The birth of the Aegean
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June Samaras
2014-09-16 02:06:42 UTC

*The birth of the Aegean*

Exhibition at the Eugenides Foundation maps the geological history of
Greece's biggest sea

By Christina Sanoudou

The Aegean Sea has a tumultuous history. Long before it became the subject
of disputed claims and diplomatic tensions, it was rocked by volcanic
eruptions, earthquakes, violent weather phenomena and many more dramatic
events. The history of how its distinctive archipelago was formed over the
course of 20 million-plus years, and how the islands became the cradles of
culture and in many cases the fields of great battles, is the subject of an
exhibition at the Eugenides Foundation in the southern Athenian suburb of
Palaio Faliro.

An initiative of the Natural History Museum of the Lesvos Petrified Forest,
this original exhibition, titled “Aegean – Creation of an Archipelago,” is
taking place in cooperation with the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki’s
Geology and Paleontology Museum and the University of Crete’s Natural
History Museum. It has already been shown at the Noesis Science Center and
Technology Museum in Thessaloniki and will remain on display in Athens – in
an enriched version – through October, before continuing to other venues in
Greece and abroad.

Accustomed to measuring time in eras, centuries and, at best, millennia –
when, for example, referring to archaeological discoveries or historical
events – we tend to regard the Earth’s landscapes as being relatively
stable, a set for the rise and demise of human civilizations that leave a
trace yet lack the power to bring about radical changes. Rivers and marshes
are drained, canals forged, forests destroyed and mountains quarried, but
the mountain ranges themselves, the islands and the seas are seen as
constants, maintaining a sense of the historical continuity of mankind
through the passage of time. This sense of permanence is challenged by the
“Aegean” exhibition, which illustrates that everything we take for granted
had a beginning and, inevitably, an end, shaped by unstoppable geological

Fossils of flora and fauna, recent findings from underwater research,
traces of the predecessors of modern man, impressive videos and panoramic
photographs of island clusters tell the story of Aegeis, a vast landmass
that emerged from the Tethys Ocean, covering the area from the modern-day
Ionian Sea to Asia Minor. The Mediterranean Sea as we know it today was
also once a part of the Tethys, though for several hundred thousand years
the entire basin was an arid desert, which was eventually flooded with
water from the Atlantic. Gradually, as a result of tectonic shifts and
ruptures, the landmass of Aegeis fragmented and a large part of it was
submerged beneath the waves again. This is how the Aegean islands were
formed, along with the geological monuments attesting to these changes,
such as the Petrified Forest on Lesvos, which was formed 18 million years
ago and preserved under a layer of volcanic matter. Though the Eugenides
Foundation exhibition mainly focuses on the developments of the past 20
million years, some of the events described date back 150 million years or

A 14-meter petrified trunk of a subtropical forest tree resembling the
sequoia and which covered Lesvos some 18 million years ago is perhaps the
most impressive display in the exhibition, which also includes unique items
such as petrified shells from the Tethys Ocean as well as two fragments of
volcanic debris containing petrified leaves: The oldest of these is around
20 million years old and was discovered in Sigri on Lesvos, while the other
is an olive leaf from Santorini, which is much younger at 60,000 years.

According to the director of the Lesvos Petrified Forest Museum and
associate professor at the University of the Aegean Nikos Zouros, the
petrified tree trunks do not just come from land excavations, but also from
underwater research that is currently being conducted off Lesvos’s western

At the Eugenides Foundation, the “Aegean” exhibition is split into three
sections. The first goes back to the beginning, telling the story of how
Aegeis emerged from the Tethys and eventually broke up to become the
Aegean, explains Zouros. Intense volcanic activity in the region and how
this shaped the archipelago through the eons is the subject of the second
section, which explains how the still-active volcanoes of Santorini,
Nisyros, Methana and Sousaki in Corinthia, which form the Aegean Volcanic
Arc, helped shape islands such as Milos, Lemnos, Santorini, Kimolos and
Samothraki. The third section explores ecosystems in the region by
explaining the evolution of its biodiversity through displays of primal
flora and fauna – such as a short-necked giraffe from Chios, a dwarf
elephant from Tilos and an early antelope from Samos. The predecessors of
modern man are also present in this section in the form of plaster casts of
three humanoid skulls.

Geological activity was not only responsible for geographically shaping the
Aegean archipelago as it is today; it also played a key role in the
evolution of civilizations by revealing an abundance of mineral wealth,
such as obsidian on Milos and copper on Kythnos and Serifos. Furthermore,
for many thousands of years, natural phenomena and disasters gave rise to
the creation of myths, artwork and metaphysical theories as imagination
stepped in where knowledge proved insufficient.

The exhibition is suitable for adults and children alike, offering two
separate approaches: The first focuses on the tangible exhibits and the
rich audiovisual material available, while the other is more profound,
focusing on the Aegean’s geological history, with texts and a 15-minute
informative video.

Zouros advises visitors to set aside at least an hour to take in the whole
display and explains that the exhibition – which is the first ever to
explore the beginnings of the Aegean – took two years to put together after
a more ambitious plan for a show on the birth of the entire Eastern
Mediterranean had to be scrapped due to financial constraints.


“Aegean: Creation of an Archipelago” will remain on display through October
23. Admission is free of charge on a first-come, first-served basis.
Opening hours are Wednesdays-Fridays 5-8 p.m. and Sundays 10 a.m. - 8 p.m.
More information is available at www.aegeon.org.gr/xoros_en.htm. Eugenides
Foundation, 387 Syngrou, Palaio Faliro (entrance from 11 Pendelis), tel
ekathimerini.com <http://www.ekathimerini.com/> , Friday September 12, 2014
June Samaras
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Tel : 905-542-1877
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