The Archaeology of Geological Catastrophes. Edited by J.W. McGuire, D.R. Griffiths and P. Hancock
The Geological Society London: 2000; 417 pages; 28 plates 200+ illustrations. ISBN 1-86239-062-2.

         Volcanoes, earthquakes and glaciers are three of the most exciting aspects of geology, I always tend to think. Having two of these presented in relation to past human societies, the impacts they had on those societies and the contemporary records made of the events witnessed is surely a winning combination. Volcanoes are of particular significance in archaeological research, as they often provide rapid encapsulation of whole landscapes, both physical and cultural, sometimes even individuals as at Pompeii. In quiescent periods, the flanks and environs of volcanoes often present attractive ecosystems for human habitation and settlement, further increasing their potential to preserve snapshots, in some cases repeated snapshots, like frames from a shaky Logie Baird TV camera, of everyday human life, frozen in time, occasionally even solidified in rock, awaiting the archaeologists' trowel to reveal. Both earthquakes and volcanic eruptions have the power to disrupt human economic and domestic society beyond the point of no return. We may then witness through detailed archaeological excavation the responses of different societies to these devastating events.

         Alternatively, we can view the same events with more of a geological hat on. A huge amount of archaeological research, especially in the Mediterranean region, has built up a detailed record of human events, power struggles and political intrigues over at least the last 3,000 years. These events are punctuated with volcanic eruptions which might wipe out cities, earthquakes with the power to rase the strongest and boldest temples or palaces to the ground, and tsunami waves higher then the masts of ships from the most powerful of nations. Here we may find detailed documentation of the nature, order and magnitude of events preserved in text, or requiring a little more hard work, the direct results of these events buried in the collapsed structures of the unlucky locals. These are often an invaluable resource for geologists attempting to provide rates and timescales for neotectonic events, particularly important in assessing seismic and volcanic hazards.

         The 424 pages of this volume, "The archaeology of geological catastrophes" published in 2000 by the Geological Society as Special Publication no. 171, represent a collection of 28 individual papers covering a wide range of examples and approaches to the study of the archaeological evidence relating to catastrophic geological events. It is not a synthesised appraisal of the effect of dramatic geological events on human populations, nor a complete summary of the means by which archaeological data can be used to date geological phenomena. It does, though, provide insight to both these angles, besides illustrating the ways in which geological and archaeological data can be combined to provide a better understanding of past events than either discipline could achieve in isolation. High quality figures, photographs and illustrations (including a significant number in colour) help to bring to life the locations and events discussed.

         Several key events and locations stand out as having formed the basis for a number of studies. These include the dramatic eruption of Satorini/Thera in Minoan Greece (5 papers), the archaeology and volcanic geology of Vesuvius (4 papers), and earthquakes in ancient Greece and Turkey (4 papers). Other Mediterranean examples discuss Etna and Sicily, and the advent of archaeoseismology as an area for study. We are offered three papers concerning archaeological evidence from the New World (Central America and Alaska) and one from Papua New Guinea, besides textual evidence from Scotland (affected by Icelandic eruptions), volcanic events in historic Germany and contemporary accounts of earthquakes in ancient Greece. Studies with more of a geological focus include a very detailed survey of multiple-vent oceanic island volcanoes using historical and archaeological evidence, the study of fault patterns on a small Greek Island, seismic and volcanic hazards in Yemen and volcanic soils in archaeology. Interspersed with theses papers are additional vignettes concerning the use of volcanic products in antiquity, volcanoclastic materials in concrete, the raw material selection criteria for Mesoamerican Olmec culture basalt statues, and appropriately concluding the volume "The geological origins of the oracle at Delphi, Greece".

         I have very much enjoyed dipping in to this volume. I have read some papers in detail, while others I have perused the photographs and illustrations. The wide variety of approach, style and content is highly appealing. I think the editors have managed to produce something which is more than merely an interesting collection of papers, but will help stimulate an increasing degree of collaboration and integration between geological and archaeological research. This volume will therefore be of significant interest to geologists, particularly in the areas of tectonics and vulcanology, archaeologists with or without classical or Mediterranean interests, and of course all geoarchaeologists. Have a look - I find it difficult to imagine anyone who would not find something engaging and absorbing here.

Ed Rhodes
Research Laboratory for Archaeology and the History of Art,
University of Oxford

Review Submitted: November 2002

The views expressed in this review are not necessarily those of the Society or the Reviews Editor.

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