Archaeologists find ancient tsunami victim on Turkish coast

A human skeleton lies in the sediment of the ruins of a settlement in present-day Turkey.

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

A team of archaeologists and geoscientists has just found the victims of a former tsunami on the Turkish coast. The victims – a man and a dog, now just skeletons – were probably killed in a gargantuan volcanic eruption 3,600 years ago.

The eruption was that of the Thera volcano on the island of Santorini, which occurred around 1620 BCE. The eruption was so violent that much of Santorini was wiped out; the ribbon of the the island that remains is now a popular tourist destination. The eruption wreaked havoc across the Mediterranean, as a massive tsunami spread outside the island and much of the area was covered in ash.

It is not surprising that an event cited as the possible origin of the myth of Atlantis or of the Egyptian plagues discussed in the Bible has claimed victims, such as the individuals recently discovered 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 at Çeşme-Bağlararası, a settlement on the Turkish coast that was occupied from the mid-third millennium BCE to the 13th century BCE, according to the document. Archaeologists have already found artifacts from the late Bronze Age at the site. Corn recently, ash and tephra—material ejected during volcanic eruptions—have been raised on the site. Researchers were able to trace volcanic material in Turkey back to the Santorini eruption.

“The impact of this eruption and the tsunamis it created were much stronger and reached more areas than previously suggested,” study co-authors Beverly Goodman, marine geoarchaeologist at the University of Haifa in Israel, and Vasıf Şahoğlu, maritime archaeologist at Ankara University in Turkey, wrote in a joint E-mail. “Çeşme-Bağlararası is the most northerly site with tsunami deposits so far investigated, and is unique in that it is a site with very clear maritime cultural and commercial contacts with the Minoan world . “

But besides the volcanic material at the site, the team also found evidence that the ocean had made a visit inland. Besides human and canine remains at the site, researchers have found seashells and sea urchins. They found a structure with a wall that had collapsed inward; it appeared that a dark, silty sediment had entered the wall, causing it to implode.

The materials appeared to enter the site from one direction only, leading the team to conclude that this was not the result of an earthquake. The research team is uncertain whether the human – a healthy young man, possibly a teenager – died from drowning, blunt trauma, or even suffocated under tsunami debris. But they are actively investigating this issue.

An aerial image of an archaeological site, lined with modern buildings on all sides.

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

The skeletons will be dated by the team in the coming months; If they date from the same period as the Thera eruption, the human and canine remains are believed to be among the very few victims of the cataclysmic event ever to be found. (One other the skeleton was would have seen during archaeological work at Theresia, the western island of Santorini, in 1886.)

“We believe this research will be an eye-opener for scientists working in the Aegean Sea in particular. For decades, the primary focus of Theran rash research has primarily focused on the problem of dating or the impact and nature of the rash itself, the distribution of the ash, as well as the tsunamis it generated. 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 has been a conundrum 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 radiocarbon ages taken from different materials at the site. The date of Thera’s eruption is still disputed; some believe that the rash was around 1530 BCE (more or less a decade) Where circa 1620 BC. Last year, a team of dendrochronologists dated the eruption to 1560 BC, on the basis of wood rings used in an ancient Phrygian tomb. The Çeşme-Bağlararası dates indicate that deposits cannot be earlier than 1612 BCE, however, potentially further limiting Thera eruption dates.

But the age of the skeletons will be helpful in addition to determining whether they actually fell victim to the Thera event. Marine materials can be difficult to date accurately with radiocarbon dating, which is why some researchers use different methods to date tsunamis. A team used optically stimulated luminescence technology Last year to know when a paleotsunami hit the Levantine coast.

More interesting data will certainly emerge from Çeşme-Bağlararası and the individuals – humans and canines – who died there. And maybe more northerly sites showing the extent of Thera’s damage will come in time as well.

More: Which volcanoes are the latest to erupt?

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