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A culture shaped by natural disasters

Those who lived on ancient Thera often attributed the island’s earthquakes and volcanic eruptions to the wrath of the gods. But this mythmaking that arose from the need to explain the chronic destruction also contributed greatly to the creation of the island’s culture, a leading archaeologist said last week. «The volcano of Thera was a permanent challenge to local residents, to which they came up with various responses,» said Professor Christos Doumas, director of the Akrotiri excavations on Santorini, in a lecture last Thursday at the Archaeological Society. Doumas noted that the prehistoric settlement of Akrotiri suffered numerous earthquakes in the course of its 3,000-year history, which shaped it both physically and socially. «Many of [the tremors] were of moderate intensity, merely jolts, and they left no visible signs,» he said. «Other more powerful ones caused damage we can still trace today amid the successive layers of ruins.» Archaeologists who have examined the ruins on Santorini, Thera’s modern name, say that there’s every indication that residents knew what to do in case of an earthquake. After a tremor, they would clear the roads of rubble and pull goods from the wreckage. This is why objects such as furniture, household goods and even food have been found outside the ruined city in temporary camps. Excavators have discovered beds and a sack of rye, and even a jar of fish has been found. «We now find them buried under pumice,» he said. The Therans reacted to earthquakes in an orderly, disciplined and coordinated manner, he added. «They didn’t consider deserting their island, even if it did flatten their houses from time to time,» he said. «On the contrary, immediately after the earthquake, they got to work rebuilding, of which there is archaeological evidence; piles of stones and soil, materials that were separated by the ruined walls, have often been found buried under the pumice, as have the goods that were pulled from the ruins.» They would rebuild using material from their ruined houses. «The fact that similar piles of stones have been found at deeper Middle Cycladic strata, that is, from the 18th or the early 17th century BC, shows that this practice had been used much earlier and had become standard,» Doumas said. They didn’t leave matters to fate, but «rebuilt their houses while seeking ways and means, if not to neutralize the earthquakes, then at least to improve the resistance of their buildings.» Doumas cited examples: «Beneath a Middle Cycladic-era building, on which what is known to us as the Western House was built, was found a layer of fragments of porous lava, 4-6 centimeters in diameter. These fragments, known to the people of Akrotiri today as adralia, are to be found in abundance on nearby Mavros Rachidi hill. It might seem like chance; if we hadn’t also found one beneath the foundations of a second building of the same age, Xestis 3.» The layer of adralia acted as a cushion, absorbing the seismic tremors. The wooden webs used to reinforce walls in multistory buildings were another form of protection. Thera was first settled in the middle of the 5th millennium BC. Recent geological surveys show that at the center of the island there was a caldera with water in it, which had a single outlet to the sea, «between where the lighthouse is now and Aspronisi.» There was an islet in the northern part of the caldera. «This means that the early inhabitants had access to both the lava which it was made of and to the interior of the caldera. So the volcanic stones were almost the sole raw material both for building houses and making vessels and tools,» Doumas said. They used malleable lava from Mavro Rachidi and Mesovouna to build the first huts as well as objects such as pestles and mortars for processing food. Doumas mentioned a 1.30-meter stone jar dating from the third millennium BC, and a stove made of andesite which was probably mined nearby. Given its dimensions, the jar may have been one of a kind, and it is the most tangible evidence of how man met the challenges of the environment. If we take into account the tools that the artisan had to hand to carve it, we can assume that this was a lifetime’s work. Santorini and its volcano still produce material and intellectual culture, Doumas noted. He reminded his audience how it contributed to the construction of the Suez Canal, when for years it furnished factories with pumice stone and Theran soil. The local residents made their houses from those materials, the superb flavor of the local wine is attributed to the volcano, and writers and visual artists have been inspired by its beauty and civilization. Doumas paid tribute to the residents who fought to meet the challenges of the volcano which helped cultivate this intriguing Aegean civilization.