Archaeologists Find Ancient Tsunami Victim On Turkish Coast

The 3,600-year-old remains of a tsunami victim. Photo: Vasıf Şahoğlu

A team of archaeologists and geoscientists have just found victims of an ancient tsunami on the Turkish coast. The victims — a human male and a dog, now just skeletons — were likely killed in the wake of a massive volcanic eruption 3,600 years ago.

The eruption was that of the Thera volcano on the island Santorini, which happened around 1620 BCE. The eruption was so violent that much of Santorini was obliterated; the strip of island that remains is now a popular tourist destination. The eruption wreaked havoc in the Mediterranean when a massive tsunami rolled out of the island, covering much of the region in ash.

It’s no wonder that an event dubbed as the possible origin of the Atlantis myth or the Egyptian plagues discussed in the Bible had victims, such as the recently discovered individuals in Turkey. The team’s recent discovery was: reported this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The two skeletons were found in Çeşme-Bağlararası, a settlement on the Turkish coast that, according to the paper, was inhabited from the mid-third millennium BCE to the 13th century BCE. Archaeologists have previously found late Bronze Age artifacts at the site. But recently, ash and tephra – material emitted from volcanic eruptions – have surfaced at the site. The researchers were able to trace the volcanic material in Turkey back to the Santorini eruption.

“The impact of this eruption and the tsunamis it triggered was much stronger, reaching more regions than previously suggested,” study co-authors Beverly Goodman, a marine geoarchaeologist at the University of Haifa in Israel, and Vasıf Şahoğlu, a maritime archaeologist at Ankara University in Turkey, wrote in a joint email. “Çeşme-Bağlararası is the northernmost site of tsunami deposits explored so far, and is unique in that it is a place with very clear cultural and commercial maritime contacts with the Minoan world.”

But in addition to the volcanic material at the site, the team also found evidence that the ocean had made a visit inland. In addition to the human and dog remains at the site, the researchers found shells and urchins. They found a structure with a wall that had collapsed inwards; it turned out that a dark, sludge-like sediment had washed into the wall, causing it to implode.

The materials appeared to enter the site from one direction, leading the team to conclude that it was not the result of an earthquake. The research team isn’t sure if the human — a healthy young man, perhaps a teenager — died from drowning, blunt force trauma or even suffocated under the rubble of the tsunami. But they are actively investigating that question.

The site of Çeşme-Bağlararası, who was hit by a tsunami around the time of the Thera eruption.
Photo: Vasıf Şahoğlu

The skeletons will be dated by the team in the coming months; if they date to the same time frame as the Thera eruption, the human and dog remains would be some of the few victims of the catastrophic event ever found. (One other skeleton was reportedly seen during archaeological work at Theresa, the western island of Santorini, in 1886.)

“This research – we think – will be especially eye-opener for scientists working in the Aegean. For decades, the primary focus of research on the Theran eruption has focused on the dating issue or impact and nature of the eruption itself, the ash distribution, along with the tsunamis it caused, Goodman and Şahoğlu said.

“However, only a handful of sites have been reported with tsunami deposits, and none of them with human casualties. This lack of human casualties is a mystery that has left a real knowledge gap regarding the human experience associated with the event,” they added.

Perhaps the most useful elements of the new work, however, are nine new eras of radiocarbon borrowed from various materials at the site. The date of the Thera eruption is still disputed; some think the eruption was around 1530 BCE (give or take a decade) or around 1620 BCE. Last year, a team of dendrochronologists dated the eruption to 1560 BCE, based on the tree rings of wood used in an ancient Phrygian tomb. The dates from Çeşme-Bağlararası indicate that the deposits cannot date back to 1612 BCE, but may further limit the dates of the Thera eruption.

But the age of the skeletons will be helpful, in addition to determining if they were actually victims of the Thera event. Marine materials can be difficult to accurately date with radiocarbon dating, so some researchers use different methods to date tsunamis. One team used optically stimulated luminescence technology last year to find out when a paleotsunami hit the Levantine coast.

There will certainly be more interesting data coming from Çeşme-Bağlararası and the individuals – both humans and dogs – who died there. And maybe more northern locations will come over time that will show the extent of Thera’s damage.

More: Which volcanoes are most overdue for eruption?

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