A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
The 60-year-old volcanologist Haraldur Sigurdsson has spent his life picking through the stones spewed by volcanoes, discovering facts about the earth's workings, and revealing clues to human history hidden in ash. His findings have changed our ideas about Minoan Crete, Herculaneum, and Pompeii, and his research into the climatic impact of eruptions has helped archaeologists gain insight into the distant past. "He studies volcanoes with a really broad brush, and that's useful for us," says archaeologist Payson Sheets of the University of Colorado at Boulder. Sheets is excavating an ash-buried settlement in El Salvador and has been researching volcanic impacts on Mesoamerican societies for more than two decades. "So much of his work has a human dimension to it, what happens to people and how volcanoes affect human society."
In his new book, Melting the Earth: The History of Ideas on Volcanic Eruptions, Sigurdsson describes how our bias for the new blinds researchers to the discoveries of the past. "Generally people are only really interested in the most recent works. They only cite the most recent references on a given topic, so the guy who made the original breakthrough is often forgotten."
Archaeologists, too, sometimes have their own blinders, says Sigurdsson, noting that "[Classical] archaeologists have, until recently, been professionally trained as art historians. They are archaeologists, but their main motivation is to contribute to an understanding of art history." In the case of Pompeii and Herculaneum, the eruption that covered the site was "kind of secondary, and certainly the material that enclosed the site was just in the way." This focus on the cultural import of the artifact, the message inherent in its form rather than the tale of the process that entombed it, meant that archaeologists often did not recognize or care to recognize external forces that changed the society. "That's the fundamental division or schism between archaeology and volcanology, the approach to the study of sites of this type," says Sigurdsson. "That's changing, of course."
Tom Gidwitz is a freelance writer specializing in the earth sciences. His book Story in the Stone will be published this fall by Steck-Vaughn Publishing Company.