Fire in the Sea: The Santorini Volcano:
Natural History and the Legend of Atlantis

Walter L Friedrich

translated from the German by Alexander R McBirney
Cambridge University Press 2000
A book review by Danny Yee © 2000
Fire in the Sea is a geological history of Santorini (Thera), a volcanic island in the Aegean that exploded in the middle of the second millennium BC and is a likely source for the legend of Atlantis. It is written for a general audience, but provides enough detail and references to keep the geologists happy (Friedrich is one himself).

Santorini is part of the Aegean volcanic island arc produced by the collision of the African and European plates. It has been built by volcanic activity over the last two million years, the history of which can be traced in the island's rocks and fossils. Friedrich's outline of this includes brief introductions to plate tectonics, igneous geology, and stratigraphy.

The Minoan eruption left clear traces over a wide area and can be dated using a variety of methods — archaeology, Greenland ice-cores, radiocarbon dating, dendrochronology — giving a date of 1645 BC, to within five or ten years. The first (plinian) phase of its eruption threw a plume almost forty kilometres up, into the stratosphere. The second phase involved phreatomagmatic reactions (from the contact of sea-water and magma) and produced more horizontal waves of ash and pumice (with wavelengths up to ten metres, still visible in deposits) and volcanic "bombs", room-sized blocks of lava torn from the edges of the vent. The third phase involved similarly horizontal flows of ash and hot gas, depositing pumice containing lime (from shallow marine deposits) and other non-volcanic rocks exposed by the collapse of the magma chamber. Accounts of the explosions of Krakatau (1883) and Tambora (1815) help to give a feel for this eruption and its effects.

Archaeological discoveries since 1866 have uncovered a "Bronze Age Pompeii" on Santorini. They also allow reconstruction of the island's Bronze Age flora and fauna, which are clues to its structure and form immediately before the explosion. Friedrich presents some clever "detective work" to show that a caldera must have existed before the explosion. And he goes on to explore the possible connection of Santorini with the legend of Atlantis. (The focus of Fire in the Sea stays rather closely on the geology, with the archaeological and literary evidence used to reconstruct the geological history of the island rather than the way of life of its inhabitants. There is no attempt to paint a broader picture of Minoan or Cycladean or Mycenean history and culture: Friedrich only touches, for example, on such questions as whether the Thera explosion could have caused the destruction at Knossos and whether the Egyptian Keftiu was Crete.)

Santorini has not been dormant since the Minoan eruption. Volcanic explosions and activity in 197 BC, 46 AD, 726, 1710, 1866, and on three occasions in the 20th century have steadily grown the island of Nea Kameni in the middle of the caldera, which is filling. Among the threats facing the modern inhabitants of the island — and the huge numbers of summer tourists — are earthquakes, tsunamis, lava flows and ash-falls, floating pumice, landslides, and volcanic gases.

Fire in the Sea is lavishly, almost extravagantly, provided with colour photographs of island landscapes, rocks and rock formations, and archaeological artefacts. It also has an extensive assortment of maps and diagrams, lacking only a reference map of the modern island showing all the place names. Appendices contain the relevant portions of Plato's Timaeus and Critias (the sources of the Atlantis legend) and complete lists of known island fossils and flora.

November 2000

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Related reviews:
- Fire and Ice: The Volcanoes of the Solar System
- more German literature
- more archaeology
- more geology
- books published by Cambridge University Press
%T Fire in the Sea: The Santorini Volcano
%S Natural History and the Legend of Atlantis
%A Friedrich, Walter L
%M German
%F McBirney, Alexander R
%I Cambridge University Press
%D 2000
%O hardcover, quarto, colour photographs, bibliography, index
%G ISBN 0521652901
%P xiv,258pp