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Eastern Mediterranean

The Wave which Destroyed Atlantis

by Harvey Lilley, 20 April 2007

Research findings in 2007 regurgitated the legend of Atlantis once again. This island state which disappeared under the sea may - it was claimed once again - have been more than just a myth. Research on the Greek island of Crete suggested that Europe's earliest civilisation had been destroyed by a giant tidal wave.

Tidal wave

Until about 3,500 years ago, a spectacular ancient civilisation flourished in the eastern Mediterranean. The ancient Minoans were building palaces, paved streets, and sewers, while most Europeans were still living in primitive huts.

But around 1500 BC [circa 1470 BC in the History Files] the people who spawned the myths of the minotaur and the labyrinth suffered an abrupt downturn in living standards and population figures. It was felt that this new research may finally have solved the mystery.

A group of scientists had uncovered fresh evidence to show that the island of Crete was hit by a massive tidal wave at the same time that Minoan culture disappeared. 'The geo-archaeological deposits contain a number of distinct tidal wave signatures,' said Dutch-born geologist, Professor Hendrik Bruins of the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel.

'Minoan building materials, pottery, and cups, along with food residue such as isolated animal bones were mixed up with rounded beach pebbles, sea shells, and microscopic marine fauna. 'The latter can only have been scooped up from the sea-bed by one mechanism - a powerful tidal wave, dumping all these materials together in a destructive swoop,' says Professor Bruins.

The Minoan palace of Knossos on Crete
A partial refurbishment of the surviving palace elements at Knossos by Arthur Evans, the great discoverer of Minoan civilisation between 1900-1905, shows just how magnificent this complex would have appeared

The deposits were found to be up to seven metres above sea level, well above the normal reach of storm waves. 'An event of ferocious force hit the coast of Crete and this wasn't just a Mediterranean storm,' said Professor Bruins.

Big wave

The Minoans were sailors and traders. Most of their towns were along the coast, making them especially vulnerable to the effects of a tidal wave. One of their largest settlements was at Palaikastro on the eastern edge of the island, one of the sites at which Canadian archaeologist, Sandy MacGillivray, had by this stage been excavating for twenty-five years.

Here, he has found other tell-tale signs such as buildings where the walls facing the sea are missing but side walls which could have survived a giant wave are left intact. 'All of a sudden a lot of the deposits began making sense to us,' said MacGillivary. 'Even though the town of Palaikastro is a port, it stretched hundreds of metres into the hinterland and is, in places, at least fifteen metres above sea level. This was a big wave.'

But if this evidence is so clear why has it not been discovered before now?

Tsunami expert Costas Synolakis, from the University of Southern California, said that the study of ancient tidal waves was then in its infancy and people had not, until now, really known what to look for. Many scientists were still of the view that these waves only blasted materials away and did not leave much behind in the way of deposits.

But observation of the Asian tsunami of 2004 changed all that.

'If you remember the video footage,' said Costas, 'some of it showed tonnes of debris being carried along by the wave and much of it was deposited inland.'

Volcanic eruption

Costas Synolakis came to the conclusion that the wave would have been as powerful as the one which devastated the coastlines of Thailand and Sri Lanka on Boxing Day in 2004, leading to the loss of over 250,000 lives. After decades studying the Minoans, MacGillivray was struck by the scale of the destruction.

'The Minoans are so confident in their navy that they're living in unprotected cities all along the coastline. Now, you go to Bande Aceh [in Indonesia] and you find that the mortality rate is 80%. If we're looking at a similar mortality rate, that's the end of the Minoans.'

But what caused the tidal wave? The scientists obtained radiocarbon dates for the deposits which showed that the tidal wave could have hit the coast at exactly the same time as an eruption of the Santorini volcano, seventy kilometres north of Crete, in the middle of the second millennium BC.

Recent scientific work established that the Santorini eruption was up to ten times more powerful than the eruption of Krakatoa in 1883. It caused massive climatic disruption and the blast was heard over five thousand kilometres away.

Costas Synolakis thinks that the collapse of Santorini's giant volcanic cone into the sea during the eruption was the mechanism which generated a wave large enough to destroy the Minoan coastal towns. It is not clear whether the tidal wave could have reached inland to the Minoan capital at Knossos, but the fallout from the volcano would have carried other consequences - massive ash falls and crop failure. With their ports, trading fleet, and navy destroyed, the Minoans would never have fully recovered. Domination by the Mycenaeans swiftly followed.

The myth of Atlantis, the city state which was lost beneath the sea, was first mentioned by Plato around two thousand five hundred years ago. It has had a hold on the popular imagination for centuries.

Perhaps now an explanation of its origin had been provided - a folk memory of a real ancient civilisation swallowed by the sea.



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