A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Untold millions of tourists have visited the Colosseum in Rome, and seen that half of its exterior has fallen away like a peeled orange. Probably very few stop to wonder how it got to be that way.
The most likely explanation, asserts geophysicist Amos Nur in his book Apocalypse: Earthquakes, Archaeology, and the Wrath of God (Princeton University Press, $26.95) is that the ancient underground riverbed weakened the foundations, making the southern wall vulnerable to earthquakes.
All too often, writes Nur, where an ancient structure toppled to rubble, archaeologists invoke battles while the evidence suggests earthquakes. Because of a "widespread bias" dating to before the era of modern seismic science, archaeologists have often dismissed the role of earthquakes in ancient destruction.
Apocalypse is a plea for archaeologists to give more credence to the likelihood of earthquakes whenever they encounter crushed skeletons, or walls or columns that have toppled in one direction. Nur's agenda is aimed at archaeologists, but the rest of us can read Apocalypse as a tour of ancient disasters, most of them in the Middle East--from the fallen statue of Ramesses II that Shelley called "Ozymandias" to the walls of Jericho.
Nur begins and ends Apocalypse by objecting to a comment from ARCHAEOLOGY editor Mark Rose that he provide proof for his theory that a "storm" of severe earthquakes in the Mediterranean led to the cataclysmic end of the Bronze Age. He writes with particular contempt about a competing theory that holds the so-called "Sea Peoples" destroyed city after city in the Bronze Age Mediterranean, without leaving a trace of themselves behind.
But ultimately Nur appears to concede that he can't prove his theory: because both archaeology and seismology are retrospective sciences, there is no way to resolve by scientific experiment whether any particular catastrophic destruction was the result of warlike humans or seismic activity.
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