Monday, February 21, 2011

'Earthquake Archaeology' Blends Two Histories

Do tomorrow's archaeologists a big favor: Always carry some change in your pocket. That way if you happen to be buried alive by an earthquake, any future researchers who unearth your bones from the quake debris can easily approximate the year of the quake.

That's one way that earthquakes in parts of the ancient Roman Empire have been dated.

But usually it's not so easy, say researchers who are pioneering the new field of archaeoseismology. Their aim is to clean up the seismological record by calling on geologists, engineers and seismologists to help archaeologists make better sense of ancient disasters.

"A better term is earthquake archaeology," said Manual Sintubin, a professor of geodynamics at Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in Belgium.

Sintubin announced the kick-off of a UNESCO-backed project to push forward the new field of research on Wednesday at the annual meeting of the Seismological Society of America in Santa Fe, N.M. Earthquake seismology contrasts with the growing field of paleoseismology, which usually does not involve human artifacts, and historical seismology, which relies on documents and other historical accounts to create regional earthquake histories.

Neither approach helped archaeologists facing evidence of an unknown ancient disaster, opening the door to some error-prone circular thinking, explained geologist Tina Niemi of the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

What happens, she explained, is that an archaeologist will uncover a layer of destruction at a study site -- say, Petra, in Jordan. The researcher would then look in one of the earthquake catalogs made by historical seismologists to see which listed quake their Petra destruction layer might belong to.

Then, the historical seismologists read the archaeologist's report about the newfound ruins and add the Petra site to the list of those affected by that particular quake in the next edition of the earthquake catalog.

For more interesting topics related to archaeology, visit archaeology excavations.

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