Science Notes           ***          Summer 1998
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Sudan Collision Zone This radar image of a region in northern Sudan called the Keraf Suture reveals geologic features buried beneath layers of sand. The Nile is the yellowish/green line that runs from the top to the bottom of the image. A sharp, straight fault cuts diagonally across the image, to the right of the Nile river. The area between the fault and the Nile is part of the collision zone where the ancient continents of East and West Gondwana crashed into each other to form the supercontinent Greater Gondwana more than 600 million years ago. On this image, the Nile approaches but never crosses the fault, indicating that this fault seems to be controlling the course of the Nile in this part of Sudan. A small town, Abu Dis, can be seen as the bright, white area on the east (right) bank of the Nile (about a third of the way down from the top) at the mouth of a dry stream valley or 'wadi' that drains into the river. Wadis flowing into the Nile from both east and west stand out as dark, reddish branch-like drainage patterns. The bright pink area on the west (left) side of the Nile is a region where rocks are exposed, but the area east (right) of the Nile is obscured by layers of sand, a few inches to several feet thick. Image courtesy NASA



WRITTEN TEXTS document mass migrations that dispersed the population among places previously sparsely populated. Reasons for these migrations aren't clear, but Cline believes this mass exodus could have been a large reason for the cities' demises. Archaeologists know that international trade was suddenly cut off during this period and Cline concedes that earthquakes could have been responsible. Yet another domino could have been drought, Cline says.
      Meanwhile, Drews proposes that warfare destroyed the Middle Eastern cities. He says invaders came from the Mediterranean Sea region and ransacked the Middle Eastern civilizations. These invaders set out with one purpose-to sack and loot, not to conquer, Drews says. "These days when rioters loot cities, they don't try and take over the store. If they're going to loot, they loot," he says. Drews believes the invaders came from regions where people were poor, and their motive was wealth. Once one group proved invading the Middle Eastern region paid off, the idea spread, Drews contends. "Somebody thought of it and it worked. Just like in modern times when someone tried hijacking a plane and once it worked the idea spread," Drews says.
      But Nur contends earthquakes were the dominant force in these civilizations' downfall, wars in the region were only possible because of the quakes, he argues. "These cities were run by a small elite. There was continual conflict between the elite and the poor people living in the countryside," he says. He concedes that his tone on this issue has evolved. Initially, when he was saying that earthquakes caused the end of the Bronze Age, "I didn't have it clear in my mind how they (quakes) did it. Now I've thought it through and I realize that earthquakes create a mechanism for the powerful elite to lose control."
      However, Drews takes issue with Nur's peasant uprising theory, "Villagers living in the vicinity of the center depended on those centers and would be the first to give aid. Nur seems to think these people were controlled by despot rulers and that's simply not the way it was."

SO WHY is the earthquake theory gaining attention now?
     "Before last year, when Nur's Biblical Archaeology Review paper came out, no one had heard of him. Nur simply wasn't reaching us (archaeologists) before," Cline says. But he also has another theory. "The new interest may be because of the coming millenium, hence the interest in Armageddon," Cline says.
      The newfound attention has helped Nur's cause. Last July, a meeting at Cambridge University brought together experts from a broad range of disciplines including archaeology, geology, and astronomy, to discuss the roles natural catastrophes could have played in the ending of Bronze Age civilizations. At the Cambridge conference, Nur told the audience about a gathering in Athens in 1991 where geologists and archaeologists discussed earthquakes in archaeology together for the first time. "When we (geologists) gave talks, the archaeologists would drink coffee outside, and when they gave talks we would drink coffee. So communication was not good. We didn't understand what they were talking about, and they didn't believe what we were saying."
      But that tension is waning. A book, "Archaeoseismology" (edited by geologist S. Stiros), which came out of the 1991 meeting between geologists and archaeologists has made more ancient scholars aware of the emerging field. Cline believes Nur's theory warrants serious consideration, and he's currently collaborating with Nur on a scholarly paper about the earthquake theory. They hope their paper will give the battered hypothesis serious attention.
      Although he doesn't believe earthquakes are the entire story, Cline believes Nur's expertise can contribute to archaeology. "Nur is a specialist in tectonics, he's familiar with rock formations and he might be able to look at a site and see evidence archaeologists can't. Archaeology frequently borrows from other sciences, this could allow archaeology to tap into geophysics."

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Shaking History by Christie Aschwanden
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