Apocalypse: Earthquakes, Archaeology and the Wrath of God

July 17, 2008

Fifty years ago, the seismologist Charles Richter - he of the famous scale - lamented that "ancient accounts of earthquakes do not help us much; they are incomplete, and accuracy is usually sacrificed to make the most of a good story".

Today, many seismologists still share that sentiment - and consequently the study of ancient earthquakes languishes at the margins of modern earthquake science. Amos Nur, however, would not.

Nur, a professor of earthquake science at Stanford University, is one of the leading advocates of archaeoseismology, a research field that studies past earthquake traces in the wreckage of ancient cultural remains. Although archaeological interest in earthquakes goes back easily a century or more, seismological interest in the cultural record of antiquity is barely a few decades old, and in effect Apocalypse, co-written with science writer Dawn Burgess, is Nur's attempt to present the fresh-faced discipline of earthquake archaeology to a wider public audience.

In a whistlestop tour of the earthquake-prone territories of the Mediterranean and the Middle East, Nur argues that the telltale signs of seismic destruction can frequently be found in the excavated ruins of antiquity. But amid the flurry of fallen columns and entombed earthquake victims, there is little time to dwell on the generally equivocal nature of the archaeoseismological evidence at individual sites.

Many earthquake scientists are less bullish than Nur about the value of the archaeological record; destruction layers and broken constructions of fallen cities are notoriously difficult (some would say impossible) to attribute unambiguously to shakes and quakes. Set alongside the unverifiable testimony of ancient chroniclers, our cultural legacy of past earthquakes seems destined to be forever questionable.

Nur acknowledges that seismic shocks can never be proven to have effected the abandonment or destruction of ancient cities, but he nevertheless argues that, from biblical times to the dawn of the 18th-century Enlightenment, earthquakes have been a potent trigger for societal change.

His main evidence comes from the Holy Lands, a corridor of persistent political and military upheaval that lies along one of the planet's great seismic fault lines. From trumpets and toppling walls at Jericho to the caves at Qumran that yielded the Dead Sea Scrolls, a wonderful tale emerges of seismic culpability. It is a tale that ends in a powerful and controversial climax: that earthquakes are implicated in the abrupt collapse of the glorious Bronze Age world of the Eastern Mediterranean.

The abrupt demise of the leading city-states of Greece, Asia Minor and the Levant between 1225BC and 1175BC is a fundamental hiatus in human history. Quite how far-flung cities such as Troy, Mycenae, Knossos and Ugarit fell in unison remains one of the enduring mysteries of Mediterranean archaeology and one for which there is no shortage of culprits.

Everything from climatic downturns to changes in the nature of warfare has been proposed, but archaeologists and historians have converged on the idea of seafaring marauders who rampaged through the region in half a century of wanton pillage. Where these so-called Sea Peoples came from and where they scattered to after their unsuccessful assault on Egypt remains unclear. In drawing attention to the opaqueness of the prevailing notion of a wave of human destruction, Nur offers an alternative: a storm of seismic destruction.

The idea that the Mediterranean Dark Ages were ushered in on the back of a great seismic catastrophe is not new. In the 1940s, the archaeologist Claude Schaeffer, fresh from his excavations at Ugarit, mused that the earthquake belts of the region offered the means of calamitous and contemporaneous destruction. He was promptly laughed out of archaeological court, an embarrassment that Nur alleges has rankled with archaeologists ever since.

In Apocalypse, Schaeffer's heretical thoughts are resurrected by modern earthquake science, which accepts that fault lines can unzip themselves by one earthquake triggering another in a tectonic version of toppling dominoes. Over the past 60 years, for example, a major fault line in northern Turkey has seen lethal earthquakes lurch successively westwards until, in 1999, they reached the walls of Istanbul. For Nur, the end of the Bronze Age could have witnessed the same chain reaction being played out not along an individual fault line, but across the network of fault lines that carve up the eastern Mediterranean.

As Charles Richter might have observed, it's a good story. Earthquake pinball on such an unprecedented scale is so speculative that seismologists and archaeologists alike have given Nur's hypothesis a cool reception. In accepting that his theory is near impossible to prove, Nur offers the plea that the main intention of the book is not to convince archaeologists that the end of the Bronze Age was the direct result of seismic contagion, but instead to show them that earthquakes are endemic to the Mediterranean and, consequently, a legitimate cause of destruction at ancient sites. After all, denying earthquakes their place in the cultural history of a site feeds present-day ignorance of future seismic threats.

Perhaps here Nur is on more solid ground. After all, archaeoseismology need not limit itself simply to chronicling past seismic events in a kind of seismic stamp collecting. Instead, it has the potential to bring seismologists and archaeologists together in examining the earthquake culture of a region.

By highlighting how their ancient ancestors coped with earthquakes, archaeoseismological studies could play an important role in fostering better earthquake preparedness in local communities that are presently at risk. In this wider context, maybe a good story is good enough.

Apocalypse: Earthquakes, Archaeology and the Wrath of God

By Amos Nur, with Dawn Burgess
Princeton University Press
324pp
£15.95
ISBN 9780691016023
Published 1 May 2008

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