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Turkish, Israeli Scientists Unearth Victim Remains From Bronze Age Disaster
Archaeologists working at the Çeşme–Bağlararası Bronze Age settlement site where the remains of a victim of the Thera eruption were found. (Vasıf Şahoğlu)

Turkish, Israeli Scientists Unearth Victim Remains From Bronze Age Disaster

Unique discovery on Turkey’s coast sheds light on one of greatest volcanic cataclysms in human history 

In a world first, Turkish and Israeli scientists have unearthed the remains of victims of one of the greatest natural disasters to befall mankind more than 3,500 years ago.

An articulated human skeleton, as well as the skeleton of a dog, were found within tsunami debris dating back to the Late Bronze Age Thera eruption (modern-day Santorini), which devastated the volcanic Aegean island around the year 1600 BCE. It was one of the most significant volcanic eruptions in human history and likely caused the deaths of tens of thousands of people. Scientists say it also triggered massive tsunamis in the Mediterranean Sea.

The remarkable discovery was unearthed on the Turkish coast at the site of the Bronze Age settlement of Çeşme – Bağlararası, and the findings were recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.

Bird’s-eye view of the excavation site (in white protective coverings) in the foreground and the modern town of Cesme all around it. (Vasıf Şahoğlu)

The study was co-authored by Dr. Beverly Goodman-Tchernov, head of the University of Haifa’s Dr. Moses Strauss Department of Marine Geosciences, and Dr. Vasıf Şahoğlu, a professor at Ankara University’s Department of Archaeology and head of the University’s Mustafa V. Koç Research Center for Maritime Archaeology (ANKÜSAM), alongside researchers in Turkey, Israel and Austria.

The excavations were headed by Şahoğlu within the framework of the Izmir Region Excavations and Research Project and carried out under the purview of the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism.

“This is the first victim of this event found [at] such a far distance in a stratified sealed tsunami context,” Şahoğlu told The Media Line. “Most of the work on the Thera eruption until now focused on the dating of the event or its geological formation, eruption phases and volcanic ash distribution. With this discovery, we, for the first time, see this disaster’s effect directly on humans.”

According to Şahoğlu, the findings were “an eye-opener” for tsunami research and provide crucial information on the Thera eruption.

“From now on the theories concerning the end of the Minoan civilization and what happened to people will slowly start finding a solid ground and the impact of this natural disaster on human life will be the focus of future work on this subject,” he said. “No one before expected the impact of the eruption to be so strong in order to really destroy settlements so far north in the Aegean.”

Due to calibrated radiocarbon ages found within the tsunami deposit, researchers believe the skeletal remains date no earlier than 1612 BCE.

Research team member Dr. Beverly Goodman-Tchernov, head of Haifa University’s Marine Geosciences Department, explores a layer of ash at the Bronze Age site of Çeşme – Bağlararası. (Vasıf Şahoğlu)

Goodman-Tchernov told The Media Line that the discovery will enable scientists to recognize more ancient tsunami deposits and allow them to better assess coastlines today for tsunami risk.

“[This is] really the first witness that we have access to and through the research on this skeleton we can know more about the people then; we can get a better picture of how that event affected the Mediterranean and history,” she said, adding that all of the coastlines around Santorini and into the Aegean likely experienced major damage.

Though the ashfall of the Minoan eruption has long been discussed, little was previously known about the massive tsunamis that ensued in the wake of the catastrophic event.

This is partly due to how difficult it is to find archaeological evidence within tsunami deposits. In fact, despite the magnitude of the eruption on Thera, remains of human victims had not been conclusively identified until this study.

Goodman-Tchernov called the discovery a “near-miracle” and said that even in recent tsunami events some 10% of victims’ bodies are still missing.

“When you find a victim in situ, it really tells so much of the story because we like to bury our dead,” she said. “It’s a very good piece of evidence.”




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