Science Notes           ***          Summer 1998
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Plates and Quakes This map shows the topography of the Atlantic Ocean bottom as if the ocean had been removed. The blue lines indicate the edges of the ocean tectonic plates. The yellow lines indicate locations of earthquakes that have occurred in the period 1960 to 1985. The red triangles are the locations of volcanic eruptions that have occurred in the period 1980 to 1995. Image courtesy NASA

AT FIRST, Nur couldn't find an audience among archaeologists and historians. But he refused to give up, and finally he persuaded Cline that geology could contribute to archaeology. Now Cline is helping him reach ancient scholars by speaking their language.
      Nur didn't set out to study ancient history. Twenty-five years ago, earthquake prediction was geophysics' hottest field, and Nur was searching for ways to refine his earthquake prediction theories. "We needed a way to test these schemes against real records, and I had the naive idea that maybe I'd look at the past for clues," Nur says. Recognizing that the eastern Mediterranean has a written history dating back ten thousand years, he began digging through the Holy Land's texts looking for records of ancient earthquakes.
      That's when Nur made an unexpected find. While not enough to test his theories, the 32 earthquakes Nur found in the Holy Land's historical records led him to a startling conclusion: The region's earthquakes could have driven the catastrophic collapse of eastern Mediterranean civilizations at the end of the Bronze Age. "Instead of learning about earthquakes from archaeology, we ended up learning about archaeology from earthquakes!" Nur wrote in a 1997 International Geology Review paper. The first line of evidence, he says, lies in the region's active fault system. Three faults dissect the eastern Mediterranean, and Nur says they've plagued the region with earthquakes for thousands of years. Modern seismic data show that earthquakes have rocked virtually every Bronze Age site in the area during the last 100 years. Based on the fault system's layout, there is "Absolutely no question Jericho was hit and devastated by earthquakes every few hundred years," Nur says.
      But Nur also believes the archaeological evidence is unequivocal. At Israeli sites, huge marble pillars are knocked over on their sides--all in the same direction, and keystones in mighty stone arches are slipped out of position. Human skeletons crushed under stone ruins have been uncovered at a handful of sites. Nur argues these skeletons are signs of earthquake fatalities since, "We don't bury people under rubble." Other evidence includes: walls sitting at an angle at some sites; walls offset, where the right side is moved above the left; and sites where walls are completely toppled.

NUR IS NOT the first to suggest earthquakes were a major player in the region's history, but he's given the idea new life. In the late 1940's, archaeologist Claude Schaeffer published a paper and later a book blaming earthquakes for the great Middle Eastern cities' fall at the end of the Bronze Age. Schaeffer's work met with great resistance from the archaeology community. "Schaeffer was famous before the book, and infamous after," Nur says. He is not merely picking up Schaeffer's theory-he's backing it up with hard scientific evidence. But while scholars are slowly warming to the quake theory, Nur's recent attempts at popularizing it still haven't gained wide acceptance.

The quake zone seen from space. Image courtesy NASA

      One reason is that archeologists resent "an outsider coming in and thinking he can do better something we've been training our whole lives to do," Xavier archaeologist Cline says. And Nur's approach has made matters worse. "Nur's tone has been that of an enthusiastic bystander," says Cline. "At first, Nur said quakes ended the Bronze Age, that's not the case. But earthquakes may have contributed to the end of the Bronze Age," Cline says. Bold proclamations like that make archaeologists wary. "There are forbidden topics in archaeology and if you really want to be considered a serious scholar, you must avoid them," Cline says. Nur's early work on the theory invoked Bible passages and myths of Armageddon, which Cline believes reduced his credibility with serious scholars.
      Nur contends scholars resist the notion earthquakes ended the Bronze Age is that, "Historians don't want to accept that random events changed history." As evidence, he cites a 1991 paper by Elizabeth French, former director of the British School of Archaeology and a leading excavator at Mycenae, "Archaeologists of my generation who attended university in the immediate aftermath of Schaeffer's great work in 1948, were brought up to view earthquakes, like religion, as an explanation of archaeological phenomena to be avoided if at all possible."
      But Vanderbilt historian Drews disagrees that historians resent random events, "I think we have to accept it (a random event) when it's fact. What historians would object to is the random resort to either supernatural or very unusual or unprecedented events of this kind (to explain history). I don't know of any place in antiquity where an earthquake ever destroyed a city," Drews says, "but we know of thousands of places destroyed by human beings." He says scientists are overly anxious to apply their trades to history. "Scientists may prefer to think that some of these interesting events have natural causes rather than human ones, so they're eager to find natural disasters to explain them.
      Drews insists the evidence doesn't support Nur's theory. "If the place was suddenly destroyed, you'd expect to find all the things in the palace buried in debris, and we don't," he says. While archaeological digs have yielded some pottery, there are no beautiful treasures like ivory or gold, Drews says. Drews cites the small numbers of casualties as further proof against the earthquake theory. "We'd expect quakes to trap people suddenly, but we don't see evidence of that," he says. Though archaeologists have found some crushed skeletons, Drews believes an earthquake-destroyed city would have widespread casualties. But Nur offers a simple explanation, "When we have an earthquake nowadays, we dig through the rubble, find the victims and bury them." He says there's no reason to believe things were different then.
      Cline says the problem's crux is that it's difficult to differentiate between earthquake damage and human inflicted destruction. Both warfare and earthquakes can topple walls, start fires, and leave skeletons in the rubble. Even at sites where earthquakes are clearly implicated, there's no easy way to tell if the quake happened a hundred or a thousand years ago. "You can't deny there were earthquakes, that's a given, but the question is, what role did they play?" Cline says. "What I adhere to is the 'systems collapse' (model): the civilization as we know it comes to an end, but it's not from one cause, but from a series of events and factors. It was almost a domino effect, one domino may have been earthquakes."

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Shaking History by Christie Aschwanden
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