To find somebody’s best belongings stacked in a tomb is not that uncommon, but to find them in the space where they belong and interacted with their owner is extraordinary. The chance survival of built environments, complete with contents, is probably the most valuable type of archaeological find imaginable, and luckily, it has happened a number of times.
The remains of buildings, their contents, and even some unfortunate occupants and their pets, represent a time capsule of the material world of AD 79, giving archaeologists an unprecedented ‘context’ with a calendar date, and hundreds of thousands of finds that belong together. At Pompeii, not only do we a have house with its contents and decoration remarkably preserved, but also we may have the names of the owners, whose taste and status it reflects. We can glimpse a wealth of biographical details and find tantalizing evidence of their personal history, social interactions, and business life, and we may even have their portraits.
Following work by a local archaeologist, Minos Kalokairinos, Evans unearthed a huge palace complex at Knossos with over 1000 rooms. He coined the term ‘Minoan’ for this culture after the mythic king Minos in Greek myth. The Minoans ticked all the boxes for a ‘lost’ civilization: impressive architecture, un-deciphered writings, unknown language, fabulous wall paintings, beautiful objects, and a clear connection with the early myth and cultures of Greece, 1000 years before the Classical period.
Minoan sites like Knossos were rebuilt and modified over a very long period of time, so that what precisely belongs with what becomes harder to understand, which is why sealed archaeological ‘time capsules’ with a sudden end, like Akrotiri, are invaluable. Archaeologists realised that such a big volcanic eruption must have left its mark elsewhere, and that it may be datable through scientific techniques. Thus, the possibility that the eruption could form a very early fixed date in our chronologies has prompted a significant number of investigations in the last 40 years.
To cut a 3700-year-old story short, radiocarbon dating, dendrochronology, and analysis of volcanic dust in ice-cores has arrived at a date for the eruption at Akrotiri of about 1650--1600 BC, perhaps 1627/28.
In the established ‘conventional’ chronology, this is at least a hundred years too early, and a date nearer to 1500 BC would have been preferred. Since most chronologies are linked, ultimately, back to Egypt, the implications of an early date are almost as cataclysmic for contemporary archaeology as the original eruption was to the Minoans. There is now something of a standoff, as, not for first time, scholarship tries to stare out the men in white coats, and wonders where it’s going to find a spare century or more of ancient history.
The Athenian writer and philosopher Plato, writing in 360 BC, introduced the idea of the ancient civilization of Atlantis into western literature, claiming to have learnt the story from Egyptian priests. It was a contentious story, disputed in ancient times, and has prompted much speculation ever since. Archaeologists never take any ancient literature at face value, but most are prepared to admit many ancient stories have some kernel of truth, distinguishing them from the nuts who treat such things as true. However, much of what is inherent in Plato’s description of Atlantis could be applied to Santorini and the Minoans, and many archaeologists have argued for this link.
The ruins of Akrotiri are a real archaeological treasure. All too often archaeologists study the things that people threw away, while the material aspects of peoples' lives they valued most, like their homes and their art, are lost to us. Furthermore, in their domestic art we can glimpse non-material aspects of their lives that they valued. The buildings at Akroteri give a vivid insight into the lives of ‘ordinary’ people, reminding us that behind every successful culture, there are numerous successful individuals, who, like their leaders, seek to express themselves and their experience through art and architecture. It is in the details of these lives that we gain a more balanced understanding of a culture.
Archaeology can be like a jigsaw with no picture on the box and most of the pieces missing; but just occasionally someone finds a big bit that fills in a lot of the picture, and you realise that the bits you already had did not fit together in the way you thought.