Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

Special Introductory Offer!
Geology Meets Archaeology Volume 58 Number 3, May/June 2005
by Colleen Popson

How did early Egyptians survive potentially devastating droughts? How did the Phoenicians come to dominate trade in the Mediterranean? What led to the rise of Greek cities? According to Iain Stewart, geologist and host of Hot Rocks, a six-part series on The Science Channel (airing April 22-24 and again in June; check local listings), the answers are written in stone. With a fresh perspective on the past and a flair for making rocks compelling, Stewart tours the Mediterranean to show how geology has shaped the lives of people in the region for thousands of years.

Each episode--"Risky Rocks," "Architecture," "Art," "Belief," "Water," and "Salt"--explores how earth-science basics such as plate tectonics, the water cycle, and the Earth's magnetism have had an impact on civilization. Stewart uses mundane objects to reveal complex and often unexpected stories about the past. Table salt, for instance, provides an entry point to how salt forms, why the sea is salty, its use in Egypt for food preservation, and how the Phoenicians built salt pans in Sicily and came to dominate trade in the Mediterranean.

Stewart likes to demonstrate geological processes using food he orders at cafes across the region. It works when he pours coffee over a piece of cake to illustrate how limestone absorbs rainwater and releases it slowly. (The Greeks used this to their advantage, building channels that drained flooded fields to naturally occurring sinkholes, where water was held by limestone and slowly released to springs in drier seasons.) It doesn't when a broken candy bar with a caramel center is supposed to evoke the cracks in the earth's surface caused by the movement of tectonic plates. Though several episodes drag in spots and some of the geological connections are thin on evidence, overall, Hot Rocks is a lively mix of travel, science, and history.

Colleen Popson is Washington, D.C., correspondent for ARCHAEOLOGY.

Click here for ARCHAEOLOGY's index of multimedia reviews.

© 2005 by the Archaeological Institute of America