The first time I visited Santorini in 1961 as a newly appointed Curator of
Antiquities for the Cyclades, Thanasis Yannakas, the late lamented caretaker
of the Museum welcomed me with the words, "If you are lucky, sir, there may
be a little eruption for you to admire. It really is a marvelous sight". It was years
before I realized that the elderly caretaker meant exactly what he said. He had
witnessed the most recent eruptions (1939 - 1941 and 1950), and was
speaking from personal experience.
For Santorini, the volcano is both creator and destroyer. It shaped the
character of the civilization which developed on the island and which
continues to flourish there. When it extinguished every trace of life and civilization
in the tremendous eruption of c. 1600 B.C., it buried a treasure for
us: an incalculable wealth of information on the material and cultural civilization
which flourished in the Aegean in the Bronze Age, information which
constitutes an invaluable chapter in the history of mankind, and a source of
prosperity and enrichment for the island's present inhabitants.
Civilization, in general terms, is nothing more than the resultant of man's
answers to the imperative challenges of his environment. Santorini's arid but
fertile volcanic soil, obliged its inhabitants to develop methods of cultivation
unique in the Aegean islands. Barley, broad beans, lentils, peas, various types
of grapes and wines these have been the mainstay of the island's economy
since pre-historic times. The people of Santorini burrowed deep into the
volcanic ash to build their cave-like dwellings; with volcanic materials - lava
and pozzuolana - they roofed their free-standing buildings, evolving a new
technique of domed construction. The dramatic and diverse landscape of this
island, so lacerated by the activity of its volcano, now offers aesthetic delight
to millions of visitors, providing another source of income for the islanders and
facilitating their change from a subsistence to a consumer society.
It is difficult for anyone who has not actually experienced the volcano to
understand the way in which the people of Santorini seem almost to identify
with it. The volcano brings you face to face with the center of the earth, and
reveals in incomparable fashion - and terror - the grandeur of nature. As the
story contained within this brief guide unfolds, it becomes evident that
between the huge, catastrophic eruptions of the volcano, there occurred many
less devastating ones.
While these were certainly terrifying to the inhabitants of the island, they
also enabled them to witness first hand one of the processes of creation. A
process which raised up out of the sea the geographical space which they had
chosen to occupy. The eruptions of the volcano constitute spectacular signposts
marking the history of the island, events which no one who lived through them
will easily forget. As for me, the uninitiated, who unlike the elderly caretaker
was not lucky enough to experience the terror, the wonder and the grandeur
of an eruption, this Guide to the Kammeni Islands will help me wander in
safety over the surface of the volcano's recent history. Both scientifically
accurate, and a polished and enjoyable read, it is an indispensable companion
to your exploration of the islands.
Professor of Prehistoric Archaeology, University of Athens
Director of excavations at the prehistoric settlement of Akrotiri, Thira.
The Volcano of Santorini