Sinking Atlantis

Program Transcript

NARRATOR: Five thousand years ago, the great civilization of the Minoans flourished on the island of Crete.

Centuries before the Greeks built the Parthenon, Minoan artists recorded their achievements with exquisite carvings and beautiful frescoes.

The Minoans were the first Europeans to use writing. But then, at the height of their power, they were wiped from the pages of history. Their disappearance is still one of the ancient world’s greatest mysteries.

NARRATOR: The Minoans had built their prosperous city on one of the most dangerous islands on earth.

Around 1600, B.C., Akrotiri was shaken by a violent earthquake. Some time later, the eruption occurred…

Some thought the Minoans were slaughtered by invaders.

Others, that a volcanic eruption had engulfed them.

But now, a team of scientists is looking for more definitive answers. Their research is casting doubt on previous theories, and unearthing new evidence of an unexpected natural disaster.

SANDY MCGILLIVRAY: You spend a lot of time searching for something and then you find it you wish you hadn’t.

NARRATOR: Did the Minoans terrible fate give rise to the famous myth of Atlantis, the ancient city that vanished beneath the waves?


NARRATOR: More than two thousand years ago, the Greek historian Plato wrote about Atlantis, the fabled civilization that was swallowed by the sea. But the origins of Plato’s story have never been identified.

It is only recently that some archeologists have begun to believe the legend may have started here on Crete. They are hoping that scientific investigation can provide an actual link to Plato’s ancient folk memory.

It’s an ambitious goal, given that our modern understanding of the Minoans is sparse, culled in large part from Greek myths about monsters and human sacrifice.

Archaeologist Sandy McGillivray has been spellbound by the beauty of Minoan art and architecture for 25 years. He’s always wondered how such an advanced culture disappeared so mysteriously.

Sandy is on his way to explore ancient mines in the center of the island. For hundreds of years they were thought to be the Labyrinth—the Minoan home of the legendary Minotaur.

Greek tales described the creature as half-bull, half-man. It was imprisoned in the great maze by King Minos. It fed on human flesh.

SANDY MCGILLIVRAY: There were all kind stories of hauntings and weird happenings in here. It’s still a place associated with doom and death.

NARRATOR: The Minotaur had particular tastes. It liked to consume its human prey alive.

SANDY MCGILLIVRAY: To keep the Minotaur fed Minos exacted a tribute of seven maids and seven youths from the Athenians and once you entered the labyrinth you never left the labyrinth.

NARRATOR: At the peak of King Minos’ power, Athens was just a small settlement dwarfed by the Minoan empire. The Minotaur myth may have been created by the ancient Greeks as a way of expressing their fear or resentment for their powerful neighbors.

But archaeological remains found in the Minoan capital of Knossos, hint at a grisly reality behind the myth.

SANDY MCGILLIVRAY: One of the most telling and horrifying deposits was a deposit recovered in the town of Knossos up along the royal road and that was these cannibalized youths. The analysis of these bones from this burnt destruction deposit strongly suggested they’d been hacked up in order to take the flesh off in order to eat them. This cannibalistic aspect of the Minoans is probably one of the things that was recalled when the Greeks first arrived in Crete. Fear and Loathing at Knossos.

NARRATOR: The dark stories and evidence of cannibalism, alongside such beautiful buildings and artwork, seem to indicate a strangely enigmatic society.

British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans first began exploring their secrets in 1900.

Evans started excavating near the modern village of Knossos. His finds of a sophisticated Bronze Age civilization astonished the world. While the ancient Greeks were living as barbarian warriors, these people were building magnificent palaces.

Knossos was the largest Minoan city, a masterpiece of ancient town planning. Its temples and granaries were connected by the first paved roads in Europe, built more than a thousand years before the Romans’.

The Minoan Empire stretched wide. Archaeologists have discovered settlements throughout Crete, as well as on other Aegean islands and parts of mainland Turkey.

The Minoans shipped their intricate artifacts and pottery as far as Spain and Mesopotamia. They were masters of the sea.

Their vast reach and influence rivaled that of the ancient Egyptians.

Minoan artists produced the first great treasures of ancient Europe.

This tiny gold seal is so small, it must have been created using some form of magnifying lens.

This molding is less than an inch high, yet it contains a portrait of an entire Minoan town.

Another masterpiece is the Harvester Vase.

SANDY MCGILLIVRAY: You’ve got a little choir of men with skull caps on whose mouths are open, the wreaths that some of them are holding you can almost hear them blowing in the wind, rustling against each other. These pieces are symphonic in every way. It’s a revolution in art.

NARRATOR: As Evans excavated the ruins at Knossos, he felt certain he had uncovered the palace of King Minos.

He even imagined he’d found the royal throne.

But Sandy McGillivray thinks Evans misread the evidence. He believes Knossos was not a palace, but a temple, carefully constructed to harness the magical power of the sun.

In 2001, Sandy realized that each of these doorways aligns with the rising sun on different key days of the year.

SANDY MCGILLIVRAY: What we’re looking at here is the solar temple.

NARRATOR: Like the Egyptians, the Minoans worshipped the changing cycles of the sun, moon and stars.

SANDY MCGILLIVRAY: What we have here then is essentially a theatre of the senses. You can start off with complete blackness, and then you can fling open these doors at that moment of sunrise, and experience that, that beginning of something new. And in the winter, the sun comes through on the winter solstice and illuminates the throne.

NARRATOR: But it’s unclear who sat on the thrown.

Evans believed it must have been a powerful male ruler, like the Egyptian pharaohs. But although there are myths about King Minos, there is no evidence of kings in Minoan art. Instead, there are celebrations of striking female figures, like this one, found at Knossos.

Sandy believes she may have been a snake priestess, perhaps part of a fertility order that wielded religious power — and possibly also political influence — in Minoan society.

The Minoans left many tantalizing clues about their world. Their written language, called Linear A, has only recently been decoded. Surprisingly, it shares DNA not with other Mediterranean languages, but with hieroglyphs from the Persians in the Middle East.

Sandy believes the words tell us far more about the Minoans than their art.

SANDY MCGILLIVRAY: A decipherment for Linear A has given us a language for this Cretan civilization which is akin to the early language of Iran, which found its way from the highlands of Iran all the way to India on one side and to Minoan Crete on the other side.

NARRATOR: Their origins seem to explain why the Minoans were so different from the ancient Greeks who succeeded them. Their language and religion were more Asian than European.

But it doesn’t explain why, thirty five hundred years ago, the Minoans disappeared.

Although there are some indications that the Minoans were attacked by armed invaders from the Greek mainland, records of a nearby volcanic eruption seem like a more promising place to start.

The island of Santorini, which lies 70 miles north of Knossos, is ground zero for the volcano theory. Today, the jagged cliffs and beautiful scenery draw countless tourists. Many fail to realize they are vacationing on a highly explosive volcano. In ancient times, it was called Thera.

The Minoans built the thriving city of Akrotiri in the volcano’s shadow. It was discovered in 1967, buried on the slopes of the vast crater. In its heyday, Akrotiri was as wealthy and highly-developed as the settlements on Crete.

Vulcanologist Floyd McCoy has been studying the geology and history of Santorini for twenty years.

FLOYD MCCOY: If you take a look at the wall paintings that are been discovered here they are portraying their landscape it’s a happy landscape animals bouncing around and people picking saffron.

NARRATOR: Saffron was a valuable commodity in the classical world. It was prized as a spice, and was also used for medicinal purposes. The Minoans documented the saffron harvest on their frescos.

FLOYD MCCOY: They were showing a nice, nice lifestyle a comfortable one. It’s a pity it was all destroyed.

NARRATOR: The Minoans had built their prosperous city on one of the most dangerous islands on earth.

Around 1600, B.C., Akrotiri was shaken by a violent earthquake. Some time later, the eruption occurred…

FLOYD MCCOY: Suddenly this thing exploded.

NARRATOR: This was fire and brimstone of epic proportions. The huge volcano blasted gas, ash and rock 25 miles into the stratosphere.

Evidence of the volcano’s power can be found all around Santorini. Some of the deposits are more than a hundred feet deep.

FLOYD MCCOY: There in that cliff face all four layers representing the four major faces of this huge and dramatic eruption. The first layer that we see is that brown layer at the bottom that granular brown layer, that’s pumice. Pumice is frothy rock; it represents magma frozen in place, a frozen explosion.

NARRATOR: The two layers above are testimony to the lethal impact of Thera’s eruption. This is the debris left by pyroclastic flows.

FLOYD MCCOY: Pyroclastic flows, hot gas material that comes up and flows laterally across the landscape, sometimes at supersonic speeds. Hot, hot gases.

NARRATOR: These gases were forced out by massive explosions in the heart of the volcano.

When the initial magma surge erupted out of the Theran caldera, it left behind a vast, empty chamber. The surface above the chamber collapsed, creating a gaping cavity.

Then, the sea rushed in.

FLOYD MCCOY: Magma and water do not mix, they make an explosion. The entire Aegean sea is pouring into this vent, mixing with new magma coming up and the explosion was tremendous. Huge. And from that come these pyroclastic flows.

NARRATOR: The destructive force was incomprehensible. The third layer of the deposit is a 33-foot-thick wall of ash from a single flow.

Above it lies the fourth and final layer.

FLOYD MCCOY: It started to rain, torrential rains came down and then all this loose ash and pumice on the surface started to move down slow, that’s what we all debris flows. And then it was over.

NARRATOR: The thriving Minoan settlement on Santorini was buried under the huge mounds of ash. But did the eruption also obliterate Crete, 70 miles to the south?

Floyd and his colleagues found ash deposits on the seabed surrounding the island—certainly an ominous sign.

FLOYD MCCOY: We calculated the amount, the volume of this material which is how we figure out how explosive an eruption was, it came out something like, Krakatoa. Wow we said.

NARRATOR: When Krakatoa, the volcanic island that lies between Java and Sumatra, erupted in 1883, the explosion was heard 2000 miles away. The volcano claimed 36,000 lives.

But if Thera was that powerful, there should be widespread evidence of its eruption. And there is: A search turns up Theran ash five hundred miles away in the Black Sea.

Archaeologist Stuart Dunn plots the known deposits.

STUART DUNN: We put together a database of all these ash thicknesses, these, recording their locations and recording the thickness.

NARRATOR: Each numbered triangle represents a deposit of ash from Thera. The location and thickness of these residues allows Dunn to calculate how many millions of tons of material were blasted across the region.

STUART DUNN: We concluded that this eruption was very very much larger than had been previously thought.

FLOYD MCCOY: We were all wrong; this was highly explosive, now we’re up to 10 times the explosivity of Krakatoa.

STUART DUNN: We really are talking about the largest volcanic event in human history in Europe.

NARRATOR: The volcano spewed out huge plumes of ash. When the dense clouds headed towards Crete, the Minoans must have thought the gods were turning against them.

JAN DRIESSEN: Imagine this ash coming over the island. That we know would happen. It blackened the air, it blackened the blue sky – for several days probably and that is pretty bad for people living with nature.

NARRATOR: Until recently, many archaeologists believed that ash from Thera had smothered all life on Crete. But although the explosion was huge, prevailing winds carried much of the ash away from the island. The deposits that did reach Crete were not deep enough to have destroyed the Minoans.

But if the ash hadn’t wiped them out, what had?

Sandy McGillivray hopes he can find out. He’s been excavating the Minoan coastal town of Palaikastro, on eastern Crete.

The extent of the ruins suggests this was the second largest Minoan settlement on the island. Home to five thousand people, it covered the whole of this slope, from the mountainside to the sea.

Palaikastro was a thriving community with many skilled workers. Its paved roads were laid out in a carefully-executed grid pattern.

Today, the hill where the town stood is eroding into the sea. As the soil crumbles, it reveals a chaotically-mixed layer of sediment that may contain hints about the fate of the Minoans.

SANDY MCGILLIVRAY: I used to come down here to the beach and I would see these gravel deposits. We had Theran ash, we had pottery, and there was building debris, there was all this chaos and brought a number of specialists up here and said well you know can you explain how this gravel got up here? And one of them suggested that there was a river flowing up here, and I thought a river, how would, you know why would a Minoan build their house in the middle of a river and how could a river run over a hilltop? That made no sense whatsoever to me and I thought lets get people to really investigate this properly.

NARRATOR: Sandy has never seen anything like this mixed layer, so he calls in Hendrik Bruins, a soil scientist from Ben Gurion University in Israel.

Hendrik specializes in dating and identifying unusual layers of sediment.

HENDRIK BRUINS: Look here we have stone, pottery and lots of lumps of volcanic ash. This is one lump, this is another lump.

NARRATOR: These chaotic layers are very different from what Hendrik would expect to find on a shoreline like this.

HENDRIK BRUINS: This is, from a sedimentary point of view this is impossible to get let’s say by an earthquake and it’s impossible to get by natural archaeological stratification.

NARRATOR: So what could have caused the untidy deposit? Hendrik takes samples, hoping a microscopic examination will reveal clues about how the layer was formed.

HENDRIK BRUINS: So this is the hardened block made from the sediment which we took in-situ at a promontory, the soft brittle material, hardened afterwards. Here we have the, the slide, the thin section that was made from the block.

NARRATOR: Under the microscope, Hendrik makes an unexpected find.

HENDRIK BRUINS: We were really very, very thrilled when we saw foraminifera in these deposits.

NARRATOR: Foraminifera are tiny marine organisms, usually found on the seabed. It’s unusual to find them on land, even in soil close to the water’s edge.

And they’re not the only undersea creatures Hendrik discovers: There are also coralline algae in the sample.

HENDRIK BRUINS: These come from below the sea level, and in order to deposit them in that level where we found them in the promontory, I mean it has to be scooped up by something. It has to be lifted up to a much higher level where the sea normally never comes.

NARRATOR: There is only one natural force that could have lifted these organisms off the seafloor and onto the headland. A sudden, powerful, and devastating wave…

In 2004, the Indian Ocean tsunami stunned the world.

It killed two hundred and thirty thousand people, and wiped out entire coastlines. Could the same thing have happened to the Minoans three and a half thousand years ago?

Is the Palaikastro beach deposit the footprint of a massive tsunami?

SANDY MCGILLIVRAY: And here you can see bits of paving…

NARRATOR: Sandy calls in leading tsunami expert Costas Synolakis to corroborate Hendrik’s findings. Costas has studied tsunami deposits from the 2004 wave, and from other smaller waves around the world.

As soon as they reach the beach, they find newly exposed Minoan pottery fragments mixed in with the gravel.

SANDY MCGILLIVRAY: These are cattle bones here. You can see floor plaster and wall plaster. You can see building material and you see a lot of typical pottery. Ok have a look at this deposit here Costas. There’s the conical cup sitting right there. It’s almost 5 meters above Minoan sea level.

NARRATOR: By comparison, the waves that hit Sri Lanka in 2004 were estimated at five-to-ten meters high, and they killed thirty thousand people.

COSTAS SYNOLAKIS: When Sandy invited me to come out here and, you know, look at some of the evidence I was very skeptical. But none-the-less I was really keen to see what Sandy had. Sandy, I mean if this is all the Minoan deposit it must have been something really massive. I mean something on a scale that we have not even started thinking about. What happened here?

NARRATOR: Costas wants to look further inland for more signs of damage. The main ruins of Palaikastro are 300 yards from the chaotically mixed layers at the water’s edge.

Now that they know what to look for, they see striking evidence of tsunami damage.

SANDY MCGILLIVRAY: We find some walls entirely missing. We find…

COSTAS SYNOLAKIS: Entirely missing?

SANDY MCGILLIVRAY: Yeah well, like the late Minoan one wall along the bottom there is gone, that half of the building is gone.

COSTAS SYNOLAKIS: And of course this is what we see you know in modern tsunamis; we call this the blow out. The sea comes in – the tsunami comes in – blows out the walls. If the building is strong enough, the side walls you know will survive, but the walls facing the ocean – they are just going to collapse.

SANDY MCGILLIVRAY: All of a sudden a lot of the deposits began making sense to us, because we had these buildings pulled away. We had the fronts of buildings missing; we had buildings razed right down to foundation level.

NARRATOR: Like the victims of the 2004 tsunami, the Minoans in Palaikastro would have had no warning of the approaching waves.

Costas believes that with the right information, he can build a full picture of the scale and impact of the tsunami. The first step is to create a three dimensional map of the bay.

Costas uses sonar to plot the bay’s contours. The shape of the seabed would have influenced the speed and height of the tsunami as it approached the land. Though the sands may have shifted since Minoan times, the data will still provide a useful approximation.

The next day Costas extends his search back onto firm ground. He wants to explore the plains around Palaikastro to find out exactly how far inland the Tsunami traveled. First stop is a new road construction project more than half a mile from the shore.

SANDY & COSTAS: S: That’s a seashell. That’s outrageous.
C: I don’t believe this. It’s all exposed and you know look there’s more.
S: That looks to me like the rim of a hemispherical cup. The period of Thera eruptions.

NARRATOR: The items are far inland… and high above sea level.

SANDY & COSTAS: Costas: Looks like we are at over 31.36 meters. I can’t believe it’s just…
Sandy: That’s about right. We’re cooking.
Costas: It’s all here.
Sandy: We are cooking

NARRATOR: The new finds are making a strong case for a Tsunami, and the theory also provides the impetus to re-examine old evidence.

Environmental scientist Anaya Sarpaki has kept soil samples from twenty years of Palaikastro excavations. She is now going back to check them for signs of the microscopic marine organisms that were found at the beach.

ANAYA SARPAKI: In this particular sample we have found, foraminifera.

SANDY MCGILLIVRAY: Oh my goodness is that what they look like?

NARRATOR: Anaya’s finds are an important confirmation. All the pieces are falling into place.

COSTAS SYNOLAKIS: What Anaya has found is extremely exciting. Anaya’s foraminifera, the wall, and then the debris layer well there’s no other alternative explanation that can simultaneously explain all these findings other than the fact that the tsunami was really big, much bigger than we thought, came through, destroyed the town, and pretty much covered most of the plain behind me.

NARRATOR: The next question is what caused the wave that destroyed Palaikastro? Tsunamis are often generated by enormous sub-sea earthquakes, like the one that created the 2004 wave. Could such an earthquake have caused the Minoan disaster? Or was it generated by the Theran eruption?

Hendrik Bruins hopes this single fragment of cow bone from the Palaikastro shoreline will provide the answer.

HENDRIK BRUINS: What I would like to see, if possible that the bone would give a date, a radiocarbon date that is similar to the date for the Minoan Santorini eruption, because then we have very, very hard scientific evidence that we’re talking about the same time. So if this radio carbon date that comes from these bones would be similar to the radio carbon date of the Santorini eruption then it’s very, very important scientific evidence. That’s one piece.

NARRATOR: The radio carbon dating test will take at least a week.

Meanwhile, the team sets out to explore the extent of the wave’s impact beyond Palaikastro.

They search along the north coast, where any tsunami generated by Thera would have struck the island. But centuries of erosion have erased any evidence of wave damage. Initial attempts near Palaikastro turn up little, so they travel thirty miles west, to the town of Mallia.

These are ruins of what was once the third largest Minoan palace on Crete. As was typical, the town had no protective walls. The Minoans were the strongest naval power in the ancient world, and relied on their ships for defense.

Not far from the shore, the team finds a layer of pottery and building debris similar to the one at Palaikastro. Buried in the dirt is further evidence of marine life where it shouldn’t be.

HENDRIK & COSTAS: Hendrik: Wow, look at that.
Costas: Very good.
Hendrik: Very good. Very good. So this strengthens our working hypothesis that this is a tsunami deposit.

COSTAS SYNOLAKIS: The significance of it, at least to me is that it adds tremendous credibility to the deposits that we have found in Palaikastro right out there in the promontory. It’s much more useful to us to have 2 deposits that are at the distance of, you know 20 miles apart from each other, 30 miles apart than having 2 deposits that are next to each other because then we have a better geographical constraint and that helps us, identify how wide the wave is, what, what was the width of the wall of water that came towards Crete.

NARRATOR: At this point, they know the wave was at least 30 miles wide. But there are still more excavations to explore.

The next day, they reach Amnissos, the main port for the Minoan ships.

Four thousand years ago, a tranquil villa nestled among the olive groves on this idyllic coast. It was decorated with frescoes that celebrated the natural beauty of the island.

But at some point, the villa was destroyed, and the frescos were torn from the walls.

When the site was excavated, large fragments of pumice bearing the chemical fingerprint of Thera were found in the ruins. This petrified volcanic froth is too heavy to have been carried in the Theran ash cloud. But it could have arrived by sea.

High in the hills above the villa, Sandy, Hendrik and Costas are looking for more samples of the Theran pumice.

SANDY, HENDRIK & COSTAS: Sandy: Well, if we can find some pumice up here.
Costas: Put your eyes where you mouth is.
Hendrik: Let’s try to find.
Costas: Let’s try to find some pumice.

NARRATOR: They are searching sixty feet above sea level.

SANDY, HENDRIK & COSTAS: S: This is it. That obviously is volcanic. See if it sparkles.
H: But it’s, it’s rounded, yeah this is, this is absolutely pumice. No doubt about it.
C: Do you realize what this means for the height of the tsunami?
S: OK is there any other way that this, that these pieces of, these little tiny pieces of pumice got up here? How else could the pumice get here? It’s not a souvenir.
C: You could get destruction down there with a wave that’s maybe 3 meters high. Who knows how strong the house was, but finding pumice up here. It’s unbelievable; I mean this is huge!
S: There’s tons of this stuff up here. This is outrageous.

SANDY MCGILLIVRAY: As a child there was a big ant hill at one end of the garden and we used to go with the garden hose and wash them off, and that keeps coming back somewhere in my memory and I keep thinking that wave had, had an effect like just washing ants off an ant hill and sweeping them out to sea, it’s a terrifying thing. Those ants never had a chance.

NARRATOR: With evidence accumulating for an island-wide tsunami, Hendrik is eager to get the results from the radio carbon dating test of the cow bone.

Only then will they know for sure if the Tsunami was caused by the Theran volcano on Santorini, or by an underwater earthquake.


NARRATOR: The results finally arrive. The date is 1600 B.C., an exact match with the Theran eruption.

HENDRIK BRUINS: The cattle bones they are of the same age as the Santorini eruption and it proves that also our chaotic tsunami deposit has also in radiocarbon terms the same age as the Santorini eruption, which is superb.

NARRATOR: Now certain that the volcano did in fact caused the tsunami, the men can begin to calculate exactly how massive the wave had been. Their reference point for destructive power is the 2004 tsunami.

COSTAS SYNOLAKIS: We’ve created a monster.

NARRATOR: From his survey measurements, Costas maps the wave’s assault on the surrounding landmasses. Red and green peaks show the height of the water.

COSTAS SYNOLAKIS: The size of the wave here, just to give you a comparison is equivalent to what, to what the wave looked like off Sri Lanka and off Thailand and you know how many people died in Thailand? How many people died in Sri Lanka, I mean through, in Thailand we, you know 20 meters it’s the same size wave right here.

HENDRIK BRUINS: 20 meters?

NARRATOR: The initial wave was huge, but even more disturbing; the simulation shows it was followed by others…

COSTAS SYNOLAKIS: It’s having a party.

NARRATOR: When the caldera collapsed, it pushed several walls of water into the sea — like a pebble dropping into a pond.

The water ricocheted around the Aegean islands in a deadly game of tsunami pinball.

As volcanic ash darkened the sky, the Minoans were hit by wave after wave.

HENDRIK, SANDY & COSTAS: H: It’s coming in. It’s coming in. Now? Yes.
S: What are the intervals between…
C: Well let’s…
S: …these, with this wave trapping…
C: Let’s, let’s, let’s have a look how.
S: …what are the intervals in between?
C: Let’s have a look how – this is about 33 minutes and now we have – and now you have the second one and that’s at 46 minutes and then you have another wave in about half an hour later, which is not as big, but I mean it has to be terrifying because by that time everything, I mean the people have run away, maybe some people are coming back to help, you know the wounded and try to find, you know family members, and then this you know other wave comes in and sort of finishes the job.
S: This is horrifying. It’s absolutely horrifying.

NARRATOR: Over 25 years, Sandy has grown to respect and admire the Minoans. Now he is forced to truly contemplate how many of them died.

SANDY MCGILLIVRAY: My reaction to seeing that model was a bit like seeing, watching 9/11. I just, I hate disasters. It’s like you spend a lot of time looking for something and then when you find it you wish you hadn’t. Because it becomes too real and you can, you know you begin to feel the experience. This is life, this is people just being washed out to sea, bashed around, knocked against walls ships coming ashore you know there’s a whole instant that flashes through your head.

COSTAS SYNOLAKIS: A striking observation that I’ve made just talking to people, you know all over the world? Tsunami, whether it is you know Nicaragua, or whether it is Sri Lanka or whether you know it is in the Philippines, they tell you about the noise. Tsunami comes in and they tell you that it sounds like some people say like falling rain, other tell you it’s like an airplane landing. This impression, I mean, this what you hear time and time again, irrespective of where you are the feeling is that this is the end of the world. Once a tsunami starts climbing up on dry land, it’s moving at a speed of anywhere between 10 to 20 miles per hour. It’s almost like being in a 20,000 mile per hour wind. Nothing can stop it. It’s not even a question of being scared. The moment that, that you see the tsunami most people freeze. I’m trying to think how would a Minoan have reacted to this phenomenon which is, I mean these people love the sea I mean they, they worshipped the sea and here is the sea that’s turning against them. Once they come up on the hill and they look back and they look at the destruction how can they ever go back and live in the same place, it’s probably cursed.

NARRATOR: There are no written records of the Theran tsunami. No figures for the death and destruction it caused. But the 2004 tsunami can give us some idea of its devastating impact.

SANDY MCGILLIVRAY: The Minoans are so confident in their navy that they’re living in unprotected cities all along the coastline. These were the major population centers. That’s where people are living. Now you go to Bande Aceh and you find that the mortality rate is 80%. If we’re looking at a similar mortality rate in Crete – that’s the end of the Minoans.

NARRATOR: The tsunami destroyed all the major Minoan towns. Their great civilization was brought to its knees. Never again would these enigmatic people dominate the Mediterranean.

Archaeologists are only now beginning to understand what happened in the decades that followed. One of the most remarkable clues is a small statue that was found in Palaikastro. It was discovered in an archaeological layer deposited a hundred years after the disaster.

SANDY MCGILLIVRAY: He’s made of ivory tusks, gold, he has a serpentinite head and he is one of the great masterpieces of Minoan art. His cuticles are even carved. He is given pulsating veins. The sculptor wanted him to be alive.

NARRATOR: The attention to detail was astounding, and the statue was magnificent by any standards. But it was in terrible condition when it was found.

It had been badly charred, shattered, and scattered around the building that housed it—both inside and out.

JAN DRIESSEN: This was a valuable piece, anybody who had this in his possession would have been rich, but they did not care they wanted to destroy this statue. Somebody picked up the statue from is base and brought it outside. They took the statue and smashed the face into probably this side of the wall and made the stone head fall and have the torso and the arms dropped in front of the shrine and threw the legs in the burning house.

NARRATOR: This was more than a random act of vandalism. It was ritualized violence against a powerful symbol of Minoan culture.

JAN DRIESSEN: They really went for the face and so we see it in all kinds of civilizations, Egyptian or Roman, when they go for the face, there is something symbolic involved, they wanted to destroy everything this statue stood for.

NARRATOR: Additional signs of such deliberate destruction have been found in other places on the island.

At Chanea in western Crete, an excavation at the heart of the modern town has revealed evidence of ancient arson.

MARIA VLASAKI: These are the stones that are in such a condition because of the strong fire.

NARRATOR: The hallmarks of fire are clear, but the cause of the blazes is still being debated. Are these signs of internal strife, or external enemy invasion?

Archaeologist Maria Vlasaki believes the answer lies in an unusual cemetery in Chanea. The bodies have been dated to the period of widespread unrest in the Minoan world.

MARIA VLASAKI: These are warrior graves. There are single burials something that is in opposition with the traditional Cretan Minoan customs. They have the age of between 24 to 30, they are tall, robust, they look to be invaders.

NARRATOR: Similar bodies have been found near Knossos as well. Their weapons were not Minoan—they resembled those used by the ancient Peloponnese Greeks.

MARIA VLASAKI: They have a lot of weapons, long swords like the ones that are at Knossos and in Peloponnese.

NARRATOR: The invaders from the Greek mainland slashed and burned their way across Crete, overwhelming the weakened Minoans.

Sandy McGillivray believes the tsunami not only left the Minoans ripe for an attack, it gave the Greeks an important military advantage.

SANDY MCGILLIVRAY: Their traditional homeland is on the southern shores of the gulf of Corinth. Tsunamis can not get into the gulf of Corinth, to get into there you have to go all the way around to the west through a little narrow opening, so the Mycenaean Greeks up there are probably the only people left, maybe even in the eastern Mediterranean with a navy, this is power.

NARRATOR: Within a generation of their arrival, the Greeks had completely conquered Crete. The last embers of Minoan culture flickered out.

At long last, the story of the Minoan disappearance has been unearthed. Five thousand years after it hit, an epic natural disaster can be blamed for their collapse.

SANDY MCGILLIVRAY: This is a major discovery now because what it’s doing it is allowing us to rewrite a new chapter in Minoan archaeology in the history of the Minoans.

COSTAS SYNOLAKIS: This is absolutely exciting, I mean it’s just, even in my wildest dreams when I started becoming thinking of becoming a scientist did I ever think that I would be working on understanding the demise of the Minoans and what happened back then in the 2nd millennium BC.

NARRATOR: A wave that washed away an empire is strikingly reminiscent of a mystical city that sank beneath the waves. And though we may never know for sure if Crete was Atlantis, we at least have an explanation for the downfall of Europe’s first great civilization.