by Keene Short
“More images of children and adolescents have been found at Akrotiri than any other Aegean site. Many seem engaged in ritual activities, perhaps of initiation.” -Anne E. Chapin, “Frescoes” (Oxford Handbook of the Bronze Age Aegean).
All the characters in this story are dead. The setting, too, is dead. The plot, as far as we know died thousands of years ago. This story is untellable. Here’s how it starts:
The setting was a small settlement called Akrotiri on the island of Thera in the Aegean Sea. Minoans from Crete founded it. Think colonization on a small scale. Think transplanted Minoan culture (also dead) onto Thera (now Santorini) and five hundred years at least of creolization recorded in burials, frescoes, wall paintings, pottery, jewelry, abstract diffuse bull religion. Think Atlantis amid a constellation of Atlantises.
Familiar as the ghosts are, they speak very little. We can only hear them if we listen, and much of their story is lost in translation.
A pack of children migrated through the town. They ranged in age, some well into their teens before the duties of manhood and womanhood in the ancient world took hold of them. A herd of girls and boys gathered on the last day before the world ended to laugh, to explore. Barefoot, they padded their way down a dirt road between houses. Some of those houses survived. Some of the art they gazed at persists. A college of teenagers scurried beneath the cloud of five hundred years of Minoan cultivation. Adults around them fished, hunted, cooked, ate. They made art. They made fresco after fresco, and the children watched, or meandered away from the duties of emerging civilian consciousness. They congregated on the beach, away from the civilization’s inherited sighthood, the clay-borne mechanized observations of the powerful. Children must have resisted that observation. We know so little of this village buried in a noxious tonnage of pumice after a pre-eruption earthquake toppled a handful of households, after minerals took to the air and ended Akrotiri forever, spewing ash all the way to China, snapping fast into tree rings, deconstructing Europe’s climate, prophesying ruminations of doom in Egypt. One four-phased volcanic dance, and every child in Akrotiri stopped playing in what childhood there was to be had in the ancient world.
What did a crush look like in Greece in the 1600s BCE? What did it mean to turn to somebody as the mountain deity exhausted internal planetary combustion over the only world you’ve known and want to hold that stranger’s hand as oblivion expanded like lungs above you?
Surely, as the volcano erupted, there must have been a kiss. The gods, in their betrayal, could not take even that much away from the Minoans. The anatomical precision in their frescoes says it all. They observed the body. They honored the body. The body, in the quaking calamity of a volcanic eruption, must have been the only safe haven in those few remaining moments as lightning formed in the ash clouds.
Surely the pack of Akrotiri’s youth could not have died in absolute misery, not when they could sew each other together into a single togetherness. Some of the older among them, dashing away to the water, must have wanted to kiss before hell collapsed onto them. Or maybe they hid out in the houses, beneath the frescoes of their ancestors. Somewhere in the village, an infant was crying. Somewhere in the settlement, an argument between two bronze merchants was cut short, and two bearded men shook hands, looked each other in the eye before panicking, and made up. That way, they both knew, they could panic in the company of a friend.
The landed elites in their palace must have looked at the jewelry they’d harvested from the people’s hands, gems from across the Mediterranean, gold from Africa, amber from Scandinavia, artwork from Anatolia, Minoan, Mycenaean, Egyptian, a cosmopolitan library of precious goods, and the prince stood in front of it next to his window as the sky unfolded in tumultuous black, cyst orange, insurmountable grey. Did he turn to his wife and wonder if he’d been petty? Did he wonder where his child was then, or had his offspring run off long before the eruption, away from the imposing fatherhood of Akrotiri?
The prince in his palace looked at his wealth, turned to his partner with a tear in his eye, and wondered if he would be allowed to take his wealth with him to the afterlife, assuming the Minoans of Akrotiri believed in such a thing.
But we do. We know of an afterlife of things we now possess. It’s not people that wander into the afterlife, judged upon entry for their behavior. It’s their property that possesses an immortal soul. We are the ones with the power to judge, we who look at their frescoes and point at them with question marks dripping from our tongues. We don’t know them; the dead can barely speak. We don’t know if they beat each other for homosexuality, if they ostracized each other for the transgression of religious skepticism, but we know that despite their efforts to produce a larger and larger generation every coming-of-age, Thera prevented the people of Akrotiri from ever having descendants.
Upon Thera’s eruption, all the pregnant women died with a future inside them. All the elites died in a pile of social capital, and all the children died, we would like to think, in the wisdom that the afterlife of things is not ruled by the haughty, but the curious.
What did it mean to fall in love just before the stillborn death of history? What did it mean to communicate affection with what constituted written language in Minoan settlements, to hold onto a body next to the salty organ rhythm of the sea, and watch horror-struck as ash layers rained down, melting flesh, melting life, dissolving the simplicity of an ocean-locked civilization importing its reality from the rest of the Bronze Age? There were teenagers in Akrotiri, learning trades, becoming sensory equations but busy acquainting themselves with a cosmos that so easily and brutally stopped them.
Every single body on Akrotiri felt the weight of boiling pumice, birth-hot falling ash, steaming rocks, the whole of the Earth’s cosmetic fragmentation, and everything stopped. Kisses, meals, funerals, dances, teaching lessons, cancers, eye contact, abuse, intercourse, the intermingling of fingers, the contact of hair, the discovery of bleeding, the invention of a poem, the ingenuity of togetherness, the spontaneous burst of gratitude. All of it just stopped. One moment there was language and art. The next, ash. Piles of ash. An endlessness of ash. And beneath the ash, the remains of children in the shock of annihilation.
They must have known what was to come next. Or maybe they were undistracted by the immortality of property and more preoccupied by the fleeting buoyancy of intimacy. We have their things. A universe of materiality survived, a society of art and walls and pots. Now, in the afterlife, we can interrogate the evidence of their lives. How shall we pass judgment?
Keene Short is a writer, photographer, and MA student in English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Previously he studied English and History at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Arizona, where he grew up communing with squirrels in the woods. He blogs at https://jkeeneshort.wordpress.com.