Wood Charcoal from Santorini (Thera): New Evidence for Climate, Vegetation and Timber Imports in the Aegean Bronze Age

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Bronze Age climate in the Aegean

Palaeoclimatic reconstructions for the Bronze Age Aegean based on pollen analytical investigations from several sites in mainland Greece (Bottema 1974, 1982, 1990) have suggested climate conditions drier than at present, with a reversal to a wetter climate favouring woodland expansion and arboriculture (including the intensive cultivation of olive trees) occurring only towards the end of the Bronze Age and the beginning of the historical periods (c. 3200/2700 uncal. BP, c.1500/1100 cal. BC). More recent pollen analyses from Crete have refined this general model, indicating contrasting patterns of vegetation change with the Greek mainland, with the former providing evidence for a much earlier onset of olive management/cultivation back to the Final Neolithic (Moody et al. 1996), which is even earlier than the classic case for Early Bronze Age olive domestication made by Colin Renfrew (Renfrew 1972). The same datasets have also suggested an Overall slow pace of aridification for the southern Aegean, which was not complete until the Middle Bronze Age (early second millennium Be) (Moody et al. 1996).

These models for the nature and timing of vegetation and climate changes in the prehistoric Aegean have important implications for theories concerning the economic base of Bronze Age societies, being directly related to key parameters such as the environmental setting of prehistoric agriculture in this region and local variation in economic production (for useful reviews see Hansen 1988, Halstead 1994). However, more precise reconstructions of local vegetation catchments based on pollen evidence and the extrapolation from these of climate patterns and the impact of human activities on the landscape have been hindered by the scarcity and poor preservation of pollen-bearing sediments in the Aegean (especially near settlement sites) and their low chronological resolution (Bottema 1994: 46-48).

The systematic study of suitable plant macrofossil assemblages (i.e. stratified wood charcoal macro-remains) from archaeological sites of this period should allow the investigation of the local vegetation settings at a spatial and temporal scale congruent with that of the prehistoric human settlement, thus overcoming to some extent the dating limitations and low spatial resolution of pollen sequences (for recent examples of this methodology in the Eastern Mediterranean see Asouti & Hather 2001; Asouti 2003, in press). The microscopic analysis of stratified wood charcoal assemblages from one of the most eminent Bronze Age island settlements in the Aegean, Akrotiri on Thera, has furnished important preliminary results about the vegetation resources locally available prior to the second millennium volcanic eruption, revealing signs of a moister climate, a wooded landscape, early olive cultivation and a wide spectrum of economic activities, including trade links with more distant places.

Bronze Age and modern landscapes of Santorini

A major feature of the island complex of Santorini (Thera) is the submerged caldera created by the 'Minoan' volcanic eruption dated to the mid-second millennium BC (for a detailed discussion of the dating debate see Manning 1999) (Figure 1a). A substantial contribution to our knowledge of the fate prehistoric geomorphological environment of Santorini has emerged from the systematic study of volcanic deposits and landforms associated with the mid-second millennium BC eruption. According to these studies, Bronze Age Santorini comprised a highly complex volcanic landscape: a pre-existing submerged caldera (corresponding to an older eruption at c.18000 BP) occupied its southern half, whilst the northern half consisted of overlapping shield volcanoes and composite cones (Heiken et al. 1990) (Figure 1b). Based on these reconstructions it is plausible to infer that the pre-emption Bronze Age landscape of Santorini comprised very diverse landforms including volcanic slopes and cones, sheltered bays and beaches and more exposed limestone peaks. …