The Theran Eruption and Minoan Palatial Collapse: New Interpretations Gained from Modelling the Maritime Network

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Introduction

We seek in this paper to provide a novel perspective on the possible causes for the demise of Cretan Bronze Age palatial society c. 1500 BC using a mathematical model developed from a previous study (Knappett et al. 2008). Various explanations have been proposed for the collapse--a tsunami generated by the Theran eruption destroying the Minoan fleet, an invasion by Mycenaean mainlanders, or internal socio-political turmoil and unrest (Rehak & Younger 2001). Today many scholars would see many such factors, natural and social, combining in some way. And although most do see some role for the Theran eruption, the fact that it took place some 50-100 years before the collapse makes it difficult to envisage what that role might have been. One persuasive argument sees indirect though insidious effects, both economic (such as ash-fall polluting the water supply and compromising crop yields in east Crete) and social, such as ideological uncertainty (Driessen & Macdonald 1997: 89-98). However, this accounts for neither the apparent continuing prosperity at some sites, nor the robust exchange activity across the Aegean; for these and other reasons some scholars have resisted the above interpretations (Warren 2001).

We tentatively put forward a new explanation that has the advantage of accounting for both the continued prosperity post-Thera, and the eventual collapse. Our approach is based on network modelling and sees the dynamics of network exchange at the regional level as critical to the ongoing success or otherwise of the Cretan Bronze Age palatial system. We argue that the strong continuing economic activity subsequent to the eruption is in reaction to it, yet also ultimately contains the seeds of instability and collapse (cf. Renfrew 1980).

Background

The Theran eruption--one of the largest volcanic eruptions globally of the last 10 000 years--buried the Bronze Age site of Akrotiri, the main settlement on Thera, beneath metres of ash and pumice, effectively ending occupation on the island for generations (Doumas 1983). This cataclysmic event had much wider impact too, with ash-fall over a very large area of the south-east Aegean (Friedrich 2000) and a possible devastating tsunami (Bruins et al. 2008). While a great deal of controversy surrounds the absolute dating of this event--with a 'scientific' high chronology favouring 1627 BC (Manning et al. 2006) and a 'traditional' low chronology of 1525 BC (Wiener 2009)--there is general consensus that in relative dating terms the Theran eruption occurs at the end of the Late Minoan IA (LM IA) period, and is followed by Late Minoan IB (LM IB). And what we see in LM IB in the region around Thera, and particularly on Crete, is quite remarkable. First, 'civilisation' carries on much as before, to the extent that LM IB has often been seen as the acme of Minoan culture (Hood 1971; Warren 1975; Cadogan 1976). Second, LM IB is brought to an end through violent destructions by fire, quite possibly caused by human agency. In the periods following this destruction horizon, Crete is never quite the same again, coming under pronounced influence, and perhaps even invasion, from Mycenaean mainlanders (Preston 2008).

The abundant evidence from the volcanic destruction levels of the site of Akrotiri on Thera indicates that it was a significant trade gateway between north Crete and the rest of the Aegean (see Figure 1 below, where Knossos carries label 1 and Thera label 10). Almost certainly, the island's destruction jeopardised an important exchange route. It has been argued that there is a reorientation to overcome the destruction of Akrotiri on Thera, with the mainland increasingly favoured by the new network structure (Mountjoy 2008). However, as far as can be told from current data, the LM IB period immediately following the destruction appears to see no let up in overall exchange across the southern Aegean. …