have long puzzled over a strange finding in the eastern Mediterranean.
They've unearthed over 50 cities in this region, and found that all
were destroyed within the fifty year period between 1225 BC and 1175BC.
The fall of these centers marks the end of the Bronze Age, which lasted
from 3,000BC to about 1,000BC. During this time, art and literature
flourished and bronze technology pushed Middle Eastern societies towards
new innovations in tools and architecture. During the "mini dark age"
that followed the Bronze Age, the written language Linear B disappeared
and artistic pursuits were abandoned.
For years, historians and archaeologists have debated
how these civilizations fell without reaching a consensus. Some scholars,
like ancient historian Robert Drews of Vanderbilt University and author
of "The End of the Bronze Age", believe warfare destroyed the civilizations.
Others, like archaeologist Eric H. Cline of Xavier University, believe
a multitude of factors were responsible. But Stanford geophysicist
Amos Nur thinks geology explains these civilizations' downfalls. Nur's
theory: earthquakes destroyed the cities.
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.
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.
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
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."
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."
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
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."