Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.07.06 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.07.06

Simon Jusseret, Manuel Sintubin (ed.), Minoan Earthquakes: Breaking the Myth through Interdisciplinarity. Studies in Archaeological Sciences 5.   Leuven:  Leuven University Press, 2017.  Pp. 408.  ISBN 9789462701052.  €69.50.  

Reviewed by Vassilis Petrakis (

Table of Contents

Above all, this innovative volume breaks new ground by gathering specialists from the fields of geology and archaeology in an attempt to shed some new light onto the effects of earthquake disasters on Cretan Bronze Age (hereafter Minoan) society. Stemming from the workshop ‘Out of rubble: Interdisciplinary perspectives on Minoan earthquakes’ (Leuven, November 2012),1 this collection represents a major advance in the field of archaeoseismology by addressing key issues in methodology and presenting new evidence and fresh interpretations of specific case studies.

After the mandatory preface (by Jan Driessen), acknowledgements, and contents section, the reader is greeted with a short glossary of abbreviated seismological and archaeoseismological concepts supplemented by a comprehensive table of Minoan chronology (p. 15). The modified concept of ‘Potential Earthquake Archaeological Effects’ (abbreviated PEAEs), recently introduced by the editors and Charlotte Langohr,2 improves significantly on the concept of ‘Earthquake Archaeological Effect’3 and is presented very conveniently on p. 98. As the editors note, all such effects, when considered separately, can be difficult to tell from other, natural or man-induced destructive agents. This admission represents well the cautious spirit in which the theme is explored throughout the book.

The first section includes five introductory chapters focusing on the geology of ancient earthquakes. The odd one out here is Driessen’s charming opening chapter (‘“In bulls doth the Earth-Shaker delight”—Introduction to the volume’) that reports on the genesis and further development of the idea that earthquakes were significant destructive agents in Bronze Age Crete. Like many other aspects of ‘Minoan mythology’, the idea goes back to Sir Arthur Evans, whose experience of two earthquakes that hit Herakleion in 1922 and 1926 inspired his association of all “chief breaks in continuity” at Knossos with such events.4 Driessen also briefly explores the effect of Evans’ theory in later scholarship, as well as popular culture, such as comic books.

Susan Hough (‘Seismological issues of concern to archaeoseismology’) offers a concise historiographical overview of pre-modern earthquake studies, from Zhang Heng (78-139 AD) up to Wegener’s theory of continental drift (1912) and Hess’ key study (1962) of the spreading of ocean floors and the creation of new crust. Hough emphasizes that plate boundary zones are almost always seismically active, and also cautiously reviews the concept of the periodic earthquake cycles, as well as the limitation of our historical data that would enable us to test relevant models. Finally, she examines earthquake ground motions and stresses their variability in form and cause, which make it difficult to be certain that a specific end result (i.e., a particular example of damage) can be attributed to an earthquake.

James McCalpin (‘Palaeoseismology’) discusses the object and methods of palaeoseismology, the study of large earthquakes that “have caused permanent deformation on the Earth’s surface” (p. 56), usually within the Quaternary period (2.5 million years ago up to the present). McCalpin also focuses on the difficulties in distinguishing between palaeoseismic and non-seismic or even non-tectonic features, i.e., in determining the true cause of a specific geological deformation, and he stresses the issues surrounding equifinality (i.e., the possibility that different processes would produce similar results). In the rest of the chapter McCalpin presents the various methods whereby such deformation can be restored, dated, and measured (in terms of magnitude); he also discusses the potential application of the data gathered by palaeoseismology to both deterministic and probabilistic Seismic Hazard Assessment (SHA).

While palaeoseismology is a branch of geology, archaeoseismology is by definition interdisciplinary. Manuel Sintubin (‘Archaeoseismology’) gives a succinct description of its subject matter: “pre-instrumental earthquakes that can be studied indirectly by evidence in the archaeological record” (p. 81). Sintubin rightly focuses much on PEAEs and their careful assessment and distinguishes them into seismic and post-seismic. Like McCalpin’s overview of palaeoseismology, he also discusses the dating methods (and their limitations) of ancient earthquakes, as well as their potential use in SHA, and concludes with a very prudent and very self-evident (or so the present reviewer thinks) plea for a shared protocol, which he justifiably considers the greatest challenge of the discipline.

Christoph Grützner and Thomas Wiatr (‘Non-invasive techniques in archaeoseismology’) discuss the application of advanced geoscience techniques that do not involve excavation in archaeoseismological research. The basic principles and application of georadar, geoelectrics, magnetic and seismic methods, as well as photogrammetry and laser scanning are comprehensively presented.

The second part of the book discusses the geological and tectonic context of the island of Crete, with helpful explanatory editorial endnotes added in all three chapters. Charalambos Fassoulas (‘The geological setting of Crete: an overview’) offers a valuable survey with very comprehensive and still concise presentations of the geodiversity and tectonic evolution and its influence on the making of the Cretan landscape. Gerassimos Papadopoulos (‘Earthquake sources and seismotectonics in the area of Crete’) examines the seismic history of Crete drawn from historical sources (from the 365 AD event to 1952) as an aid in our understanding of the impact of Bronze Age earthquakes in contemporary society. Jack Mason and Klaus Reicherter (‘The palaeoseismological study of capable faults on Crete’) discuss the potential of a detailed study of capable faults for the dating of the last events and assessing their maximum capable magnitudes and recurrence, focusing on the Sfaka fault (within the Ierapetra Fault Zone) in east Crete.

Part 3, entitled ‘Minoan archaeoseismology’ includes Simon Jusseret’s comprehensive overview of the topic (‘Archaeoseismological research in Minoan Crete: past and present’) serving, alongside Driessen’s opening chapter, as a concise introduction to the theme of the volume for the archaeologist. Jusseret discusses the features of specific contexts where earthquakes have been (with varying degrees of certainty or probability) identified as destructive agents, such as Middle Minoan (MM) IIB Phaistos; MM IIIA Anemospilia, Knossos; and Palaikastro in MM IIIB (see below); the seismic destruction levels at Akrotiri on Thera, Mochlos (see below), and Pitsidia in Late Minoan (LM) IB; and Gouves and Malia in LM IIIB. Jusseret cautiously addresses the fundamental question of the reliability of archaeoseismological hypotheses (pp. 234-235) and briefly considers earthquake-resistant features in Minoan architecture, which are also the subject of the following two chapters.

Clairy Palyvou and Eleftheria Tsakanika discuss Minoan (primarily Neopalatial, c.1700-1450 BC) architectural responses to the threat of earthquakes. Palyvou (‘An architectural style of openness and mutability as stimulus or the development of an earthquake-resistant building technology at Akrotiri, Thera, and Minoan Crete’) stresses the role of timber as a ductile material that could save a structural element from immediate collapse, “giving time to the inhabitants to escape the building” (p. 259), but not severe deformation (e.g., Room 4 of the West House in Akrotiri). The role of timber is the subject of Tsakanika’s contribution (‘Minoan structural systems: earthquake-resistant characteristics. The role of timber’), which draws on her doctoral research in the load-bearing and reinforcing application of timber in Minoan architecture. The earthquake-resistant behavior of such systems is still very poorly understood, as exemplified by Tsakanika’s observation that certain intriguing features, such as the vertical discontinuity between different masonry systems (external ashlar and interior rubble) in the Knossos Southeast House (pp. 282-283, fig.14), increased the vulnerability of the building. Elsewhere, the editors suggest that this example might be viewed as an example of how the structure could take precedence “over form and function in Minoan constructions” (p. 388).

Part 4 will attract the most attention from Aegean archaeologists as it includes three discussions of specialised topics focusing on specific sites in central and east Crete: Mochlos, Knossos, and Palaikastro. Jeffrey Soles, Floyd McCoy, and Rhoda Shuka (‘Evidence for three earthquakes at Mochlos in the Neopalatial period, c. 1700-1430 BC’) discuss evidence for the identification of Bronze Age earthquakes from the site of Mochlos (once a peninsula, but now a small island off the coast of northeast Crete), into which a splay from the Lastros fault within the Ierapetra Fault Zone extends. Observations regarding Neopalatial contexts and structures from the settlement have been integrated with the analysis of local fault lines and the evidence for underwater (submerged) wave-cut notches. The latter, associated as they are with datable pottery, are instrumental in correlating archaeological evidence recovered from the part of the site that is now above sea level. Overall, the identification of three seismic events seems convincing, although the authors should be praised for their caution (p. 322).

Colin Macdonald (‘Punctuation in palatial prehistory: earthquakes as the stratigraphical markers of the 18th-15th centuries BC in central Crete’) offers a comprehensive review of the Knossian evidence (or the lack thereof) for earthquake destructions. He distinguishes among three kinds of archaeologically detectable “responses” to such disasters: primary (focused rescue operations), secondary (clearances, dumps, and backfills), and, most interestingly, those only “hypothetically” associated with the consequences of earthquakes, a rather diverse category that would include anything from abandonment to the ceremonial deposition of debris (p. 332). Drawing on Iro Mathioudaki’s ongoing study of the pottery from the House of the Fallen Blocks and the House of the Sacrifice Oxen,5 two buildings that were pivotal in shaping Evans’ ideas on the impact of earthquakes in Minoan Crete, Macdonald observes that the destruction deposits are dated in the earlier part of the MM IIIA phase, instead of to the close of MM IIIB. This conclusion effectively fulfils the subtitle of the volume, breaking one influential hypothesis of mythical status. Evidence pertaining to other central Cretan sites near Knossos is also reviewed: probable earthquake destructions in early MM IIIA at Anemospilia and Alonaki, and in LM IA at Zominthos (Mt Ida) and Galatas (Pediada) are suggested, but the problematic identification of MM IIIB shocks elsewhere on the island is stressed. While acknowledging the destructive potential of earthquake disasters, Macdonald advocates that human agency should be considered in combination with the earthquakes as the explanation for the ‘game-changing’ destructions at the end of LM IB (pp. 351-352).

Tim Cunningham quotes Protagoras in the title of this section’s last chapter (‘Man the measure: earthquakes as depositional agents in Minoan Crete’), while noting the difficulties in applying the modified Mercalli intensity scale (see pp. 11 and 47-48, fig. 8) to archaeological contexts. Cunningham studies a plausible seismogenic deposit from Palaikastro (Room 10a in the Southeast Building of Block M), a pantry found filled with carefully sorted pots and with seemingly no signs of later disturbance. Cunningham rightly focuses on the true question of local human response to such disasters and stresses that such responses are much more characterized by solidarity rather than dissolution and breakdown. He emphasizes how the seismicity of Crete formed a nearly constant background to human activity on the island (p. 378), although it is doubtful that truly devastating shocks would have been emically viewed as “constants.” Cunningham advances an attractive (albeit speculative) explanation for the establishment of a cult area within the abandoned Southwest Building in Block M, supposedly triggered from the appearance of surface water due to a seismogenic change in the water table,6 what Macdonald would classify as a “hypothetical response.”

The volume appropriately concludes with the reflections of the editors on the main existential questions of Minoan archaeoseismology: whether earthquakes can explain changes in the Minoan archaeological record and how to proceed in a proper interpretation of their impact on Bronze Age societies (‘Earthquakes and Minoan Crete: breaking the myth through interdisciplinarity’). Most importantly, they emphasize the need to take quantitative (as opposed to qualitative) approaches, focusing both on the regional setting, as well as in differentiations of the PEAEs within the same site.

In such an innovative and academically strong publication, only one complaint seems fitting here: since Akrotiri on Thera is already the focus of two contributions (Palyvou, Tsakanika), one wishes that further evidence from sites outside Crete would have been considered to some extent, especially Bronze Age Aegean sites that have been the focus of archaeoseismological research for some time (such as Tiryns), or sites where evidence for earthquake impact has been reported but not scrutinized (such as Ayia Irini on Keos).

The very conception and structure of this volume is a most encouraging step towards the transformation of Minoan archaeoseismology into “a more holistic and self-critical discipline” (Jusseret, p. 240) and decidedly away from the catastrophist school of thought where earthquakes are employed as a “deus ex machina” factor to explain any kind of change. If this discipline is “still in its infancy” (p. 393), as the editors admit, this book anticipates its imminent coming of age.


1.   The ‘Out of rubble’ Programme.
2.   S. Jusseret, C. Langohr, M. Sintubin, ‘Tracking earthquake archaeological evidence in Late Minoan IIIB (∼1300–1200 B.C.) Crete (Greece): a proof of concept’, Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America 103 (2013), pp. 3026-3043.
3.   M. A. Rodríguez-Pascua, R. Pérez-López, J. L. Giner-Robles, P. G. Silva, V. H. Garduño-Monroy, K. Reicherter, ‘A comprehensive classification of Earthquake Archaeological Effects (EAE) in archaeoseismology: application to ancient remains of Roman and Mesoamerican culture’, Quaternary International 242 (2011), pp. 20-30.
4.   A. Evans The Palace of Minos, volume 2:1, London 1928, p. 320; M. Jusseret, ‘Contextualizing the birth of Mediterranean archaeoseismology’, Antiquity 88 (2014), pp. 964-974.
5.   Presented at the Athens Minoan Seminar (18-March-2016) Minoan Seminar 18 March 2016.
6.   Shifted strata were noted during excavation; see S. Thorne ‘Well 576: excavation and stratigraphy’ in J. A. MacGillivray, L. H. Sackett, J. M. Driessen (eds.) Palaikastro: Two Late Minoan Wells, BSA Supplementary Volume 43, London 2007, pp. 9-14, at p. 11.

Read comments on this review or add a comment on the BMCR blog

Read Latest
About BMCR
Review for BMCR
Support BMCR

BMCR, Bryn Mawr College, 101 N. Merion Ave., Bryn Mawr, PA 19010