IGCP 567 Earthquake Archaeology

How can planners, politicians and citizens prepare for earthquakes? Damaging earthquakes on faults typically recur at intervals of centuries to millennia but the seismographs that register them have only been around for about hundred years. To reduce the hazard from earthquakes we need a longer record of them than can be provided from such instruments. Archaeological evidence has the potential to determine earthquake activity over millennial time spans, especially where integrated with historical documents and geological evidence.

Archaeology can be used in three ways to help confront the seismic-hazard threat. First, where archaeological relics are displaced they can be used to find earthquake faults, show in which direction they slipped during the earthquake and establish comparative fault slip-rates. Second, archaeological information can date episodes of faulting and shaking. Third, we can search for ancient signs of seismic damage. The obvious difficulty with the last approach is that it is hard to distinguish between damage caused by an earthquake and that caused by another destructive event, such as war or the natural failure of foundations. Typologies of earthquake-characteristic damage have been proposed but rarely have they been subjected to a critical and systematic analysis. Consequently ‘archaeoseismic indicators’ are accepted by some earthquake scientists and rejected by others.

The key element of the International Geoscience Programme IGCP 567 is our contention that archaeological evidence can make a valuable contribution to long-term seismic-hazard assessment in earthquake-prone regions where there is a long and lasting cultural heritage. We have identified the Alpine-Himalayan region as the ideal laboratory, because the archaeoseismological studies that have already taken root in the Eastern Mediterranean can be extended to neighbouring regions, most importantly south along North African shores, north into the Caucasus Mountains, and east into western Asia. By going from the shaking table to the archaeological remains the project intends to develop a broadly accepted methodological framework to what reliably constitutes seismic damage. As well as trying to establish this common methodological framework that is crucial for archaeoseismology to develop into a recognised and legitimate field of earthquake science, case studies from these regions will address specific questions relating to the locations, timing and size of past destructive earthquakes and so will aim to contribute specific information for seismic-hazard analysis.

But there is a wider remit for our activities, because our research clearly has important humanitarian and economic implications. As illustrated by the 2003 collapse of the World Heritage site in the Bam (Iran) earthquake, cultural heritage sites themselves are threatened by seismic destruction. Clearly, there is a growing need to understand how ancient structures and monuments respond to faulting and ground shaking. On an even broader scale, our work will contribute to our understanding of ancient history, elucidating why some cities were abandoned or why former societies suffered decline, and confronting the enduring attraction of fault lines in luring peoples, ancient and modern, to settle along persistent danger zones. In other words, this project will contribute to our own cultural heritage.


Latest project news

  • 23.01.2012 - Upcoming activity: International Workshop Shakin’ them off? Interdisciplinary perspectives on Minoan Earthquakes 11.2012Leuven, Belgium – convened by S. Jusseret (Belgium) and M. Sintubin (Belgium)
  • 23.01.2012 - Upcoming activity: 3rd Workshop on Paleoseismology and Archaeoseismology 1-8.11.2012Morelia, Mexico – more information will follow soon on www.acambay1912.org
  • 23.01.2012: 4th International Geologica Belgica Meeting – Special Session Geohazards and environmental changes in an archaeological context 11-14.09.2012 – Brussels, Belgium – convened by T. Missiaen (Belgium), D. Kaniewski (France) and V. Heyvaert (Belgium)
  • 23.01.2012 - Upcoming activity: 34th International Geological Congress (IGC), Australia 2012 – Natural hazards and ancient societies - 2-10 August 2012 – Brisbane, Queensland, Australia - convened by Patrick Nunn (Australia), Bruce McFadgen (New Zealand), Iain Stewart (U.K.) and Manuel Sintubin (Belgium)
  • 23.01.2012: EGU 2012 –Session Earthquake Geology20-24.04.2012 – Vienna, Austria – convened by M. Ferry (France) and K. Vanneste (Belgium)

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