pouring in. So we expect that in eight months, the entire roof will be finished, and in a year the interior, with its corridors and exhibition areas as well as the surrounding area,» he said. Doumas hopes that within eight months, all parts of the roof will have been built. At the moment, all that remains to be done is the insulation and the floor covering, the interior timber ceiling that will help extract warm air, the perimeter, entrances and exits and all rainwater drainage works. When finished, it will be the largest covering over a prehistoric settlement in the world. The project is being funded by the European Union and the Greek Culture Ministry. It is a huge investment and also a huge project, but it is fully under control. As Doumas said, things have also gone very well from the management aspect. Over the next four months, all scaffolding will be removed from the interior and the entire archaeological site will have been set up – the interior walkways, the exhibits, access for the disabled and special areas for archaeologists – the entire tour of the city. Doumas said that five routes have been designed, each with a separate ticket. There are two-hour, one-day and three-day tickets. There are also provisions for archaeologists and other experts to visit, as well as people with special needs. «It is as if you are visiting a city, with its commercial center, like Omonia Square, its civic center, like Syntagma, and a cultural center, like Gazi, in Athens. And among these centers are the homes. After all, it is these that reflect the various expressions of life in a city. I have often said that this is not a museum. The city is coming alive again,» he said. Doumas believes it is important that for the first time, people with disabilities are provided for. «We will even have a first-aid center; in the summer, we have a number of older tourists who are sometimes overcome by the heat,» he explained.