A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

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Books Volume 61 Number 4, July/August 2008

The Wrath of Earthquakes
by Lois Wingerson
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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.

Editors' Picks

Look Close See Far: A Cultural Portrait of the Maya
Photographs by Bruce Martin (George Braziller, Inc., $34.95)

Martin reveals the beauty of Maya culture both modern and ancient in more than 100 black-and-white photographs accompanied by commentary from prominent scholars.

The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World
by David W. Anthony (Princeton, $35.00)

Half the world speaks languages derived from a long-dead tongue scholars have named "Indo-European," but the identity of the people who first spoke the language has been among prehistory's most persistent mysteries. Anthony argues that Eurasian horse nomads spread the language and the seeds of modern culture from their birthplace on the steppes.

Prehistory: The Making of the Human Mind
by Colin Renfrew (Random House, $23.00)

From radiocarbon to DNA, Renfrew looks at modern science and ancient fossils to unravel the formation of the human mind. Using his own research, he places the mind's development within the context of prehistoric culture.

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