Exactly one hundred years ago, Greek and French archaeologists uncovered the remains of a "prehistoric Pompeii" deep under the ashen surface of the Greek island of Thera in the Cyclades. What they saw then was extraordinary—houses still standing to the roof, with windows overlooking the sea, frescoes on the walls, grain in the granaries, painted vases and stone tools, bones of animals and branches of trees, and a little old man caught in the Bronze Age disaster of Thera. Nineteenth-century scientists felt a childlike wonder at this glimpse of daily life from an era so ancient they could not identify it.
Thera is the most southerly of the Cycladic islands, which fill the Aegean Sea between Greece and Crete. It is an active volcano, near a major earthquake fault, and during its violent past the whole central mass of the island has blown high in the air, once or perhaps twice, and fallen back in again. After long discharges of ash, in about 23,000 B.C. and 1500 B.C. it seems that the normal volcanic outlets became plugged, and super-hot gas-charged magma burst up from under the earth through a solid cap of island, throwing huge boulders fifty kilometers in the air and scattering hot ash, or tephra, over the whole eastern Mediterranean. When the magma chamber under the earth drained out, the remaining pillars of matter were too fragile to stand, and everything collapsed into the new hollow with a huge inrush of sea. This invasion of water was accompanied by a trembling of the earth, incredible noise, 150-foot tidal waves, electrified atmosphere, gales, steam, sulfuric mist, and showers of ash which barred the sunlight and turned much of the world dark. In 1500 B.C., when the Mediterranean was densely inhabited by highly civilized people, the eruption of Thera must have caused a shocking amount of physical damage and mental agony on all the neighboring coasts.
As you sail into the caldera of Thera now you quickly sense the presence of a natural power too demonic to understand neatly. The whole island is volcanic sculpture, layers of pale ash and pumice thrown up from inside the earth to mask the original limestone flanks of the island mountain. Only the rim of the crater survives, sheer cliffs of ash rising 1200 feet above the sea, layered in tones of rose and tan and white, broken by bizarre bastions of tougher debris, held between a bed of black lava below and a coating of vineyards and white villages above.
The circle of the crater is broken three times, once in the north and twice in the west, where the sea has flowed in to isolate the little block of Aspronisi, the longer arc of Therasia. The whole gap, four times larger than the hole the volcano of Krakatoa made in itself when it blew up the Sunda Straits in 1883 and staggered the world, is four miles across and 1200 feet deep. Three volcanic islets, the Kameni, or Burnt Ones, grow slowly in the center, steaming gently and oozing brown lava, warming the sea and attracting sharks.
The last major eruption of Thera took place in 1925, and there were minor convulsions in 1928, 1939, and 1950. Between convulsions earthquakes rock the island. Thousands of islanders left after the quake of 1956, which killed scores in falling rock, smashed the villages, and expelled the sea nearly a thousand feet from the coasts. One admires the Therans who stay. It would be interesting to explore their deeper thoughts about life on a volcano, and to assess the quality of their childhood terrors. Yet Greeks are full of courage and disconcerting honesty; they are used to the threats of nature. From day to day they are more concerned with poverty than with forces under the earth.
Thera is not rich, although some individuals are. Rain scarcely falls there. There is only one hillside brook, springing from the one big limestone hill to project above the ash, Prophet Elias, which carries the gray stone city of classical Thera on one peak and a white monastery on the other. Elsewhere people depend on cisterns and on black bags of water towed in by boat. In this dry land the houses are paradoxically damp because they are partly hollowed out of the cliffs like troglodyte caves, vaulted free-form honeycombs where the sun never reaches. The volcanic soil is good for acid fruits—small tomatoes, and the grapes which make the famous Santorini wine. Both crops are troublesome. The wind blows so hard that the grapes cannot be propped up to catch the sun; the wine is too sweet to sell abroad much.
Transportation depends on a few old Fords and an army of donkeys. Only donkeys can manage the hairpin stone trails from the landing stages to the towns a thousand feet above. In this flat, sheared-off country without earth, water, or trees it is hard to make a living. The villagers say their income often does not exceed $60 a year to feed a family of four, although in good years they may make $200. In such an economy men go to sea, or wait on tourists, or mine pumice.
The prehistoric ruins of Thera were first exposed over a century ago in the pumice mines. French engineers for Suez realized that Thera provided a prime cheap source of cement for the canal and the installations of Port Said. They started open-air mines in the huge deposit of ash south of the main town of Phirá, on the southern tip of Therasia, and at scattered points around the circumference of the island wherever ships could come in close. Houses all over the Middle East are still built out of Thera.
The white volcanic ash when mixed with chalk makes a fine hard waterproof concrete; the wetter it gets the harder it grows. The pumice, which comes in pale porous nuggets or chunks, is exported raw and ground at its destination for building, industrial abrasives, and cleaning inky fingers. Some dentists use it too, though most American teeth are cleaned by Italian volcanoes. Freighters moor close under the cliffs where wooden chutes carry the volcanic glass, crashing a thousand feet, down into the waiting holds. One foreman with forty years' experience in the mines, Mr. Savvas, has watched a solid half mile of Thera sent overseas since his boyhood, and like his predecessors, he has seen innumerable traces of ancient civilization chewed up by commerce. The men are so used to the world underneath the ash that they scarcely pay attention to it anymore.
The mines of Phirá make a wild white landscape which grows eerie at noon under the sun's heat. The crucial level for prehistory lies between 90 and 120 feet down, where a layer of weathered brown lava was the surface of Thera in the second millennium B.C. House walls are tossed aside in wavering lines by the machines; pottery and plaster litter the ground. The miners often see wood—parts of Cycladic houses or simply the trees which once grew in the fields. A few years back a wild almond with bark and leaves excited much comment but was not saved.
Exploration started in the mines across the caldera on Therasia. A maze of walls appeared under the property of Mr. Alaphousos, "a foreigner from the other side of the island." The professor of chemistry in Athens Christomanos saw them and understood their significance; the distinguished Theran Dr. Nomikos joined Alaphousos in exploring them. The Greek scientists were vastly curious about how so much volcanic matter had arrived on top of constructions which were clearly very primitive, but the danger of the site hampered their investigations. Cascades of loose pumice kept rolling down to threaten them with live burial.
At an early stage the explorers were joined by a lucid and energetic Frenchman, Ferdinand Fouqué whose name should be honored on Thera forever. Fouqué was a highly trained geologist sent by his government to keep watch on the long eruption of Thera which started in 1866 and continued for several years. He realized at once that Nokimos' ruins under Therasia were the first good evidence for the date of the big eruption which had made the caldera and shrouded the remnants so thickly in ash. A hundred years ago no one could tell precisely how old the Therasia ruins were, but they were clearly pre-Greek. In the end Fouqué and his colleagues had cleared six principal rooms of what seemed to be a large farmhouse, built of lava boulders, with branches of wild olive inserted into the walls as an elastic framework. There was a columned hail, and stairs, and windows overlooking the sea. The farm was still full of household furnishings. Fouqué made detailed records in a neat and vivid style, which makes it sad that his monumental book Santorin et ses eruptions should be so rare today. There seemed to be only one victim, an aged man crumpled by the falling roof. The human situation was not like Pompeii, no crowds of choked contorted sufferers. The Therans may have had warning and escaped to sea.
The Therasia site was dangerous. Fouqué thought that ruins he had been shown at Akrotiri might be easier to investigate—here the deposit of ash and pumice was much shallower, only six to thirty feet. Akrotiri is an important village built around a medieval castle, on the south coast of the horned crescent of the main island. It commands the inner and outer seas, and possesses a large undulating terrain of vineyards broken by ravines, terraced erosion gullies lined with modern retaining walls of lava boulders. The paths at the bottom of these ravines run just above the basements of the ancient houses. Fouqué saw walls sticking accessibly out of the ash, but a misunderstanding over the price of prime vine land kept him from large-scale excavation; he was able to extract a number of vases, however, and two rings of nearly pure gold. In 1870 he persuaded the École Française d'Athènes to send out to Akrotiri two young scholars named Mamet and Gorceix.
Mamet and Gorceix had astonishing success at Akrotiri under difficult circumstances, which were probably aggravated by their speaking very little Greek. Their preliminary report, written as letters to the director, is filled with wonder and harassment. Mamet was the archaeologist, Gorceix a geologist who liked mines and who was fascinated by the volcano which still went boom eight times an hour, sending spurts of white vapor 300 feet into the air. On May 9, 1870, they began to have "happy results surpassing our hopes." They worked in the ravine east of Akrotiri, 400 meters from the sea. Under the angular pumice they found three rooms of a buried building built directly on top of the cindery gray lava which represented the late Bronze Age surface of the island, laid down by earlier eruptions. The walls of their house still stood five or six feet high.
The French were impressed by the quantity of household furniture which appeared everywhere—obsidian knives, mortars, pestles, mills, lamps, weights for looms and fishnets, carpenter's tools, pottery painted and plain, often full of carbonized food—in the end they had identified barley, rye, lentils, chick-peas, straw, and the bones of rabbits, sheep, goats, a dog, a cat, and a donkey.
Their most exciting experience came when they tried mining galleries underground in the unstable banks of pumice.
A few blows of the pickaxe discovered for us an underground corridor whose vaulted roof was formed of pumice which fell down at the slightest shock. One wall was still covered with white chalk-plaster covered with designs in red and violet and black.
This underground painted tunnel was like a child's dream; its loveliness disappeared equally quickly as the roof fell in.
The frescoes of Thera were the first paintings known to the modern world from that brilliant period of Aegean civilization in the sixteenth and fifteenth centuries B.C., when artists devoted so much of their energy to fresco. The walls of Akrotiri showed brightly colored bands, and flowers with long yellow stamens like lilies, and iris bending toward each other in the wind. This pretty style of garden fresco originated in the palaces of Crete. Even a century ago, before Crete was explored, it suggested that the buried houses of Thera were not simple peasant farms.
Mamet and Gorceix also discovered, inside the island, high over the little harbor of Balos, under 60 feet of ash, house walls jutting directly from the face of the cliff 150 feet above sea level. This proved that their settlement had stretched across the abyss when the great eruption came; all that survived was the seacoast fringe of a greater town.
In the end the French turned up all sorts of evidence for an advanced civilization still miraculously preserved by the catastrophe of the volcano, shrouded in ash, sealed off from destructive air and rain. The houses stood, in at least one case, up to the second story; the wooden beams and doorjambs could still be seen; a pair of little granaries still held straw and wheat. Great storage jars were partly filled with food; the household casseroles and tripods, bathtubs and basins, lamps and oil presses were still where Cycladic wives had left them, only partly tumbled about by earth tremors. No wonder Fouqué spoke of a new Pompeii.
To impatient scholars it may seem astonishing that a century passed before another serious probe was made at Akrotiri. Yet we must remember how long ago this was in the short history of archaeology. While Mamet and Gorceix were on Thera, Heinrich Schliemann was making his first announcement that he had found Homer's Troy. Mycenae and Knossos were still buried. For the world at large the sublime monuments of antiquity were classical statues, preferably in Roman copies. Fouqué's discoveries seemed too primitive, and too dangerously buried, to trouble about.
Years passed. Fouqué's great book appeared in 1879. In 1883 Krakatoa erupted and taught the world directly about the power of volcanoes. In 1885 the first connections between Thera and Plato's legend of the Lost Atlantis, that virtuous island which had sunk under the sea in a single night, were made by Auguste Nicaise in a lecture entitled "Les Terres Disparues: L'Atlantide, Thera, Krakatoa." In 1899 the renowned German scholar Baron Friedrich Hiller von Gaertringen, who was excavating the lovely classical city high on Thera's mountain, sent a colleague down to Akrotiri to look around. Robert Zahn cleared one prehistoric house built of red lava and found abundant remains of timber, pottery, and food—even coriander and anise—and a storage jar of local clay on which were inscribed mysterious symbols in an unknown writing. In the same year Sir Arthur Evans began the preliminary exploration of what would turn out to be the Cretan Labyrinth, the palace of King Minos at Knossos.
From 1900 onward the strange beauty and originality of the Minoan civilization on Crete began to unfold. Soon archaeologists realized that the writing on Thera was in fact Minoan, in the script called Linear A, which is still undeciphered through scarcity of documents. Even so the Cyclades remained curiously unexplored. Only the British excavations at Phylakopi on the island of Melos (another volcano, long extinct) revealed the strong Cretan influence in the islands—the governor's palace, the frescoes, the writing on pottery. Even the marble figure of a musician playing a harp, said to come from third-millennium Thera, failed to waken further interest in what lay under the ash. Money and permits were scarce; there was too much work to be done elsewhere; what the nineteenth century knew about Thera the twentieth century partly forgot.
In 1939, a significant ripple at last moved across this surface of neglect. Professor Spyridon Mannatos published a now classic article in the British periodical Antiquity, entitled "The Volcanic Destruction of Minoan Crete." His thesis was that the eruption of Thera in the sixteenth century B.C. was directly responsible for the widespread damage done to Minoan civilization on Crete at about the same time. Marinatos calculated from the Krakatoa statistics how much greater the eruption of Thera must have been; he cited his own discoveries at Amnisos, the harbor of Knossos, to suggest the magnitude of the tidal waves emanating from Thera and the masses of pumice deposited on Crete's north shore; he sketched a moving recreation of the horror, noise, banging objects, rushing water, gas, wind, hot ash, darkness, lightning, and nervous shock Which must have been felt by the Minoans, only sixty miles south of Thera, as manifestations of divine anger. The waves, which may have been nearly 200 feet high, took just over half an hour to hit Crete by Marinatos' conservative reckoning; since most Cretans lived near the sea and depended on it for their livelihood, the island must at the least have been stricken to a point of temporary impotence.
In retrospect it is amazing how much skepticism greeted these suggestions. The theory was scientifically plausible and dramatically appealing, as Marinatos' theories often are, but excavators in Crete failed to detect any evidence for accepting it, such as a blanket of ash, or saltwater damage to their sites. And Crete in wartime was no place for such delicate research. The first real signs of acceptance came in the 1960s when Dr. Nicholas Platon, Marinatos' successor as ephor of Crete, found, during his careful uncovering of the new treasure-filled palace at Kato Zakro in eastern Crete, lumps of vitrified matter which were tentatively identified by a visitor as volcanic scoriae.
Then two fine new excavations of the same historical epoch as Thera's—Professor John Caskey's on Keos, Professor George Huxley's on Kythera—combined with a bitter international dispute about the real date of the destruction of Knossos, reminded people that crucial knowledge still lay buried on Thera.
In 1960, word began to get around that Professor Angelos Galanopoulos had found a new way to link Thera with Plato's myth of the Lost Atlantis. Since 1909 it had been a commonplace in archaeological handbooks to connect the peculiar features of the drowned civilization on Atlantis with the peculiar features of Bronze Age civilization on Crete; much was formerly made of Atlantis' worship of the sea god Poseidon, of the royal bull games and bull sacrifice there, of the princely baths, luxury, and virtue in the palaces. (Un-Cretan aspects of Atlantis, like its marble temples, its elephants, its triremes and brass-bound walls and huge gold statues, were largely ignored.) Yet Plato's utopia was regarded by trained classicists as essentially a myth, however much a distant, contaminated knowledge of the prehistoric past might have contributed to its formation in classical times. Professor Galanopoulos, who knows a great deal about volcanoes and, earthquakes, tried treating Plato's description as pure archaeological fact which ought to be divided by ten. Through a confusion between the symbols for 100 and 1000, he said, in the Egyptian sources from which Plato claimed to take his account, the numbers and measurements of Atlantis were all too large, which forced Plato to put it out in the open Atlantic Ocean because the Mediterranean would not hold it. If you divided every figure by ten you would have a story originating in the sixteenth century B.C. instead of 9000 years before Plato's time, and an island-continent exactly the size of Thera.
Some of Galanopoulos' ideas on Atlantis were delightful. He hoped to interest oceanographers in reconstructing the original shape of Thera—perhaps Plato's ring-shaped harbors could be matched in Thera's inner circle. He pulled out a piece of wood from under the pumice in the mines which yielded a radiocarbon-14 date of about 1403 B.C. for the big eruption, a date more persuasive to some than Marinatos' 1520 B.C. He speculated on possible links between the eruption and Deukalion's flood, or the plagues and darkness mentioned in contemporary Egyptian records. Perhaps, he suggested, the Jews making the Exodus were poised on the bank of the Sea of Reeds just as the ocean flowed into the new magma chamber of Thera and lowered the water level enough to let them pass; the following tidal wave would have caught Pharaoh in his pursuit.
These ideas were reinforced in 1965 by a stimulating research paper called "Santorini Tephra" from the Lamont Observatory at Columbia. Dragoslav Ninkovich and Bruce Heezen published a number of neglected scientific data about the volcanic ash of Thera. In deep cores drilled out of the seabed of the Aegean they found two widely separated layers of Thera ash; they calculated that two big prehistoric eruptions had occurred, in about 23,000 B.C. and in 1500 or 1400 B.C., ash from the latter being carried more than 700 kilometers distant on northwesterly winds. The Minoan eruption, they suggested, took place in at least two major phases a number of years apart. Like Galanopoulos, the Columbia scientists thought there might be connections between the convulsions of Thera and a number of Bronze Age myths about floods, sinkings, darkness, and natural disaster. Their paper circulated rapidly among Aegean archaeologists. In the same year the distinguished Bryn Mawr scholar Rhys Carpenter made a plea for recognizing the links between Thera and Atlantis, which had been rejected by his colleagues as "too sensational."
Another happening in 1965 was to have equal consequences. A naval engineer named James W. Mayor, Jr., met Professor Galanopoulos in Athens and heard the tale of Thera-Atlantis. The following summer he announced to the American press that he had found Atlantis and returned to Greece for his first visit to Thera. He was able to persuade the research vessel Chain, from his own Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, to sail a day around Thera taking more seabed cores. The next two weeks were spent with Professor Harold Edgerton of MIT, testing Edgerton's new short-ping sediment profiler in the caldera from a rented caique. The boat was too small and the pit too deep, but Mayor thought it promising that Thera's caldera had several outlets to the sea like the harbors of Atlantis.
He was also delighted by a friend's discovery on one of Thera's black lava beaches of the fossilized head of an African green monkey, which, Mayor explained, had
no economic function, was imported and used as a pet by wealthy Minoans, thus indicating that on Thera lived Minoans with a high standard of civilization.
There is an indication that the monkey was killed as part of a religious practice. In Plato's story of Atlantis, the metropolis is described as a religious center of their civilization.
This information points to Thira as the center or metropolis of the Atlantis civilization.
Mayor's monkey-head identification of Atlantis was not taken seriously by scholars, but it generated considerable popular appeal. His enthusiasm was infectious among many different kinds of people. Without his strong desire for a full exploration of the history and shape of Thera, his grand design for cooperation among all the sciences which might be useful there, the excavations by the Archaeological Society of Athens might never have started.
In the autumn of 1966 Mayor began to plan a massive land and sea assault on Thera. He wanted to invite a band of scientists to take core samples, make new seismic profiles, and look for ash between Thera and Crete. He spoke confidently of ample funds, which would stretch to cover a little excavation on land too, and came to me for advice on how to proceed. For all Aegean specialists it was growing more important every year to test the date of the Minoan eruption in the field; Mayor seemed to provide the opportunity.
Early in December I urged Marinatos to supervise the projected work on land, and at Christmastime he agreed to start in May. Marinatos and I knew each other well. We had often talked about the possibilities of Thera when other commitments should lighten; we both thought the centenary of Fouqué's epochal discovery on Therasia and at Akrotiri was an agreeable moment to begin.
Spyridon Marinatos, professor of prehistoric archaeology at the University of Athens, former rector of the university, member of the Academy, now Inspector General of the Antiquities Service, crack revolver shot, diplomat, astronomer, linguist, and portly wit, has been a formidable presence in Greek archaeology for nearly forty years. The bare list of sites where he has campaigned sounds like an honor roll in Aegean studies. When he added Thera to his other work, one knew things would begin to move.
Mavor was perhaps unprepared for being relegated so firmly to the middle background as he came out of the sea onto land. Although Marinatos was exquisitely polite to him in public and private and offered him every courtesy and confidence, it was very clear who was in charge. Mavor's grand design, the Helleno-American Multi-Disciplinary Scientific Investigation of Thera and Quest for the Lost Atlantis, sounded less impressive in Greece than in America, especially when Mavor confessed ten days before work started that he had been unable to get any backing at all—no ship, no submarine, no scientists, no equipment, no money.
When the grand design went broke, we all panicked. Marinatos procured $2000 (60,000 drachmas) from the Archaeological Society of Athens. Mavor drew another $2000 from his publishers as an advance against royalties from a book on Atlantis. The novelist who would write the book, William Wetmore, paid his own way to get local color. The University Museum in Philadelphia sent Dr. Elizabeth Ralph with a cesium magnetometer to graph the prehistoric land surface under the ash. A technically expert friend of Mavor's, Robert Kane of the Titanium Metals Corporation of America, offered three weeks of sound advice on geology and mining engineering. A retired German architect, Werner Schlobcke, volunteered to do the excavation drawings with his wife's help. Crucial to the success of the whole affair was our elegant and tirelessly kind host, M. Jean Koutsogiannopoulos, who had run the Greek Red Cross and smoothed island affairs like a feudal prince.
Marinatos went hunting with Dr. Ralph and Mr. Mavor on May 24. Dr. Ralph's cesium magnetometer encountered such volcanic resistance that it could not display its usual talent; Mayor's seismograph showed nothing. Marinatos surveyed a stretch of broken ash-filled countryside east of Akrotiri, said "Dig there," and found a palace.
Choosing a good place to dig is never a simple matter. It was aggravated on Thera by the lack of precise records or topographical directions from earlier diggers, by the ash which held down the pottery that normally works up and gives a site away, by the drastic changes in landscape even since Hiller von Gaertringen's photographs. In such difficult country it is essential for an archaeologist to have long experience in the field. Book learning is not enough.
What makes a good archaeologist is not easy to describe; it takes intuitive flair, which is why archaeology is not really a science. A man needs a complete command of the language of the country where he works, and a talent for establishing warm relationships with the people who live around his site, who can almost always tell him what he wants to know if he asks the right questions and takes time. He must have infinite patience, endurance, good humor, tough digestion, and a three-dimensional imagination. Some, archaeologists, like Marinatos, have an extra flair beyond all this. While it can seem to the uninitiated to be a miraculous gift, it is probably compounded of keener powers of observation, ability to project fantasy into the past, and an experience of spending an important part of one's childhood in the countryside. At Akrotiri, the choice was unerring.
The first probe lasted only five days. Results were promising—a doorway with limestone cutback jambs in the Minoan architectural style, a column base, a hint of being upstairs, and, in the masses of handsome local pottery, some obvious imports from sixteenth-century Crete. Further digging was delayed for three weeks while Marinatos did government work in Athens, and took steps toward expropriating the land.
When Professor Marinatos finally returned, on June 21, only a week before we all had to go home, the lovely undulating countryside around Akrotiri began that same day to be clouded with spurts of black lava dust and white ash. Marinatos laid out a series of trenches at right angles to his first ravine. Mr. Chiotopoulos, the scientifically educated owner of one pumice mine, lent us forty miners to make the work go faster. Most Akrotiri villagers were busy with the tomato harvest, but those free to dig walked over their powdery fields, with a new respect for whatever lay underneath to attract so many foreigners.
Hounds came from every quarter to join us. Daily more visitors found transportation to the site in the expectation of glories, which disappointed them when they saw the dusty reality—houses just like their own, but not so nicely kept up, full of dirt, no plumbing. In the end there were nine trenches, each with something fragile or interesting; the pumice miners made the work fly.
The first afternoon we had been confident that nothing would happen for a day or two while the upper layers were thinned. By nine o'clock the next morning a workman was picking white crumbs off a wall. These were the first Thera frescoes since Mamet and Gorceix. They were still in place along one stone wall, with patches fallen in the fill, face up and face down. A few hours later we could not turn around without hitting plaster—on walls, fallen from the ceiling, coated around mysterious constructions with wooden poles at the corners. Some walls had two or three layers in different color schemes—an older decor of black sponge prints on a white ground, a later one with brown on cream. There was pink and green in a series of bays inside a doorway, and a sheet of red, fallen flat with a cooking pot on top of it. Spaces without plaster were either full of holes—not modern roots but cavities from old beams or full of vases.
A nest of wine jars and jugs and cups outside the front door took us four days to clear, and a big millstone had fallen upside down on top of another shelfful of old Thera tableware. A stone lamp was overturned among pigs' teeth and goat bones. The flagstone floor inside the door was tilted down from the threshold at an angle of forty degrees, as though it had partly collapsed into a basement underneath. Running off into the sides of the trench were walls of large cut limestone blocks resting on hollows you could dimly see into, and walls of mud brick with wooden saplings inside. The richness of the site lent it a certain madhouse quality, and the frescoes were the worst.
Frescoes are usually found in smashed chunks in a floor after the walls of a house have collapsed. Since a great deal was still in place here, partly supported by wooden crossbeams which had rotted away, we were afraid to clear the walls to the floor level lest they should fall down. Marinatos had spent months on the tangled lily frescoes of Amnisos, and I had watched Miss Mabel Lang give years at Gordion and Pylos to jumbled fragments anyone else would have abandoned as hopeless. For this year, we thought it best to pretend we had never seen the plaster walls of Akrotiri. We covered the whole trench up for the winter.
Marinatos had the other eight trenches to supervise since I was trapped in plaster, and two of them went very deep, with conspicuous problems of their own. One seemed to be a princely facade of limestone blocks facing a courtyard. The other was a basement far down under pumice where a stately row of painted storage jars still stood in their original position. Spouted jars had been tossed by earthquake over the floor and cracked by heat and pressure. A neat line of loom weights lay across the rims of the storage jars; a hole in the pumice showed where the leg of the loom had been. There was a hearth with all the cooking utensils around it, mortars, stone palettes, stone lamps with soot; like the French a century before, the excavators felt vividly the presence of the Cycladic people whose lives had been changed so unexpectedly by powers inside the island under their feet.
When the pumice miners left in midafternoon there were still drawings to finish, pots to cradle in soft green weeds and pack onto wooden donkey saddles, trays of broken fresco or whole mud bricks to tie safely across the bony donkey haunches for the twenty-minute trot back to Akrotiri.
The rising afternoon wind often whipped ash back onto the frescoes and vases so painfully cleaned; sometimes an entire scarp rolled back down into the trench. The whole dusty procession of men, women, donkeys, and relics, stumbling over lava boulders, sinking into lava sand, was always just too late to put on a suave smile for Mr. Mavor's ubiquitous movie camera. In the evening, a new life began as the moon climbed over the caldera and important visitors helped Marinatos plan the future.
A vital part of the plan for Akrotiri was to hollow out an underground museum so that the old Cycladic houses could be preserved under a thick shell of pumice with all the household furnishings still in their original positions. Twenty or thirty feet above them, in Marinatos' vision, modern Therans could still plant their vines and pick their tomatoes; the present and the past would co-exist, separated by the shroud - of volcanic products which had ended the old civilization and sealed it off safely ever since. Tunneling underground would solve two problems: it would avoid a massive battle in clearing and dumping the overburden, and would keep a natural waterproof roof over the prehistoric town so that visitors could walk through a fully furnished environment of the sixteenth century B.C. This was an exciting idea, a prototype creation in archaeology. It depended on whether the roof would stay up.
Mr. Chiotopoulos from the mines thought the pumice would stay in place if it was at least four meters thick and properly supported, but a thinner layer would collapse. Robert Kane believed it could be done with roof bolts and wire mesh. There were problems of cloudbursts and groundwater, or the tunnels might be too narrow to expose a complete house; an earthquake or a shudder in the volcano might bring the whole thing down, perhaps with tourists inside it, certainly with enormous damage to the freed ruins. Marinatos insisted on keeping a considerable section undug, for the twenty-first century, when new techniques might solve the problem better. However risky, Marinatos' idea, an imaginative and inspired one which is scarcely possible on any other site, was worth exploring.
So much happened on Thera in June it seemed like a half summer, but it was only six digging days. Marinatos was recalled to Athens on urgent government business; I was left to fill in the trenches, classify and store the finds. The whole operation had been the briefest kind of trial sounding, but enough to convince everyone concerned that, where Fouqué had been baffled, Marinatos would succeed, and that Thera did indeed conceal a Bronze Age Pompeii whose implications for Aegean archaeology would be enormous.
That was only the beginning of a story which still continues daily with alternating brilliant and bitter episodes, and which will continue for another decade at least. Marinatos was appointed Inspector General of Antiquities and said he could not return to the island. His American colleagues all left separately for home with Marinatos' instructions to raise money for the coming season. Mavor had written permission from the Archaeological Society of Athens to use slides, movies, popular articles, and books for this purpose; the fund-raising campaign promised to be arduous. Marinatos thought that the site needed bulldozers, front-end loaders, mining and drilling tests, a road, a little harbor, and other things which tend to swallow large sums of money. I estimated $30,000 for machinery and men on land; Mayor wanted more than $700,000 for profitable oceanography.
In Athens, Marinatos announced his success to the press, and suddenly found time to return to the island. This time he took trained men and equipment. Eleven days later in Boston, Mavor and I released the news through the Museum of Fine Arts. This was altogether too effective, a volcano in its own right. The next morning headlines all over America cried, "Lost Atlantis Found," or "City Buried 3400 Years Uncovered by Americans." It was a slack and silly season, with a lull in the war; the press inflated the preliminary soundings on Thera out of all proportion. Dozens of buried cities are uncovered every summer by scholars of all nations, but the combination of Atlantis and Pompeii made this one seem special, as indeed it was, on its own terms.
No one seemed interested in the sponsorship of the Archaeological Society of Athens. American papers emphasized Mavor and me; the Italians chose Galanopoulos; the British stressed students who had visited Thera the year before; the Greeks, in their haste to be in the swing of things, simply clipped the wire-service stories from the bottom up, neatly eliminating Marinatos from his own dig—"Oceanographer Discovers Atlantis." The Inspector General was understandably bitter. Abruptly he divorced Mavor from future work on Thera, and told him that neither his oceanographic talents nor the Lost Atlantis was wanted in Greece.
Marinatos himself dug harder. By August he could suggest in the Italian press that Thera concealed a palace perhaps more beautiful than Minos' at Knossos, with frescoes which would drive the world mad. But, he insisted again in September, "attempts to connect the excavation with tales about Atlantis are irresponsible."
Plato had written too well. His vague, fragmentary tale of an earthly paradise sunk beneath the waves, from which we are barred forever, has been a siren call to navigators of the ocean and of the spirit for 2400 years. Atlantis has been found many times and always lost again. It is an indestructible, necessary daydream. The quest is what matters, not the discovery. No one can be sorry that Professor Galanopoulos and Mr. Mavor, hunting Atlantis in the Aegean, focused attention on Thera again after so many years.
It may even be true that when Thera sank under the sea with roaring and darkness it helped create one of the world's great myths of nostalgia. Yet in practical terms of excavation Plato has been a nuisance.
The promise of Thera is vivid now as it was a hundred years ago. The island may answer questions scholars have asked for years, if they are left free to look quietly. If they find lava-and-olive wood houses instead of the marble temples of Atlantis, that is the truth, to be protected at any cost. If the work goes forward with proper care, whatever lies sealed under the ash will be reward enough.
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