A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Tired of needlessly complicated multi-causal explanations for why this civilization collapsed or that city was destroyed? How about a catastrophe?
Catastrophes seem to be the rage. Aimed at general audiences, books with titles like Floods, Famines and Emperors; Noah's Flood; and Exodus to Arthur are flying off the presses. For those with a need for fewer pictures and more footnotes, there's Natural Catastrophes During Bronze Age Civilisations. To understand this neo-Catastrophism, one must go back to the belief, widely held through the mid-nineteenth century, that the earth changed through sudden, catastrophic, worldwide events. This meshed well with the biblical flood: dinosaur bones were the remains of giants or animals that missed the Ark and shells found far inland were carried there by the flood. But it wasn't just Noah's flood, "Men of letters invoked catastrophes of all sorts to explain observations that did not fit the biblical model. Volcanic eruptions and earthquakes, such as those described by Plato in his story of Atlantis, were almost as popular as the flood among people who sought to account for strange observations. According to these accounts, earthquakes created river gorges and threw up entire mountain ranges in sudden volcanic convulsions. Even as late as the mid-twentieth century, some people postulated the earth's capture of comets to explain such phenomena as high old beach lines. This outlook on how the world evolved is called catastrophism." (Hayden 1993)
The Scottish geologists James Hutton (1726-1797) and Charles Lyell (1797-1875) formulated another explanation of how things change: the theory of uniformitarianism, which states that past events must be explicable by the same processes at work today. "The present" said Hutton, "is the key to the past." Catastrophism didn't disappear with the introduction of uniformitarianism (or gradualism, as some refer to it) and the realization that people had existed before 4004 B.C., the biblical-genealogy based chronology of the world, and in fact before the Ice Age. It continued for another century or so, and some of its most colorful characters and ideas belong to this period: Ignatius Donnelly, author of Atlantis the Antediluvian World (1882) and Ragnarok: The Age of Fire and Gravel (1883), which concerns a comet that Donnelly claimed had hit the earth, and Madame Helena Blavatsky, who came up with Lemuria, a Pacific counterpart for Atlantis, in her volume The Secret Doctrine: The Synthesis of Science, Religion, and Philosophy (1883). Gradually, as archaeology became a profession and the pretenders were exposed, catastrophism as an explanation for past events went out of vogue, being left to cranks and fringe authors. The last endorsement of catastrophe by a serious archaeologist was that of Leonard Woolley. Beneath the Ur's Royal Cemetery, but above the deepest levels with cultural materials, Woolley found ten feet of silt devoid of artifacts. His interpretation of this as a flood deposit in Ur of the Chaldees (1929) was accepted for several decades, but excavations at nearby sites revealed no such level--Woolley's flood was a local, not a universal, one.
So why, decades later, is there a sudden return to catastrophism? I can think of four reasons that scholars and the public are getting hooked on disasters:
1. People may genuinely be tired of complicated explanations. What caused the Classic Maya collapse? A social implosion of a top-heavy hierarchy? Deforestation? Drought? Soil depletion? Endemic internecine warfare? Or was there no collapse after all and we just misread the evidence? Not very satisfying answers if you're looking for something simple and straightforward.
2. Media have made recent disasters an "in your face" experience, from Mount St. Helens, to earthquakes in Turkey and Athens and Taiwan, to collapsed freeways in California, to hurricanes in Central America and the eastern seaboard of the U.S.
3. Evidence that catastrophes, like the impact supposed to have wiped out the dinosaurs, have happened in the past. This--and the extraordinary images of comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 hitting the surface of Jupiter--has also inspired Hollywood disasters like Armageddon with Bruce Willis discovering an enormous asteroid hurtling toward earth and undertaking a do-or-die shuttle mission to stop it; Deep Impact with Morgan Freeman preparing for an "Extinction Level Event" sure to be caused by an approaching enormous comet; and Volcano, pitting Tommy Lee Jones against lava pouring down Wilshire Boulevard from the La Brea Tar Pits.
4. End of the millennium angst.
I am also reminded of 1998s Godzilla, the twenty-third movie featuring the scaly green monster. Perhaps some of the reasons catastrophes seem so appealing now are similar to reasons Godzilla was created and became popular during the 1950s. The basic story is that an atomic bomb test on remote Lagos Island in the South Pacific awakens and mutates a dinosaur survivor into Godzilla (in one film he is identified as being in the Godzillasaurus family--this is taxonomically incorrect, however, since the proper family designation would be Godzillasauridae and Godzillasaurus would be the genus). The 1954 Japanese release Gojira became (with the insertion of clips with Raymond Burr as journalist Steve Martin) Godzilla, King of the Monsters (1956). "The finished film became not only a great epic of monster mayhem, but a reflection of the humiliation bred by Japan's aggression in WWII and subsequent defeat. Godzilla himself became an embodiment of the nightmare of atomic destruction, fresh from the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In the end, the monster is destroyed through the mortal sacrifice of a pacifist scientist" (Video Hound's Complete Guide to Cult Flicks and Trash Pics ).
Godzilla is a man-made catastrophe inspired by the horrors of WWII and the atomic bomb; an expression of immense natural force or personification of natural power--nature's atomic bomb. So how does this relate to archaeology and the current vogue for catastrophism? Let's turn to Immanuel Velikovsky and his book Worlds in Collision (New York, 1950).
But I think what is important to note is the war imagery that permeates the book, and the link between it and global catastrophe. Again, Velikovsky: "The years when Ages in Chaos and Worlds in Collision were written were years of a world catastrophe created by man--of war that was fought on land, on sea, and in the air. During that time man learned how to take apart a few of the bricks of which the universe is built--the atoms of uranium. If one day he should solve the problem of the fission and fusion of which the crust of the earth or its water and air are composed, he may perchance, by initiating a chain reaction, take this planet out of the struggle for survival among the members of the celestial sphere."
It was the end of the Second World War. Millions had died. The atomic bomb had been conceived, built, and used. And, silly as it seems, this was partly the inspiration of, and reflected in, both the Godzilla movie and Velikovsky book. Both seemed to seek a time or place when nature, not humanity was all powerful or all knowing. Both are tales of wonder--a giant lizard avenging nature, the heavens wreaking doom on Bronze Age and biblical kingdoms--and in that way are linked to the sunken continents--Ignatius Donnelly's Atlantis and Madame Blavatsky's Lemuria, lost worlds destroyed in earth-shaking cataclysms. Are some of today's catastrophists looking back at the end of the twentieth century at changed world and telling tales of wonder?
There is no doubt that catastrophes do happen and have happened in the past. There is evidence of them in the archaeological and geological records. There are accounts of them in ancient, and more recent, authors. Here are some of the known catastrophic events from the past, along with a few recent suggestions, by modern-day catastrophists, about ones that might have happened. For information about how disasters are measured and facts about the worst of them, click on Grim Statistics.
The Mediterranean has two of the most famous volcanic catastrophes from the past, the eruption of Santorini, tentatively dated at 1628 B.C. (though some dispute this), which buried the settlement at Akrotiri and preserved its magnificent frescoes, and the eruption of Vesuvius in A.D. 79, recorded by Pliny the Younger.
New World volcanoes, meanwhile, were not slacking off. Joya de Cerén, a settlement in the Zapotitan Valley of central El Salvador, was buried by 15 feet of ash sometime between A.D. 585 and 600. No bodies have been found at the site, suggesting the inhabitants had sufficient warning and were able to flee. It wasn't the first time the valley had been blanketed; in A.D. 175 Ilopango volcano, 25 miles east of Cerén, erupted, covering the area with three feet of acidic ash causing abandonment of the valley for two or three centuries.
Farther north, Popocatépetl, a 17,900-foot volcano near Mexico City, erupted about A.D. 80. Blanketing landscape with layers of pumice three to seven feet deep, a huge lava flow then descended over the southern part of the area burying any settlements under as much as 325 feet of solid rock. The eruptive column rose to a height of 15 to 18 miles before it collapsed. About A.D. 500 people reinhabited the area and farmed there until sometime between A.D. 700 and 850, when a second eruption dumped more pumice followed by pyroclastic surges--steam, gases, and volcanic material moving along the ground--and massive lahars, mudflows laced with volcanic debris, that flattened anything in their path. Not until century before the Spanish arrived was the area settled again. When they arrived, by the way, Popo was again erupting--we have Cortés' own description of it.
One man's catastrophe is, however, another man's victory. The late 1780s in Hawai'i were marked by the struggle for power between Kamehameha and Keoua. After an indecisive battle in 1790, a large group of Keoua's warriors were passing the crater of Kilauea when a sudden eruption of hot ash and gas killed at least 80 and perhaps hundreds of Keoua's followers. Kamehameha became king.
There's no doubt that earthquakes devastated more than one site in the ancient world. People flattened by a quake have been found at Kourion, Cyprus, and other sites. Then there's Phalasarna, Crete, a marvelous harbor from which pirates bedeviled the seas until the Roman fleet cleared them out. The pirates' days were numbered anyway; a massive earthquake lifted the entire harbor meters above sea level.
There's now evidence of a tragic earthquake from Dharih, Jordan, where a temple was struck down around the eighth century A.D., landing on a shed in which cows were penned. The cattle, and their dung, cushioned the building's fall and protecting its sculptures of Hermes, Pan, and the Dioscouroi depicted in a regional style. (See Cattle Save Sculpture ," March/April 1999.)
Stanford University's geophysicist Amos Nur is big on earthquakes, so big that he believes that the end of major Late Bronze civilizations in the eastern Mediterranean and a Near East was caused by a "storm" of them: "In conclusion, large earthquakes could have and probably did contribute to the physical and political collapse of the great population centres at the end of the Bronze Age. This probably happened by a storm of earthquakes that swept the eastern Mediterranean between 1225 B.C. to 1175 B.C. If true, these earthquakes physically damaged many of the urban centres involved. This damage rendered these centres militarily vulnerable or defenseless, thus inviting attacks not so much by powerful, distant, scheming Sea People, but by indigenous or neighbouring populations. These attacks led in turn to political and social collapse of the centres followed by a dark age of recovery and rebuilding lasting a few hundred years (and just in time for another earthquake storm)." (Nur 1998)
A 1993 study identifies 47 major sites from Greek mainland, Crete, Cyprus, Anatolia, and the Levant involved in catastrophe at end of Late Bronze Age, between 1225 and 1175 B.C. (Drews 1993). On this map Nur superimposes a map of magnitude 6.5 quakes from 1900 to 1980 and finds that many of the ancient sites were near fault zones or earthquake epicenters, not surprising since the region is laced with fault lines and plate boundaries: the Hellenic Trench subduction zone, a mash of faults in the Aegean and Greek mainland, North Anatolian Fault and East Anatolian Fault zones, and the Dead Sea Fault zone. What would be more remarkable would be finding an ancient site in the region not located near a fault. The North Anatolian Fault (NAF) is especially dangerous, and we have the ancient testimony of a quake at Nicomedia and the recent Izmit tragedy to prove it. Nur points to the NAF earthquake "storm," comparing the 30-year-span (from 1939 to 1967) to the 50-year Late Bronze Age collapse. Of course, with Izmit, we know now that this unzipping of the NAF is continuing today, so the time frame is more like 60 years. Such an east-west earthquake series in the Late Bronze Age could have done a number on sites from the Hittite capital, Bogazkoy, to Troy, but I wonder whether such a series of events over a half-century or more would bring everything in the ancient Near East tumbling down--Egypt and Babylonia might have welcomed disruption in the north, if it occurred, and flourished the more for it.
Huracán, was the West Indian god of storms. The name, along with the word barbecue, is part of our linguistic inheritance from the Precolumbian inhabitants of the Caribbean.
One of the most bizarre catastrophes in the ancient world was the fate of Tryphon of Apamaea's army in the second century B.C. (recorded in Athenaeus's Deipnosophists VIII.333). Tryphon's soldiers, having defeated the forces of Demetrius II Nicator, were marching along the coast near Ptolemais in Syria when a vast wave engulfed and drowned them. Demetrius' soldiers, who had retreated into the hills after their defeat, heard what had happened and marched to the site, where, doubly fortunate, they found their enemies' corpses and an abundance of fish, which they carried off. (This "hand of God" defeat of one's enemies also benefitted Hawai'i's King Kamehameha, though in that case a volcanic eruption was the agent.)
There are a number of craters left by catastrophic meteorite impacts, for example the three-quarter-mile-wide one in Arizona from about 50,000 years ago, but nothing that directly implicates them in obliterating a site or civilization (there is an old automobile on display at the Field Museum of Natural History along with a meteorite that hit it when it was parked in a garage). Catastrophists love to point out the damage that might have been caused if a fireball that exploded over an uninhabited forest area in eastern Siberia known as Tunguska on June 30, 1908, had hit elsewhere. The fireball--there's a debate whether it was cometary debris or a meteorite--is estimated to have had a force 15 times greater than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima and the blast flattened 2,000 km2 of forest.
Something like Tunguska is now being suggested for northern Syria at about 2200 B.C.--based on a dust and tephra layer found at Tell Leilan and elsewhere--by Marie-Agnès Courty of the French Institut National Agronomique. The layer was first thought to be volcanic fallout, but now the dust and tephra are said to include not just volcanic rock fragments, but also limestone and sandstone, and variety of spherules and vesicular glassy grains. Associated with it is black carbon, which is said to be too much to be from local fires. The mixed geological composition of the dust and tephra, plus the carbon, are claimed to be evidence of the explosion of an "extra-terrestrial projectile." But hold on! There may be no need to reach into space for a catastrophe. The volcano may have been thrown out prematurely. The final paragraph of Courty's 1998 paper on the subject reads: "Abundantly reported from past geological records, the presence of spherule-rich layers as possible diagnostic markers of extra-terrestrial impact has been fiercely debated, but it appears they are often associated with volcanic events. Therefore, unambiguous evidence, such as shocked quartz, the presence of tektites, an iridium anomaly, or the occurrence of silicon carbide and diamond are generally preferred to recognise impact-induced ejecta layers. None of these fingerprints has so far been retrieved from the 4 kyr. B.P. dust layer." So, some of the evidence may point to a volcanic eruption, while there is no evidence that unequivocally necessitates an extra-terrestrial cause for the dust and tephra layer. What about the carbon? I wonder about that and the recent realization by Mark Lehner that massive amounts of fuel, much probably in the form of charcoal, was consumed during Old Kingdom pyramid building projects. (See "Dating the Pyramids," September/October 1999.) Could something similar have been happening in northern Syria? Perhaps not for individual, huge projects but in aggregate could it be an alternative to Courty's suggestion that "the occurrence of multi-site ignition together with black carbon production resulting from extensive biomass burning, also reported to be caused by asteroid impacts, provides indirect evidence to support an extra-terrestrial hypothesis"?
What's Wrong With This Picture?
To say all Neo-catastrophism is cut from the same cloth-of-doom would be incorrect; some tries to be rigorous and serious, some is undoubtedly trendy, and some is a return to Velikovsky. At best it is an acknowledgement that catastrophes happen and that we shouldn't dismiss them out of hand as archaeological explanations. This is basically an attempt to place catastrophes within the uniformitarian system. The trick is doing that while not seeing catastrophes in every burnt level or fallen wall at a site. Sound criteria for identifying catastrophes in the archaeological record must be established (e.g. do you really have evidence of an extra-terrestrial object obliterating northern Syria around 2200 B.C.?). Ancient texts in particular are still used fast and free as the basis for (or confirmation of) this or that disaster. Sound criteria must also be established for assessing the effects of a catastrophe. This means looking at the impact of catastrophes on historical or modern cultures similar to those being studied archaeologically, the ethnoarchaeology of natural disasters. We can't simply go about making claims, dubious or well founded, that a disaster occurred and then have no serious explanation of the results. We can't say Godzilla stepped on Tikal causing the Classic Maya collapse nor can we simply substitute in this simplistic model any disaster, any important center or civilization, and any doom. Yet even the better work by neo-catastrophists tends to be strong on the catastrophe side and weak on the aftershocks. For example, it isn't enough to say that the North Anatolian Fault is dangerous and might have unzipped between 1225 and 1175--you need to prove that it did so at that time and, beyond, that, show how precisely it would have ended civilization as they knew it, from the immediate effects to ripples through political, economic, and social spheres on local and regional levels. Collapse is too vague a word (about 7.5 on the vagueness scale). Similarly, it isn't enough to say x, y, and z problems existed in a civilization and then a catastrophe pushed everything over the edge (the blunderbuss approach). If you don't have solid evidence for a catastrophe or for its effects you are telling a story. And that's what we have to be careful of in reading any of the recent catastrophic books.
For all this talk of catastrophes, there may be no need for alarm. Or, at least no need to worry too much about it. On the morning of Sunday, November 1, 1755, residents of Lisbon set food on to cook, then when to mass. Offshore, there was a strong earthquake, felt from Scotland to Jamaica, which generated a tsunami that smashed the city. Those parts of Lisbon not inundated by the wave burned as kitchens fires ignited the collapsed buildings. An estimated 30,000 to 40,000 were killed, including those who perished from disease afterward. Voltaire's Candide was there along with his tutor, Dr. Pangloss:
Mark Rose is the Managing Editor of ARCHAEOLOGY. To illustrate assorted catastrophes, some of which happened and others which might happen, we turned to artist Chantal Lamour. Others might go for more scientific-looking renditions--like depictions of comets hitting the earth from NASA (no doubt created at great cost to us taxpayers)--but we felt Lamour's works would be just as accurate and less pretentious.