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Pure appl. geophys.

157 (2000) 1227–1256


0033–4553/00/081227–30 $ 1.50+0.20/0

Tsunami Generated by the Late Bronze Age Eruption of Thera


(Santorini), Greece
FLOYD W. MCCOY1 and GRANT HEIKEN2

Abstract—Tsunami were generated during the Late Bronze Age (LBA) eruption of the island of
Thera, in the southern Aegean Sea, by both caldera collapse, and by the entry of pyroclastic surges/flows
and lahars/debris flows into the sea. Tsunami generated by caldera collapse propagated to the west
producing deep-sea sedimentary deposits in the eastern Mediterranean Sea known as homogenites;
open-ocean wave heights of about 1.9– 17 m are estimated. Tsunami generated by the entry of
pyroclastic flows/surges and lahars/debris flows into the sea propagated in all directions around the
island; wave heights along coastal areas were about 7 – 12 m as estimated from newly identified tsunami
deposits on eastern Thera as well as from pumice deposits found at archaeological sites on northern and
eastern Crete.

Key words: Tsunami, volcanic eruptions, tephra, pyroclastic surges, pyroclastic flows, debris flows,
lahar, calderas, tsunami deposits, pumice, ash, Late Bronze Age.

1. Introduction

An explosive eruption on the island of Thera, also known as Santorini, in the


Cycladic Islands, about 3600 years B.P. during the Late Bronze Age (LBA) had
profound effects in the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean region. Local effects
included the devastation of the island and a civilization that inhabited that island
leading to the demise of cultural centers throughout the region, such as the Minoan
culture on Crete (thus the eruption is often referred to as the ‘‘Minoan’’ eruption)
and the Cycladic culture in the Cycladic Islands. Regional effects included wide-
spread dispersal of ash, possible climate change associated with the injection of ash
into high altitudes, seismic activity, dispersal of pumice rafts by oceanic surface
currents, and generation of tsunami. Evidence comes from both the geological and
archaeological record of the circum-Mediterranean area. Deposits of tephra are
widespread throughout the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean region from the Nile

1
University of Hawaii, Windward Community College, Kaneohe, HI 96744. E-mail: fmc-
coy@hawaii.edu
2
Los Alamos National Laboratory, Earth and Environmental Sciences Division, Los Alamos, NM
87545.
1228 Floyd W. McCoy and Grant Heiken Pure appl. geophys.,

Delta to the Black Sea (various papers in HARDY, 1990; STANLEY and SHENG,
1986; GUICHARD et al., 1993) and provide dramatic documentation of the explosiv-
ity of this Plinian-type eruption. Atmospheric temperature decrease of about 0.5°C
in the Northern Hemisphere is estimated from sulphur aerosols injected into the
stratosphere (SIGURDSSON et al., 1990). Seismic activity possibly associated with
the eruption caused widespread damage to LBA Minoan buildings (DOUMAS, 1983;
various papers in Hardy, 1990). Pumice accumulations in coastal deposits and
archaeological sites throughout the eastern Mediterranean and Aegean littoral
suggest extensive rafting of pumice following the LBA eruption (FRANCAVIGLIA,
1990; and others).
That tsunami were generated has been documented by the discovery of a
distinctive sedimentary deposit, homogenites, interbedded in deep-sea sediments of
the Mediterranean Sea (CITA et al., 1984; and others), by chaotic accumulations of
tephra and other sediments at archaeological sites in the Aegean region (ASTROM,
1978; NEEV et al., 1987; FRANCAVIGLIA, 1990; and others), as well as by newly
identified deposits within the LBA eruption sequence on Thera (MCCOY, 1997;
MCCOY and HEIKEN, 1997). Geological and geophysical studies on Thera have
lead to an understanding of the eruptive mechanics, vent placement and topo-
graphic changes associated with the eruption, and inferences for the generation of
tsunami (BOND and SPARKS, 1976; HEIKEN and MCCOY, 1984; DRUITT et al.,
1989; SPARKS and WILSON, 1990; and others). Tsunami generated during the
eruption has been assumed by archaeologists as one of the primary destructive
effects of the eruption, although identifiable damage to man-made structures by
tsunami remains elusive (MARINATOS, 1939; PLATON, 1971; DOUMAS, 1983; BAR-
BER, 1987; various papers in HARDY, 1990; and others).
This paper reviews evidence for tsunami from the archaeological and geological
record, and presents preliminary data on volcaniclastic deposits found on Thera
that are possibly the result of tsunami inundation. Possible tsunamigenic phases of
the LBA eruption are discussed with inferences for wave propagation into the
Aegean and eastern Mediterranean Seas; estimates for tsunami wave heights are
made from sedimentary deposits considered to have originated from tsunami
passage at sea and impact on land.

2. Background

2.1 Geologic and Tectonic Setting of Thera


Thera is one of several volcanic centers active during the Quaternary along the
Hellenic island arc of the southern Aegean Sea (Fig. 1). Five islands surround
(Thera, Therasia, Aspronisi) or occur within (Kameni Islands) two water-filled
calderas to form the archipelago of Santorini (Fig. 2). Thera, Therasia, and
Vol. 157, 2000 Tsunami Generated by the Late Bronze Age Eruption of Thera 1229

Aspronisi are remnants of a larger island destroyed during the LBA (Minoan)
eruption. The Kameni Islands have been constructed by post-Bronze Age volcan-
ism, the latest eruption in 1950 on Nea Kameni; these islands today have manifes-
tations of volcanic activity with hot springs, fumeroles, and low-level seismic
activity (FYTIKAS et al., 1990).
Volcanic activity during the past 700,000 years constructed pyroclastic cones
and lava shields of dominantly dacitic composition, to form the Thera volcanic field
(PICHLER and KUSSMAUL, 1980; SEWARD et al., 1980; HEIKEN and MCCOY, 1984;

Figure 1
The southern Aegean and eastern Mediterranean Seas showing the locations (circles) of volcanoes along
the Aegean island arc; the circled location northeast of Santorini is the underwater volcano at Colombo
Bank. Islands mentioned in the text are identified. Large open arrow indicates the direction of maximum
tectonic closure between the African and Aegean/Europe plates. Lines and patterns, from north to
south, indicate: dashed lines (Aegean Sea) = 150 (northern line) and 100 km (southern line) contour on
the subsurface depth of the subducted crustal slab beneath the Aegean arc; dotted lines south and west
of Crete =sea floor troughs (Hellenic ‘‘trench’’ system); fine stipple pattern through the central
Mediterranean Sea = Mediterranean Ridge, an accretionary wedge of sediment produced by the closure
between Africa and Europe; thick dark line with sawtooth pattern = approximate position on the sea
floor of the downgoing slab. Tectonic indicators are from LE PICHON and ANGELIER (1979), RYAN et
al. (1982), KASTENS et al. (1992), and MEIJER and WORTEL (1997).
1230 Floyd W. McCoy and Grant Heiken Pure appl. geophys.,

Figure 2
Generalized geologic map of Santorini. ‘‘Basement’’ refers to Mesozoic metamorphic rocks; the Akrotiri
volcanic complex is a sequence of pillow lavas and associated sediments of the Pliocene age. Megalo
Vouno volcanic complex, the Micros Profitis Elias, Therasia and Skaros volcanoes are eruption centers
active over the past 900,000 years. Data from PICHLER and KUSSMAUL (1980), HEIKEN and MCCOY
(1984), DRUITT et al. (1989), and unpublished field data. The LBA eruption is often referred to as the
‘‘Minoan’’ eruption, after the Minoan culture that existed on Crete at the time of the eruption.

DRUITT et al., 1989; BARTON and HUIJSMANS, 1986; FRIEDRICH, 1994; MCCOY
and HEIKEN, 2000). The latest pyroclastic eruption in this sequence was the LBA
(Minoan) eruption that excavated a large caldera north of the present-day Kameni
Vol. 157, 2000 Tsunami Generated by the Late Bronze Age Eruption of Thera 1231

Islands and deposited a thick tephra layer on the islands surrounding the caldera
(HEIKEN and MCCOY, 1984) (Fig. 2).
These volcanic deposits are built upon Mesozoic metamorphic rocks and
Pliocene submarine pillow lavas and associated sediments (Fig. 2). The Mesozoic
terrain is part of the Hellenide-Anatolide orogenic belt deformed during the early
Cenozoic closure of the African and European plates (MCKENZIE, 1972; LE
PICHON and ANGELIER, 1979; FYTIKAS et al., 1984). An extensional crustal regime
during the Pliocene, in response to this closure, formed the Aegean basin with the
islands of the Aegean basin being the subaerial portions of a series of Paleogene-
Miocene nappes (MAKRIS, 1978; BONNEAU, 1984; HALL et al., 1984; ROBERTSON
and DIXON, 1984; ARMIJO et al., 1992). Contemporary plate-closure rates are about
10– 40 mm/yr., with intra-arc extension rates of about 3–8 cm/yr. (DEWEY et al.,
1973; LIVERMORE and SMITH, 1985; ORAL et al., 1995; KAHLE and MULLER,
1996). A northwesterly-dipping Benioff zone occurs beneath the arc (Fig. 1)
(AGARWAL et al., 1976; BATH, 1983; SPAKMAN, 1986). Seismic activity in response
to this tectonic activity, as well as to volcanism, is centered in the southern Aegean
Sea in the vicinity of Thera, often with destructive tsunami (BATH, 1983; TAYMAZ
et al., 1990).

2.2 Generation of Tsunami by Volcanism and Slumping


Tsunami created during historic volcanic eruptions have been documented,
particularly those generated during the 1883 eruption of Krakatau. Accounts from
this eruption come from both survivors and from later studies (see SIMKIN and
FISKE, 1983, for an excellent compilation; see also SIGURDSSON et al., 1991; CAREY
et al., 1996, 2000). Tsunami were produced by collapse of the caldera (WHARTON,
1888), entry of pyroclastic surges and flows into the ocean (SELF and RAMPINO,
1981; LATTER, 1981; SIGURDSSON et al., 1991; CAREY et al., 1996, 2000), slumping
of parts of the underwater volcanic edifice (SELF and RAMPINO, 1981), in addition
to the explosive interaction of magma and seawater (not considered as significant as
other effects in generating tsunami by SELF and RAMPINO, 1981). Wave heights
exceeded 40 m; runup distances reached 11 miles inland over low slopes (on the
order of 1 – 5°) of coastal benches (SIMKIN and FISKE, 1983).
Tsunami produced during the 1815 eruption of Tambora in Indonesia were
generated by pyroclastic flows entering the ocean (SELF and RAMPINO, 1981);
coastal inundation reached up to 4 m elevations (VAN PADANG, 1971; WALKER,
1973). The 3500 yBP eruption of Aniakchak volcano in Alaska produced tsunami
with runups as high as 15 m over low slopes (coastal peat bog), apparently also by
entry of pyroclastic flows into the ocean (WAYTHOMAS and NEAL, 1997).
Tsunami generated by sea-floor displacement due to gravity-driven slumps and
slides are well documented. The collapse of volcanic edifices to produce tsunami are
the focus of numerous papers in this volume and elsewhere (MCGUIRE et al., 1996).
1232 Floyd W. McCoy and Grant Heiken Pure appl. geophys.,

Massive underwater slides generating tsunami are documented, the best studied
perhaps being the Storegga slides off Norway about 7000 yBP (BUGGE et al., 1987;
JANSEN et al., 1987) leaving deposits in Scotland (DAWSON et al., 1988, 1993) and
Norway (BONDEVIK et al., 1997). Runup heights from this tsunami are estimated at
up to an elevation of 11 m (BONDEVIK et al., 1997). An underwater slide in the
Aleutian trench south of Alaska in 1946 produced devastating tsunami with runups
reaching 35 m in Alaska and 17 m in Hawaii, and with estimated maximum
wave-heights in Hawaii up to 15 m (MACDONALD et al., 1947). Tsunamis generated
by debris avalanches accompanying or following volcanic activity have produced
waves of the order of 9 – 20 m in height (reviewed in MCGUIRE, 1996).
In the Aegean, there are accounts describing historic volcanic eruptions and
consequent tsunami. In 1650, as one example, Jesuit priests on Thera described with
some awe a submarine eruption at Colombo Bank northeast of Thera (Fig. 1) ‘‘the
ocean burned . . . , flames leaping from the sea . . . fiery clouds lowered upon us . . .
cast up into the heavens enormous rocks, which fell to earth again some two
leagues away . . . in a field we saw a boulder spewed from the bowels of the earth,
of a size that 40 men could not move it . . . the sea covered with pumice . . .
sulfurous steam’’ (GALANOPOULOS and BACON, 1969). Tsunamis associated with
this eruption were apparently generated by caldera collapse; recent bathymetric
surveys of Colombo Bank indicate collapse was on the order of 400 m (PERISSO-
RATIS, 1985). On Thera, waves deposited pebbles and dead fish as much as two
miles inland in valleys (GALANOPOULOS and BACON, 1969); tsunamis were reported
to be 16 m high on the island of Ios immediately north of Thera (LUCE, 1969); at
Patmos, northeast of Thera ‘‘the sea rose 50 m and 30 m on the west and east
coasts, respectively’’ (GALANOPOULOS and BACON, 1969); on the northern coast of
Crete, ships were torn from their moorings and sank in the harbor at Iraklion (the
town was under siege by Turkish forces at the time and their ships were destroyed
by the tsunami, thus ending the siege) (GALANOPOULOS and BACON, 1969;
GALANOPOULOS, 1960; DOUMAS, 1983).

2.3 Obser6ations of Tsunami Wa6e Heights


Accounts describing tsunami often use two different observations: (1) wave
height, as would be observed at the coastline with the tsunami approaching, and (2)
elevation or distance onshore of runup by the wave, usually easy to distinguish by
limits of damage or of displaced debris inland. Wave height is a difficult measure-
ment, potentially dangerous to the observer, and is reliably measured by high-water
levels or damage levels marked on surviving structures after inundation—such
measurements are rare; good data on tsunami wave heights are correspondingly
rare. Runup is not a reliable indicator of wave height, rather is a function of
numerous variables: slope and topography offshore and onshore; soil/sediment and
rock types offshore and onshore; roughness factors determined offshore by reefs,
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bars, banks, etc., and determined onshore by rivers, hills, vegetation, buildings, etc.;
in addition to wave characteristics such as wave type, height, angle of approach,
onshore velocity, etc. (LOOMIS, 1976; COX, 1979). Experimental studies have found
amplification factors of runup over wave height as high as 5.7 (SPIELVOGEL, 1973).

3. The LBA Eruption of Thera

3.1 Archaeological Setting


In the archaeological chronology of the southern Aegean derived from pottery-
sherd types, the eruption occurred, and defines, the boundary between the Late
Minoan IA and Late Minoan IB of the Late Bronze Age (LBA) (see various papers
in HARDY, 1990). Dates center around two intervals, 1630 BC and 1500 BC (see
MANNING, 1995, for discussion of the controversy concerning these dates). Archaeo-
logical evidence provides a rich account of the effects of the eruption on civiliza-
tions in the region, particularly the Cycladic culture on Santorini and the Minoan
culture on Crete. On Santorini, an archaeological excavation at Akrotiri (Fig. 3)
uncovered what appears to have been a prosperous small city (DOUMAS, 1983)
buried within tephra of the LBA eruption.
In the aftermath of the eruption, both the Cycladic and Minoan cultures were
replaced about two centuries after the volcanic disaster by the Mycenaean culture
from mainland Greece. Whether this cultural change was due entirely to the
eruption or to other cultural factors, such as war or economics, continues to be
argued by archaeologists and historians—that widespread devastation did occur
concurrently with the eruption from earthquakes, fire, and possibly tsunami,
however, is clear in the archaeological record (see, for example, MARINATOS, 1939;
GALANOPOULOS and BACON, 1969; LUCE, 1969; HOOD, 1971; PLATON, 1971;
BARBER, 1987; DOUMAS, 1983). Certainly the consequences of an eruption of such
magnitude near the center of two thalassocratic LBA societies would have had a
major impact on their future. One need only compare the effects of equivalently
large Plinian eruptions on post-Bronze Age civilizations to see the potentially huge
effect of the Thera eruption and its regional effects on these LBA societies (see, e.g.,
MCCOY and HEIKEN, 2000).

3.2 Explosi6ity, Magnitude and Tephra Volume


The explosivity index of the LBA eruption of Thera is estimated at 6.9 on the
Volcanic Explosivity Index (VEI; NEWHALL and SELF, 1982) and as such represents
one of the largest eruptions in the past few millennia (only seven eruptions have
had higher VEI values in the past four millennia; SIMKIN and SIEBERT, 1994;
DECKER, 1990; VOGEL et al., 1990).
1234 Floyd W. McCoy and Grant Heiken Pure appl. geophys.,

Volcanic plume heights are estimated to have been up to 36 km (SIGURDSSON


et al., 1990). Injection of ash to these heights, in conjunction with estimates of a
high sulfur content within the plume, suggests that global climatic cooling for a few
years was a likely consequence of the eruption (SIGURDSSON et al., 1990). The
duration of the major part of the eruption ranged from six hours to four days with
no extended interruptions in this activity, erupting at an intensity of 1.4–4.2× 108
kg/sec.; accumulation rates of tephra were as high as 3 cm/min. (PYLE, 1990;
SPARKS and WILSON, 1990; SIGURDSSON et al., 1990). Volume of caldera collapse
is calculated at 18 – 39 km3 (HEIKEN and MCCOY, 1984; PYLE, 1990); modern
depths in the caldera are 390 m (PERISSORATIS, 1985) indicating at least this
amount of collapse during the eruption, but certainly much more, perhaps as much
as 690 m depending upon reconstructions of the pre-eruption topography of the
island (PICHLER and FRIEDRICH, 1980; HEIKEN and MCCOY, 1984; FRIEDRICH et
al., 1988; DRUITT and FRANCAVIGLIA, 1992).

Figure 3
Map of the southern portion of Thera showing the Akrotiri region and the archaeological excavation.
Vol. 157, 2000 Tsunami Generated by the Late Bronze Age Eruption of Thera 1235

Figure 4
Stratigraphic section of the deposits from the LBA eruption (adapted from MCCOY and HEIKEN, 2000;
nomenclature follows RECK, 1936; HEIKEN and MCCOY, 1984; and DRUITT et al., 1989). Arrows in the
right column indicate suggested tsunamigenic phases of the eruption. At lower right in the lithologic
section, a man-made wall is depicted to indicate phases of the eruption that preserved (BO1 and lower
BO2) then destroyed (succeeding phases) archaeological structures.

3.3 Eruption Sequence and Tsunamigenic Phases


The LBA eruption occurred in four major phases, preceded by a minor
precursor phase; eruption activity during three of these likely produced tsunami
(Fig. 4). The discussion below is summarized from HEIKEN and MCCOY (1984),
unless otherwise noted.
A precursor eruptive phase of magmatic and phreatomagmatic activity some
weeks or months prior to the major phases of the eruption deposited a thin tephra
layer extending to 8 cm over southern Thera (Fig. 5a), and may have provided
advance warning of the impending disaster to local inhabitants (HEIKEN and
MCCOY, 1990). Bedding structures in the precursor deposit are suggestive of air-fall
deposition with local dispersal by atmospheric winds (HEIKEN and MCCOY, 1990).
Although a significant lithic component in the ash might indicate smaller collapse
near the vent, there is no evidence of larger collapse structures during this precursor
phase. This evidence in combination with the lack of major destruction to man-
made structures (DOUMAS, 1983) and the inferred lower level of eruptive activity,
suggest no tsunami generation during this initial eruption phase.
Intense magmatic activity of the first major phase of the eruption (BO1/Minoan
A) deposited up to 7 m of pumice and ash, with a minor lithic component, to the
1236 Floyd W. McCoy and Grant Heiken Pure appl. geophys.,

Figure 5
Depictions of vent positions (suture line) and tephra deposits (fine stippled pattern) from the precursor
and major phases of the LBA eruption of Thera; also shown is the modern coastline (solid line) and the
approximate LBA pre-eruption coastline (dotted line) (modified from HEIKEN et al., 1990).
Figure 5a. Precursor eruption phase (BO0).

southeast and east (Fig. 5b). Dispersal was by atmospheric and stratospheric winds;
dispersal patterns and isopachs imply a vent north of the modern Kameni Islands,
perhaps an extension and enlargement of the vent of the precursor phase. Archae-
ological evidence indicates burial of man-made buildings with limited damage
mainly from collapsed roofs. Tephra characteristics indicate fragmentation and
discharge of magma by magmatic gases in a setting where there was no water
interaction at the vent. Such depositional mechanisms, in combination with the
inferred vent position on land and a lack of evidence for major collapse of the
volcanic edifice, are not those mechanisms and settings noted for tsunami genera-
tion during historic volcanic eruptions. Accordingly it is inferred that tsunami were
not generated during this first major phase of the LBA eruption.
Pumice deposited on the sea around Thera during this first phase of the
eruption may have formed enormous rafts of floating pumice that drifted on
surface currents throughout the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean Seas. For
Vol. 157, 2000 Tsunami Generated by the Late Bronze Age Eruption of Thera 1237

Figure 5b
First major eruption phase (BO1/Minoan A).

example, pumice rafts following the 1883 eruption of Krakatau, a less explosive
eruption than LBA Thera (VEI= 6.0; SIMKIN and SIEBERT, 1994) were as much as
15 ft thick and floated across the Indian Ocean transporting skeletons and trees
(SIMKIN and FISKE, 1983).
With the second phase (B02/Minoan B), however, the eruption character
changed to phreatomagmatic activity with numerous thin (B 1 m) pyroclastic
surges and flows leaving a deposit of up to 12 m; thickest accumulations are on
southern Thera (Fig. 5c). Changes in bedform characteristics indicate an increasing
velocity of surges and flows as second phase activity continued, which is reflected in
the complete destruction of any man-made structures not buried within first-phase
or early second-phase deposits (MCCOY and HEIKEN, 2000). Flow directions and
the pattern of thickness variations suggest a vent sited south of the first-phase vent
in a setting where water had unlimited access into the vent.
By comparison with tsunamigenic phases of historic eruptions, such as
Krakatau in 1883, it is entirely likely that tsunamis were generated during the
second phase of the LBA eruption, particularly during later portions of this phase,
wherever surges and flows entered the sea (assuming surge/flow bulk densities
1238 Floyd W. McCoy and Grant Heiken Pure appl. geophys.,

Figure 5c
Second major eruption phase (BO2/Minoan B); also shown are pyroclastic surge and flow directions
(from MCCOY and HEIKEN, 2000), with inferred sites of tsunami generation and directions of wave
propagation.

greater than sea water to diminish buoyancy and allow flow into the water rather
than on the sea surface). Thicker accumulations along southern Thera indicate
pyroclastic activity focused in this direction and thus tsunami perhaps directed
more towards the south and southeast, although tsunami would have been gener-
ated anywhere these surges and flows entered the ocean along the outer perimeter
of the island. Tsunami generated within the center of the island in the southern
embayment would have had limited entry into the Aegean Sea through the narrow
channel in the pre-collapse landscape (Fig. 5c).
Pyroclastic flow activity continued into the third phase of the eruption (BO3/Mi-
noan C) with the initiation of caldera collapse (Fig. 5d). The deposit from this
phase of the eruption is a massive unit (up to 55 m thick on central-southeastern
Thera) within which individual pyroclastic-flow units are not distinguishable. A
high proportion of lithic fragments, some many meters in size, and the composition
of these fragments indicate major collapse of the north-central portion of the LBA
Vol. 157, 2000 Tsunami Generated by the Late Bronze Age Eruption of Thera 1239

Figure 5d
Third major eruption phase (BO3/Minoan C); also depicted is the area of initial caldera collapse
(modified from MCCOY and HEIKEN, 2000, and HEIKEN et al., 1990), with inferred sites of tsunami
generation and directions of wave propagation due to entry of pyroclastic flows into the sea.

island to form the caldera. Thickness variations and ballistic trajectories of lithic
blocks indicate a vent situated approximately in the same position as that for the
second-phase of the eruption. Late in this phase, lahars and debris flows were
produced.
As during second-phase activity, tsunamis may have been generated wherever
pyroclastic flows entered the sea around the perimeter of the island(s). Tsunamis
could have been larger than those produced earlier in the eruption because the
characteristics of third phase deposits on land suggest a few massive slurry-like
mixtures that were thick enough to flow over caldera walls close to 400 m high
(HEIKEN and MCCOY, 1984; SPARKS and WILSON, 1990)—the entry of such a
pyroclastic slurry into the ocean could have produced huge tsunami propagated in
all directions. In addition, large tsunamis might have been produced by sea water
filling the collapsing caldera, particularly if the two peripheral fault blocks to the
caldera (Fig. 2) had partially collapsed in this phase of the eruption, thus widening
the ocean channels to the north and east-southeast and focusing tsunami in these
directions.
1240 Floyd W. McCoy and Grant Heiken Pure appl. geophys.,

Figure 5e
Fourth eruption phase (BO4/Minoan D); also depicted are areas of final caldera collapse, pyroclastic
flow directions (modified from Heiken et al., 1990, and MCCOY and HEIKEN, 2000), and inferred sites
of tsunami generation. The position of the tsunami deposit at Pori is identified.

The final phase of the LBA eruption (BO4/Minoan D) was marked by varied
activity: lithic-rich base surge deposits, lahars, debris flows, and some co-ignimbrite
ash-fall deposits (Figs. 5e and 5f). That tsunami was generated by this activity,
towards the east by both a pyroclastic flow and a lahar/debris flow entering the
ocean, is documented by tsunami deposits within the fourth phase deposit (de-
scribed below; (MCCOY, 1997, 1997b). This phase also marked the completion of
caldera collapse (BOND and SPARKS, 1976; HEIKEN and MCCOY, 1984; MCCOY
and HEIKEN, 2000). Vertical collapse of at least 400 m in the caldera (perhaps up
to 700 m assuming about 300 m elevation to the LBA island that was collapsing
into the caldera), and collapse of the two fault blocks peripheral to the caldera by
300 m, also produced tsunami (vertical displacements relative to modern sea level
using bathymetric data from PERISSORATIS, 1985). This is documented by sedimen-
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Figure 5f
Fourth eruption phase (BO4/Minoan D); also depicted are flow directions of lahars, debris flows and
lithic-rich base surges (modified from HEIKEN et al., 1990, and MCCOY and HEIKEN, 2000), inferred
sites of tsunami generation, and directions of wave propagation.

tary deposits within the deep-sea stratigraphic succession of the eastern Mediter-
ranean Sea that have been identified as tsunami deposits produced by waves
propagating to the west and west-southwest (KASTENS and CITA, 1981; CITA et al.,
1984; HIEKE, 1984).

4. Sedimentary Deposits Produced by Tsunami Generated during the LBA


Eruption of Thera

4.1 Homogenites: Deep-sea Tsunami Deposits


The formation of a distinctive deep-sea sedimentary deposit found in cores from
the eastern Mediterranean Sea, homogenites, has been attributed to tsunami
1242 Floyd W. McCoy and Grant Heiken Pure appl. geophys.,

(KASTENS and CITA, 1981; CITA et al., 1984; HIEKE, 1984). A single homogenite
layer can be up to 9 m thick. Homogenites are homogeneous in color (thus the
name; usually a light to medium brown-grey), soupy, contain a microfossil assem-
blage of mixed ages, have a thin basal zone of silt or sand, show normal size
grading through much of the layer, and have no sedimentary structures except for
burrows in the upper few centimeters (Fig. 6). Homogenites are distinctive with
their homogeneous appearance, thickness, and color that contrasts with the pelagic
stratigraphic section of the eastern Mediterranean of turbidites (white to brown),
sapropels (dark grey to black), volcanic ash layers (light tan to grey), burrowed
pelagic muds (light green to dark brown) and oozes (white).
Homogenites are found only in cores taken of sediments from floors of enclosed
basins on the sea floor. Homogenites appear in seismic reflection profiles as an
acoustic transparent layer constrained to the basin floor (Fig. 7). They occur at the
stratigraphic level of the ash layer from the LBA eruption; the LBA ash layer is not
present in cores containing a homogenite. Cores from surrounding slopes of the
basin show an unconformity/paraconformity at the stratigraphic interval of the
LBA ash layer.

Figure 6
Typical sedimentological characteristics of homogenites from two cores taken southwest of Crete on the
Mediterranean Ridge; thickness of both homogenite layers is close to 5 m (from CITA et al., 1984).
Vol. 157, 2000 Tsunami Generated by the Late Bronze Age Eruption of Thera 1243

Figure 7
Near-bottom 4 kHz seismic-reflection profile showing restriction of the homogenite layer (acoustically
transparent interval) within and on a basin floor (from KASTENS and CITA, 1981).

These factors suggest slumping of sediments onto basin floors from the sur-
rounding walls at the time of the LBA eruption, triggered by the passage of tsunami
generated during the LBA Thera eruption (KASTENS and CITA, 1981) (Fig. 8).
Tsunami would have had wavelengths adequate to provide near-bottom current
velocities sufficient to erode and slump deep-sea sediments. In the intervening 3600
years since the eruption, compaction of the turbid bottom water ponded within the
basin has formed the homogenites.
The occurrence of homogenites only in ocean-floor basins southwest of Crete,
and the alignment of these basins with pathlines calculated for tsunami propagation
to the west from Thera (Fig. 9), infer wave generation by collapse of the caldera
and the fault block west of the caldera (third and fourth phases of the eruption;
Figs. 5e,f). Collapse of the latter would have widened and deepened the channel
into the Aegean Sea, focusing wave propagation to the west.

4.2 Tsunami Deposits on Thera


A 3.5-m thick volcaniclastic deposit intercalated between third and fourth phase
deposits of the LBA eruption (see Fig. 4), near the village of Pori on the east coast
of Thera (Fig. 5), has been interpreted as tephra reworked by tsunami generated
during the eruption (MCCOY, 1997; MCCOY and HEIKEN, 1997). The deposit is a
mixture of pumice, ash and lithic (lava) fragments, characteristic components of all
phases of the eruption, in two distinct layers (Fig. 10). The lower layer has a
1244 Floyd W. McCoy and Grant Heiken Pure appl. geophys.,

minimum thickness of 1.5 m and extends inland 36 m to an elevation of 6 m on a


2–16° slope. It has a lenticular shape open towards the ocean but which thins
inland; internal bedding structures include planar and cross-bedded layers, some
with normal size-grading, clastic tails in the lee of larger clastic particles, and layers
of lithic-rich gravels, often in sharp contact with erosional features. The basal
contact of the lower layer is sharp with erosional scour into the underlying tephra.
The upper layer appears to be about 2 m thick; the upper contact is gradational
and indistinct. It is a chaotic mixture of particle sizes and composition with no
internal bedding structures, but with a higher content of coarser lithic fragments
than found in the lower layer. The contact between the lower and upper layer is
distinct with some features indicative of erosion. Detailed sedimentological work on
the deposit continues and will be reported elsewhere.
A tsunami origin for this deposit rather than one related to eruptive mechanisms
is suggested by: (1) the lens-shaped geometry of the deposit open towards the ocean
which is a unique geometry within the volcanic succession, (2) sedimentary struc-
tures in the lower layer of the deposit that are indicative of a water-laid deposit
under oscillatory flow, in contrast to structures in surrounding pyroclastic and
volcaniclasitc deposits, and (3) the chaotic upper layer of the deposit which appears
to be reworked rather than the product of deposition from pyroclastic activity,
lahars or debris flows. A fluvial or debris flow origin for the deposit is discounted

Figure 8
Diagrammatic representation of sediment disturbance and slumping into isolated basins on the Mediter-
ranean Ridge to produce homogenite layers with passage of tsunami generated during the LBA eruption
of Thera (from CITA et al., 1984).
Vol. 157, 2000 Tsunami Generated by the Late Bronze Age Eruption of Thera 1245

Figure 9
Pathlines of inferred tsunami propagation. Solid arrows trace tsunami possibly generated by the collapse
of the caldera and a large fault block west of the caldera (see Figs. 6e and 6f). Shaded areas in the
eastern Mediterranean Sea identify basins on the deep-sea floor where cores have sampled homogenites
(11 shaded areas identify 35 different basins). Dashed arrows indicate pathlines for tsunami possibly
generated by the entry of pyroclastic flows and lahars/debris flows into the sea (from KASTENS and
CITA, 1981).

by these observations: (1) cross-bedding structures indicate oscillatory flow rather


than unidirectional flow; (2) abundant pumice is indicative of limited abrasion
during flow, inferring short duration and distance of flow; and (3) the deposit does
not appear constrained within a channel, rather appears to be planar in bed
geometry, indicative of sheet-wash type motion.
The stratigraphic position of the tsunami deposit, in lower contact with pyro-
clastic flow deposits of the third (BO3/Minoan C) phase of the eruption, and mixed
along the upper contact with debris-flow deposits of the fourth (BO4/Minoan D)
eruption phase, infer tsunami origin related to the entry of pyroclastic flows and
debris flows into the sea. Initial tsunami flooding is marked by the erosional basal
contact. Internal packets of cross-bedded and planar beds within the lower portion
of the tsunami deposit might indicate multiple inundation episodes related to
repeated entry of pyroclastic flows into the sea, or seiche during maximum
inundation. The upper portion of this deposit may represent tsunami generated by
1246 Floyd W. McCoy and Grant Heiken Pure appl. geophys.,

the entry of a debris flow into the sea (lack of internal sedimentary structures;
chaotic assemblage of pumice and lithic fragments; higher proportion of angular,
pebble and cobble-sized lithic fragments; somewhat gradational upper contact into
a debris flow). If the latter, this is one of few indications of tsunami generated by
the entry of debris flows into the sea during a volcanic eruption.

4.3 Tsunami Deposits Elsewhere


Tsunami deposits related to the LBA eruption have been inferred from numer-
ous coastal exposures and archaeological sites where rounded pumice has been
found, often mixed with seashells and sometimes in a cultural destruction layer
dated to the LBA (Fig. 11): Anaphi island east of Thera (MARINOS and
MELIDONIS, 1971), Crete (at Amnissos, MARINATOS, 1939; PICHLER and SCHIER-
ING, 1977; FRANCAVIGLIA and DI SABATINO, 1990; at Pitsidia, VALLIANOU, 1996),
Cyprus (ASTROM, 1978; MESZAROS, 1978), and Israel (near Tel Aviv, PFANNEN-
STIEL, 1960; other coastal sites, NEEV et al., 1987).
However, the use of pumice in coastal exposures as indicators of tsunami
deposition must be done with caution. The disparity between travel times for
tsunami generated by the eruption and for pumice rafts drifting on surface currents

Figure 10
Sketch (from a photograph) of the tephra stratigraphy and tsunami layer near Pori, Thera. Stratigraphic
identification and approximate scale on the cliff face are shown on the right. Note the lack of internal
stratification in tephra layer BO3 and the series of deposits from lahars and debris flows in BO4, in
contrast to the lenticular shape and internal stratification of the tsunami deposit. The two layers
composing the tsunami deposit are shown: a lower layer characterized by numerous planar beds,
cross-beds, and gravel-rich beds, most with erosional contacts including the basal contact; an upper layer
characterized by the lack of internal stratification in a chaotic, poorly-sorted volcaniclastic mixture.
Vol. 157, 2000 Tsunami Generated by the Late Bronze Age Eruption of Thera 1247

Figure 11
Regional ash distribution of tephra from the LBA eruption (shaded area). Symbols identify sites and
sampling locations where ash (deep-sea cores, lake cores, exposures on land, archaeological sites) and
pumice (exposures on land and at archaeological sites) have been found. Numbers next to the two
triangles in Anatolia represent layer thicknesses in cm for ash deposits found in lake sediments; curved
lines over the eastern Mediterranean Sea are isopachs of ash thickness, in cm, of the tephra layer found
in the deep-sea stratigraphic sequence sampled by coring. Data are from: NINKOVITCH and HEEZEN
(1965), NEEV et al. (1987), CADOGAN (1972), RAPP et al. (1973), VITALIANO and VITALIANO (1974),
ZEIST et al. (1975), FORNASERI et al. (1975), ASTROM (1978), WATKINS et al. (1978), HOOD (1978),
DOUMAS and PAPAZOGLOU (1980), MCCOY (1980, 1981), SULLIVAN (1988, 1990), STANLEY and
SHENG, 1986), KELLER (1980), BETANCOURT et al. (1990), MARKETOU (1990), SOLES and DAVARAS
(1990), WARREN and PUCHELT (1990), FRANCAVIGLIA (1990), and GUICHARD et al. (1993).

(5–20 cm/sec., O8 ZSÖY et al., 1989) constrains distances from Thera where tsunami
would have arrived coincident with rafted pumice. As one example, open-ocean
velocities for tsunami of the order of 1000 km/hr would have waves arriving in the
Levant (approximately 1000 km, straight line distance from Thera) in about 60–100
mm (Fig. 12; YOKOYAMA, 1978). Pumice rafted by surface currents of 5–20 cm/sec
for 1500 km (typical surface currents in the eastern Mediterranean Sea; approxi-
mate float path following eastern Mediterranean gyres; O8 ZSÖY et al., 1989) would
1248 Floyd W. McCoy and Grant Heiken Pure appl. geophys.,

arrive along the Levant coastline in about 85–350 days, long after the eruption and
eruption-generated tsunami (assuming a four-day duration of the LBA eruption;
SPARKS and WILSON, 1990; SIGURDSSON et al., 1990). Accordingly, pumice found
along the Levant littoral could not have been deposited by tsunami generated by
the LBA eruption.
In a general case (applying assumptions noted above on surface current patterns
and velocity, drift paths and rates for pumice rafts, 4-day duration of the eruption,
tsunami generated during late-phase eruptive activity), rafted pumice would be at
distances of only about 70 – 100 km or less from Thera (north-central coast of
Crete, Anaphi, Melos, Amorgos) after four days of drifting and in position for
tsunami arrival and deposition on land.

5. Wa6e Characteristics Inferred for Tsunami Generated by the LBA Eruption of


Thera

Wave heights near the eruption site on Santorini (no water depth specified or
distance offshore) have been estimated at 50–86 m (YOKOYAMA, 1978). The lower
wave-height estimate was based upon two pumice deposits about 1 m thick found
by MARINOS and MELIDONIS (1971) on the island of Anaphi due east of Thera
(Fig. 1) at an elevation of 40 – 50 m. It is not clear if the Anaphi deposit represents

Figure 12
Tsunami time-distance relationships and pathlines from Thera; contours are in minutes (from
YOKOYAMA, 1978).
Vol. 157, 2000 Tsunami Generated by the Late Bronze Age Eruption of Thera 1249

a pumice-fall accumulation or a deposit left from runup by tsunami. The upper


wave-height estimate was derived by YOKOYAMA (1978) from the occurrence of
pumice 5 m above sea level in a coastal terrace near Tel Aviv (presumed related to
the Thera eruption by PFANNENSTIEL, 1960; see section above), assuming LBA
sea-level about 2 m below present levels and a wave height of 7 m offshore of Tel
Aviv, then calculating an original wave height of 86 m near Santorini. By averaging
the 50 – 86 m wave-height estimate, then ‘‘weighting twice’’ the Anaphi estimate
because the former ‘‘might be more reliable,’’ YOKOYAMA (1988) refined the
wave-height calculation to 63 m near Santorini.
Tsunami directed towards Anaphi and the Levant, including south towards
Crete, likely were generated by the entry of pyroclastic flows and lahars/debris flows
in the sea (as noted previously). Tsunami deposits found near Pori on Thera suggest
these estimates by YOKOYAMA (1978) may be too high. This deposit has an upper
contact 7 – 8 m above modern sea level, providing a minimum indication of tsunami
wave heights. Adding to this an LBA (3600 yBP) sea level perhaps as much as 2
meters lower than modern levels in the Mediterranean and southern Aegean region
(VAN ANDEL and SHACKLETON, 1982; FLEMMING and WEBB, 1986; GALILI et al.,
1988; STANLEY and WARNE, 1993), and evidence of perhaps up to 2 m of
subsidence of Thera since the LBA (GALANOPOULOS and BACON, 1969), then
tsunami wave heights at coastal impact might have been as much as 11–12 m.
Given uncertainties between runup and wave height, wave heights somewhere
between 7 m and 12 m might be suggested. Such an estimate is close to those by
PICHLER and SCHIERING (1977) of 8–10 m wave heights along the northern and
eastern coasts of Crete at various archaeological sites.
KASTENS and CITA (1981) used YOKOYAMA’s (1978) minimum estimate of a 50
m wave near Thera, and assumed this wave amplitude at a 200 m water depth off
Santorini, to calculate open-water wave heights of between 1.9 and 17 m, with wave
lengths \ 100 km, in the eastern Mediterranean Sea over the abyssal homogenite
sites. Sea-floor current velocities of up to 49 cm/sec would result from such a wave,
and would exceed critical erosional velocities needed to erode and cause slumping
of fine-grained pelagic sediments off basin walls onto basin floors to form ho-
mogenite deposits (KASTENS and CITA, 1981). Nearshore wave heights as open-
ocean tsunami amplitudes of this magnitude entering shallow coastal waters might
be considerably higher than those suggested from the tsunami deposit at Pori,
Thera, a reflection of generation of the homogenite-forming tsunami by caldera
collapse rather than by pyroclastic and lahars/debris flows entering the sea.

6. Summary

Tsunamis generated by the LBA eruption of Santorini were generated by (1)


caldera collapse and (2) the entry of pyroclastic flows and lahars/debris flows into
1250 Floyd W. McCoy and Grant Heiken Pure appl. geophys.,

the sea. Volcanogenic tsunamis produced by caldera collapse and the entry of
pyroclastic flows into the sea are well documented from historic eruptions; tsunami
generation by the entry of lahars and debris flows into the sea is poorly docu-
mented. Evidence for tsunami comes from deep-sea deposits left by open-ocean
passage of the wave, as well as from deposits on land where inundation has left
pumice accumulations, has produced destruction layers at archaeological sites, or
has left distinctive volcanoclastic deposits within the tephra stratigraphy of the
eruption on eastern Thera. Pumice accumulations in coastal exposures or archaeo-
logical sites at distances greater than about 100 km likely were not, however,
emplaced by tsunami generated during the LBA Thera eruption considering drift
rates via surface currents in the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean Seas and travel
times for tsunami.
Wave propagation following caldera collapse (third and fourth phases of
eruption activity) would have been to the west, considering somewhat asymmetric
collapse of the volcanic edifice and the occurrence of tsunami deposits (homogen-
ites) on the eastern Mediterranean sea-floor; open-ocean wave amplitudes are
calculated to have been 1.9 – 17 m. Wave propagation following ocean entry of
pyroclastic flows and lahars/debris flows (second through fourth phases of eruption
activity) would have been in all directions around Thera, and certainly towards the
east as indicated by tsunami deposits on eastern Thera; wave amplitudes are
estimated at about 7 – 12 m along coastal Thera and Crete. The regional effects of
tsunami must have been significant, considering the cataclysmic event which
occurred within the core of two thalassocratic cultures, Minoan and Cycladic, and
which destroyed the center of one, the Cycladic culture on Thera.

Acknowledgements

Our thanks to numerous colleagues for discussions, assistance and comments:


C. Doumas and the archaeologists at the Akrotiri archaeological excavation, Meg
Watters, Eleni Argy Murray, and other field helpers and students (especially Tom
Lowther, Mary Lewis, and Ian Robins). Reviews by B. Keating, W. Dudley, W.
Friedrich and anonymous reviewers improved the manuscript considerably. We
thank those who made life in the field a pleasant experience (N. Yannaros, A.
Kambouris, F. Colombo, K. Damigos, M. Karnavoulis and others). Field work
was permitted by the Institute of Geology and Mineral Exploration (IGME), and
supported by the National Geographic Society, Earthwatch/Center for Field Stud-
ies and the Associated Scientists at Woods Hole. Production of graphics was
supported in part by the Colgate Fund of the Associated Scientists at Woods Hole.
Portions of this study were done while F. McCoy was Senior Research Associate at
the Wiener Laboratory of the American School of Classical Studies in Athens. This
is a contribution from the School of Oceanography and Earth Sciences and
Vol. 157, 2000 Tsunami Generated by the Late Bronze Age Eruption of Thera 1251

Technology, University of Hawaii (no. 4955) and the Associated Scientists at


Woods Hole (Mass.).

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(Received June 4, 1998, revised March 5, 1999, accepted May 18, 1999)