Thursday, March 30, 2006

Volcanic eruption made history

Plato, the ancient Greek philosopher, wrote the classic story of lost paradise, of the prosperous land of Atlantis disappearing without a trace, sunk into the sea by angry gods. For centuries, the location of Atlantis and the real reason for its decline have been debated. Now scientists have pinpointed a likely location - the Greek island of Santorini where excavations have uncovered a once-thriving Bronze Age settlement of perhaps 20,000 people - and a cause - one of the most violent volcanic eruptions ever known.

Research by Greek volcanologist George Vougioukalakis, highlighted in the new IMAX movie "Greece: Secrets of the Past," has shed light on the pyrotechnic blast that buried the island in the spring of 1646 B.C. But questions about what happened to the Minoan people of Santorini remain buried in ancient volcanic soils. - - - Q: Places as improbable as Antarctica have been linked to the Atlantis myth. Why does Santorini seem a likely candidate? A: I cannot accept any of these ties if it must be scientifically strict with what Plato says.

But the most probable scenario is that Plato created the myth based on what was known at that time of the destruction of the civilization at Santorini. We have topography, the colors that are very similar to the myth. The second point is that everything regarding the high state the civilization achieved fits with what happened to the Minoan civilization - how it was organized, the society, the level of architecture, the way they worked with nature, a high level of technical possibilities.

These things lead us to consider that Plato used the example of the Santorini eruption to create a myth to convince Athenians to be very careful with democracy, not to attack each other. Q: What methods did you use to date the volcano's eruption? A: We have used radiocarbon dating from charcoal found in the soil that was covered by the Minoan eruption. And we have tree ring dating from Turkey to California that registers the heavy volcanic eruption.

And we have ice cores in Greenland that show the high sulfuric rain and fine ash that could be contributed to the Santorini eruption. All these bring us to the same date: 1646 B.C., plus or minus 20 years. Q: How did the date - a century earlier than once thought - change scientists' ideas about the Minoan culture? A: There are still a lot of open questions. What is clear regarding this age is that the Minoan culture continued to exist after the eruption, based on dating of pottery.

We have to find other causes for the Minoan decline (besides the volcano). In my opinion, it is most probable there was a social effect. They didn't have the power to continue.

Q: You've shown that no one could have survived the eruption or the tsunamis it generated at sea. What do scientists make of the fact that no bodies have been uncovered at Santorini?

A: I think it's the same as in Pompeii. We expect to find the people in the harbor waiting to leave or in some open areas where they were grouped trying to escape. I think you must have in mind that we have excavated only 5 percent of the occupied area. I think when we begin to excavate near the port, the people will be there. We know that there had been an earthquake a short time before, and the people had returned, started to clear the debris and rebuild. When the eruption began, they would not have had time to move out of the settlement, not more than a few hundred meters.

Q: How long might it take to find bodies?

A: Excavation began in 1976, and it has to go on for tens of years or even 100 years. It is extremely difficult to excavate a single layer and try to conserve what is below. Now modern ideas about excavation are very different from old ideas. We have to imagine it will take a long, long time.

Q: You've estimated that Santorini erupted with the force of 40 atomic bombs - 100 times more powerful than Vesuvius in A.D. 79. Could this happen today?

A: What we accept is that this probably won't happen in the next few years. There have been smaller eruptions in 1925, 1940 and 1950. What we want are these smaller eruptions so that people can stay there and have a nice view of the eruptions. Now we have a very good monitoring system and will be able to forecast a good period before it happens, so no one is in danger.

Q: Does the IMAX film convey the reality of your work?

A: It is amazing in that it is scientifically correct and simple. This is a very strong point because it's very difficult to tell simple and correct stories. From my point of view, this is a very important thing.

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