The Rambling Writer Returns to Greece, Part 14: Ancient Akrotiri on Santorini

Enter the eerie ruins of ancient Akrotiri, where ash from the catastrophic volcanic eruption of the island Thera in 1600 BC buried and preserved beautiful images of the vanished Minoan-style culture.

NOTE: Since my 4-month backpacking trip around Greece too many years ago, I had been longing to return to this magical land of myth, history, and dramatic landscapes. I recently made a fabulous 3-week return trip there, to research additional settings for my novel-in-progress, THE ARIADNE DISCONNECT. My first post in the new series, on September 30, gives an overview of my rambles with my husband Thor from Athens to the islands of Rhodes, Santorini, and Naxos, and finally a pilgrimage to the ancient center of the world at Delphi.

From our hotel on the lip of the Santorini/Thira caldera, Thor and I walked through the hot maze of town to a very busy small bus station, where we managed to get seats for a quick trip through winding lanes and across the lower part of the island to the southern shore of the lagoon and the ancient site of Akrotiri. (Hidden in the photo below behind the curve of the hill at upper right)

As I mentioned last time, the original rounded island of Thera had been built in layers of eruptions over many centuries, creating what paleontologist/geologist Thor tells me was a “composite volcano” made up of layers of ash and lava. This photo of the cliff showing the tram and the steep stairway up from the dock, reveals the geologic layers:

The island was probably first settled around 3300 BC by Neolithic sailors, possibly from Asia Minor, though this is not established. Early Cycladic culture developed and evolved into a Minoan-related culture with trading connections to Crete until its heyday in the 17th century BC. When the pressure of magma and gasses under the peak built to a dangerous level, the inhabitants appear to have been warned by quakes and minor eruptions, and so fled the island before the disastrous eruption of around 1600 BC. The prosperous town of Akrotiri, with its sophisticated buildings and art, was buried under tons of ash and preserved until excavations began in the 1960s. Only part of the ancient settlement has been exacavated so far, but the public can visit a wonderful exhibit protected by an expansive roof, wandering over ramps and through part of the excavated streets to view walls and artifacts.

Everything is dusty gray from all that ash, of course. Walkways took us along overviews of different lanes and building walls, some of them still guarding decorated ceramic storage vessels.

It took a trip through the site, and then a later visit to the small Museum of Prehistoric Thera located in the main town of Fira, to give us a sense of the culture we were time-traveling to glimpse. So I’ll combine photos from both locations in hopes to capture this amazing experience. This explanation in the museum discusses the use of standardized containers and measurements for trading in commodities, since Thera was important in sea trade at the time:

The tantalizing mention above of the Linear A writing reminds us that much of the records of this island, as well as Minoan Crete, are still beyond our reach, as we don’t have much of the writing, and translation remains very spotty despite the discovery of the Phaistos Disk on Crete. I was privileged in my earlier trip to Crete to see this large clay disk inscribed on both sides in 3 languages: Cretan hieroglyphics, Minoan Linear A script, and Mycenaean Linear B script from ancient Greece. A recent Huffington Post article cites Dr. Gareth Owens of Crete as now deciphering three words: “pregnant mother/goddess”; the repeated root term “mother” or “goddess”; and “shining mother/goddess.” He concluded that it may be a prayer to a Minoan goddess.

We will hope for more discoveries! Thor was saddened by the huge gap in the legacy of what was clearly an advanced, apparently peaceful culture of great artistic achievements. And, from all accounts, women must have had equal standing with men in terms of respect and opportunities, just as in Minoan Crete. Maybe ancient Thera really was that mythical paradise of Lost Atlantis!

Here are some recovered clay stamps mentioned in the museum explanation above, as identifying commodities, with their animal images:

In my earlier series on my first travels in Crete, I discussed the Minoan culture and particularly the stories of the original Ariadne, the inspiration for my near-future heroine in THE ARIADNE CONNECTION. She rebels against the suppression of woman in the islands of her time, admiring those liberated ancient Minoans. This fragment of a fresco from a decorated wall in Akrotiri (now in the museum) reveals the artistic sensibilities of the house decorations. It depicts one of those beautiful women who went proudly bare-breasted and apparently participated with the men in hunting and athletic activities such as bull-dancing:

Proceeding around the Akrotiri site, we looked down on more buildings with storage vessels, a large bath tub, and what appeared to be bed frames:

They even had indoor toilets and a sophisticated sewer system for the town! Here is a piece of a house drain:

Many of the decorated ceramic vessels from the site are now protected in the museum:

Descending from the catwalks, we were able to walk through restored streets of the town, among walls of excavated houses with diagrams of layouts:

Here’s the chart Thor was looking at (some of the excavations were done by French archaeologists):

The famous “fisher boy” fresco, now in the museum, is the top photo in this blog.

Another excavated building is the “West House”:

An exhibit there displayed a rotating 3D reconstruction of what the house must have look like, shown in this YouTube link (unfortunately, the narrative explaining the building and household artifacts is missing from this version):

Thanks to Vonda McIntyre for finding the link for us!

More gorgeous frescoes from the site awaited us at the museum, notably the boxing boys (their shaved heads with a few long locks identify them as boys, not yet men):

…The Papyrus room:

…and the Blue Monkeys!

It’s exhausting work, rambling through such riches of the past, so I’ll break here for rest and a Santorini sunset. I’ll be back next Saturday for a visit to Red Beach and more highlights of the island, past and present.


You will now find The Rambling Writer’s blog posts here every Saturday. Sara’s latest novel from Book View Cafe is available in print and ebook: The Ariadne Connection.  It’s a near-future thriller set in the Greek islands. “Technology triggers a deadly new plague. Can a healer find the cure?”  The novel has received the Cygnus Award for Speculative Fiction. Sara has recently returned from a research trip in Greece and is back at work on the sequel, The Ariadne Disconnect. Sign up for her quarterly email newsletter at






The Rambling Writer Returns to Greece, Part 14: Ancient Akrotiri on Santorini — 7 Comments

  1. The Cycladic culture just feels fun. Blue monkeys! The museum labels can wear you down though. Just trying to keep up with the pottery names is a challenge: Rhyton, pithoi, askoi, OY!

    • I know — I want to go back in time and live on Minoan Crete! (Bonus: no Twitter rants from evil idiot politicians.) Maybe if we keep repeating your pottery mantra….

  2. Awesome pix! I wish I could read that top museum explanation, it sounds most tantalizing!

    • Thanks, Sherwood! I wish I had been better with the photo — would it help if I emailed you the original larger photo file, so you could enlarge it? Thor and I keep discussing the gaps in knowledge about how much writing was in use in ancient Greece and elsewhere. Why was it only after Homer that epic poems, etc., started to be written in Greece (according to what I’ve read in various sources), when Egypt and others had written records much earlier? I must be missing some piece of the puzzle.