Akrotiri, Santorini: The site for Classics geeks (and classic Greeks)

I recently visited the ancient Minoan site of Akrotiri on Santorini island. I knew absolutely nothing about it. Most of Greece’s ancient wonders are focused on places like Knossos, the Acropolis, Ephesus (in Turkey), and Delphi. Comparatively, Akrotiri is small in size. But it’s revealed a great deal about this mostly unknown civilization of skilled craftsmen and beautiful women.

Cool fact: The actual size of the settlement is predicted to be something like 30 times bigger than the current site, and excavating the whole thing will take over a century.

If you’re going: opt for the guided tour (which may be difficult in the off-season). The site doesn’t have a great deal of signage or explanation. Basically you’d just be looking at a floor plan of a broken building without a guide. It’s 2EUR for admission.


The Minoans were unknown until the 20th century. When the Palace of Knossos was revealed on Crete, archaeologists picked up a keen interest in these people. Maybe you’ve heard of the Minotaur and the labyrinth? Well, that’s just one legacy of the Minoans.

Along came Spyridon Marinatos, an archaeologist who wanted to prove “the biggest volcanic eruption in recorded world history” was the reason for the Minoan collapse. He didn’t have to look far. Farmers in Santorini were forever digging up pieces of pottery and artifacts.

But here’s the really cool part: while the town we see at the site today was buried 3600 years ago, what THOSE inhabitants didn’t realize was that they had built their homes atop other ruins. And more ruins. Layers of ruins! People now believe the area was first settled around 7000 BC. Thanks to earthquakes, the area just kept getting shoveled over.

The site will take you through the various 40-something rooms of Akrotiri. You’ll see the remains of window frames, beds upturned on top of one another as if their owners would be coming back for them, and even the remains of a clay pipe system carrying a constant supply of water to the city. The lava and ash that covered and destroyed the city helped protect it. Scientists have used plaster casts to create replicas of some of the Minoans’ furniture, including intricately detailed tables. Mosaics with ivory pieces were uncovered, and even a gold ibex in a jewelry box.

Kostas, our tour guide

The Minoans were clearly a very well-to-do society. This may have thanks to a fertile, lush landscape providing ample farmland. Their home would have looked very different thousands of years ago, before that temperamental volcano came along and shattered the whole reverie.

One of the most interesting stops is the large public kitchen and storeroom. Giant storerooms with jugs for holding goods were found here, and digs have turned up traces of olive oil and purple dye. Wall frescoes included the likes of kissing swallows – a common image among Minoan art, for the migrating swallows indicated the return of spring, the rebirth of the earth. Soon, merchants, traders, and sailors would be arriving.

Jugs at Akrotiri

Most of these artifacts you can now see at the Museum of Prehistoric Thera, a small two-room modern building with endless pieces from the era (and some beyond, including fossilized olive leaves). Admission is 2EUR. The education is priceless. *Sticks head in an oven.*

Prehistoric Thera

Here you’ll see nippled vessels, monkey murals preserved by volcanic ash, the world’s first microwave (portable oven), and 7000-year-old fossilized olive leaves from a former eruption. Permission to nerd out now.

  • April 10 2014

    Man, now I feel like I did nothing while I was in Santorini! (Which is kind of true anyway.) This place sounds fascinating.

  • April 10 2014

    oh man — having an epic nerd-out over this post. You’re another step closer to being an archaeologist!

  • April 24 2014

    It’s not even about being a nerd. People who respect history will know that these Minoans were one of the founding cultures of Western civilization, if not, the first. It’s a gem to read this piece and I am happy you learned the secret about Santorini and shared this :) Keep enjoying Greece. Cheers from Mandra, Greece ;)

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