What if Troy was destroyed by an earthquake? What really brought down the walls of Jericho or the Colossus of Rhodes? These are some of the questions Stanford University geophysicist Amos Nur raises in "Apocalypse: Earthquakes, Archaeology, and the Wrath of God" (Princeton University Press, $26.95), a book that posits seismicity - rather than invaders or social forces - as the prime dynamic behind the fall of ancient civilizations.
That's a provocative notion, not just to the casual reader but to the archaeological establishment. "(T)he idea that earthquakes played an important role in some catastrophic changes in our past - whether in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Near East or in Central and South America - has received stiff opposition," Nur writes. In 1999, Mark Rose, editor of the journal Archaeology, "demanded that, before one can hypothesize that an earthquake destroyed a society, one must prove not only that it happened, but exactly how it happened."
In "Apocalypse," written with the assistance of Dawn Burgess, Nur attempts to address Rose's argument, with mixed results. It's hard to argue with the fact that cities such as Troy and Jericho existed in seismically active territory, and when Nur engages in what we might call archaeological detective work - looking at the position of human remains, for instance, to determine cause of death - his book is focused and intense.
Describing the skeletons of a family (man, woman and small child) found "in the ancient port town of Kourion, on the southern coast of Cyprus," he finds compelling evidence of death by earthquake: "The three apparently had little time to realize what was happening," he writes, "and their skeletons seem caught in a pose of sleep. The woman's arms are curled protectively around the bones of her toddler, with the man's arm flung over them both. Blocks from the ceiling, some weighing as much as three hundred pounds, had crushed all three."
And yet, while this is a profoundly moving image, Nur never satisfactorily addresses why these earthquakes remain sources of skepticism. After all, the earliest known earthquake report dates from 1177 B.C. in China, around the same time as many of the temblors he describes. More problematic is his broad point that a series of seismic cataclysms brought an end to the Bronze Age - an argument he admits he cannot prove. "(I)f the best claim is that 'it could have happened,' " he notes, "then why have I written a book about it?"
Why indeed? "The answer is that the widespread bias against recognizing the effects of earthquakes and other natural disasters in archaeology and history reflects a deeper, and disturbing, trend in the general population." But if that makes "Apocalypse" something of a cautionary tale, it's one that never quite moves beyond what might have been into the realm of what really was.