Monday, November 26, 2018

Possible earthquake history of Burnt House at tell Arpachiyeh, Iraq; or did Agatha crack a prehistoric case?

Possible earthquake history of Burnt House at tell Arpachiyeh, Iraq; or did Agatha crack a prehistoric case?

Eric R. Force

The excavation and description by Mallowan and Rose (1935) of the little mound of Arpachiyeh (near Mosul and Ninevah) first established the sequence of prehistoric cultural artifacts of Halaf and Ubaid assemblages.  Particularly rich were  Halaf remains of the so-called Burnt House at level six from the top (TT6), where diverse remains were preserved under a fallen burnt roof.  This horizon is thought (Campbell 2000, p. 1) to be about 5800 B.C.

The destruction and preservation of Burnt House is ascribed by Mallowan and Rose (1935) to invasion, the invaders’ scattering of artifacts, and fire set by them.  This genetic model follows description of only three paragraphs within a single page (p. 17), which with further comments on p. 106 remains all we know of the destruction itself.  I suggest that Mallowan’s genetic model (delivered in first-person singular) should not be taken for granted (as suggested also by other authors below), and propose here that earthquake damage is more probable.

Indeed the published journal of a photographer/conservator of the expedition (Christie 1977, p. 449) noted that preservation of the assemblage was due not only to fallen roof but also to fallen walls.  We now know the latter is an indicator of earthquake damage, though it can have other origins.  On one hand, this was not a critical point to Christie and we perhaps should not give it too much weight.  On the other hand, none doubt that she was a keen observer, and since she mentions fallen roof and fallen walls separately, she knew the difference.

Other authors such as Campbell (2000; see also Campbell and Fletcher 2000) also look askance at the invasion model.  Campbell conducted an extensive inventory of artifacts from the Burnt House (TT6) wherever accessible. Campbell’s body of information includes many intriguing relationships otherwise unclear.  His frustration with Mallowan and Rose shows as: “Little is known of the exact distribution of the objects in the Burnt House. Insufficient information is available on the nature of the burning” (Campbell’s p. 4) and “Unfortunately it is now impossible to reconstruct the original location of more than a few of the objects.” (his p. 7).   Campbell suggested a ritual aspect to the destruction of Burnt House.  I find no additional information in Hjjara et al. 1980 that add pertinent data on this subject to those of Campbell. 

I briefly suggested (Force 2017) that damage at Burnt House could plausibly have resulted from earthquake followed by fire, and in the same paper proposed criteria for earthquake damage as opposed to other causes in mud-brick structures with flammable roofs.  There is no doubt that fire can follow earthquakes where flammable roofs collapse into rooms where fires were lit. 

Four of my earthquake criteria (in table 2 of Force 2017) are, first, that unburnt debris should underlie burnt debris, some of the former resting directly on the floor; second, that only the upper margins of the fallen debris should be burnt; thirdly, that fallen debris (and mortality if any) should extend well beyond evidence of fire; and last, that fallen walls suggest seismic activity.  Admittedly in this case the evidence is tenuous for this last criterion, though I consider it suggestive, and it inspired this re-examination of the overall logic.

Let us look more closely at the other lines of evidence at Burnt House:
1. Mallowan and Rose (1935, plate XXI b with caption) present a photo of complete though probably fractured bases of pots “found on the floor of the potter’s shop in the burnt house TT6”.  Campbell (2000 pp. 7, 10) notes that this unique photograph, apparently from near the center of the room, is puzzling but suggests in situ damage, in this case directly on the floor.  That is, damage preceded fire.
2. Campbell (2000) describes artifacts burnt only on one side, suggesting to him their projection from unburnt debris at an angle (p. 12 and fig. 8, #2 and #3).  He wonders “Was the Burnt House in some disarray before the fire took place?”  He notes also many restored artifacts “where conjoining sherds have been burnt to radically different temperature and in different atmosphere,” (as noted by Mallowan and Rose 1935, p. 106 and plate XIX) suggesting to me different positions in the debris as well as the scattering proposed by Mallowan and Rose (1935, p.  17, 106).  That is, the ceramics were fragmented and incorporated in debris before the room was burnt.
3. Both Mallowan and Rose (1935, p. 106) and Campbell (2000, pp. 8, 10) note that debris at the north end of the main room contains unburnt and little-burnt artifacts.  The fire must have been more local than debris fall. 

Thus three of my criteria for earthquake damage are handsomely met in the Burnt House horizon.  Earthquakes there of course are consonant with the region’s historic seismic activity and current seismic risk.  In contrast to these criteria consistent with earthquake damage, I consider the evidence for invasion per se as very weak (also based on criteria of  Force 2007, table 2).  No evidence of weaponry or related mortality is presented by Mallowan and Rose (1935). 

Musings about blind spots of Mallowan  

Mallowan’s many writings suggest an intent to be thorough and an open-minded attitude, so his leap to an invasion theory for damage at Burnt House is puzzling to me.  Of course, genetic models based on incomplete descriptions are a common failing of early and less-exacting work in many disciplines, and would be rejected today.  Mallowan was tutored by early archaeologists who had no formal training in their field, and who in addition had preconceived ideas of what aspects of their excavations were of importance—Biblical in the case of Woolley and epigraphic in the case of Campbell-Thompson. 

Mallowan (1977) in the course of his career attributed at least six destructive horizons with or without fire to invaders (p. 113, 138, 153, 157, 160, 253) without mention of possible earthquakes, even though the last-listed was first described as earthquake damage by others of Mallowan’s staff at Nimrud (Oates and Reid, 1956), acknowledged by him in 1966 but not mentioned in 1977.  Several of the six sites (e.g. Brak) are in locations where damaging earthquakes are to be expected in sequences representing more than 500 years, as is Arpachiyeh itself.  Indeed, for Mallowan’s sites in the upper Balikh valley the expected seismic intervals are considerably shorter than I thought in Force (2017; see note below and my posting of 11/13/18).

It’s simplest I think to assume that Mallowan was uninterested in earthquakes, even though he knew something of earthquake damage (Mallowan 1977, p. 108).  Other authors such as Kenyon and Schaeffer were suggesting earthquake damage at sites to the east, but not in northern Mesopotamia proper, a situation that has continued to the present day. 

Note: For Force (2017),  I was blissfully unaware that the seismic history recorded by Ambraseys (2009) for Edessa should be added to that for Urfa/Sanliurfa, as these are alternate names for the same place under different regimes.  In my fig . 3 of that paper, therefore, the seismic recurrence interval shown at latitude 37-37.5 degrees in the Balikh valley should be about 250 years rather than 500 years.


Ambraseys, N.,  2009, Earthquakes in the Mediterranean and Middle East: a multidisciplinary study of seismicity up to 1900:  Cambridge

Campbell, S., 2000, The Burnt House at Arpachiyeh: a reexamination:  Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research v. 318, p. 1-40

Campbell, S. and Fletcher, A., 2000, Questioning the Halaf-Ubaid transition, p. 69-85 in  Beyond the Ubaid, R. A. Carter and G. Phillip, eds: Studies in Ancient Oriental Civilizations #63, University of Chicago.

Christie, A., 1977, An Autobiography:  Dodd, Mead/Collins (New York/London)

Force, E. R., 2017, Seismic environments of prehistoric settlements in northern Mesopotamia: a review of current knowledge:  Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research v, 378, p. 55-69.

Hijara, I., , Watson, J. P. M., and Hubbard, R. N., L. B., 1980, Arpachiyeh 1976: Iraq v. 42, p. 131-154.

Mallowan, Max, 1977, Mallowan’s Memoirs: Dodd and Mead, New York

Mallowan, M. E. L., 1966, Nimrud and its Remains:  Dodd and Mead/Collins, London

Mallowan, M. E. L., and Rose, J. C., 1935, Excavations at Tell Arpachiyeh 1933:  Iraq v. 2, p. 1-178.

            Oates, D., and Reid, J. H., 1956, The Burnt Palace and the Nabu Temple, Nimrud Excavations 1955,: Iraq 18, p. 22-39.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Gobekli Tepe: tectonic environment and consequent strategic position

Gobekli Tepe: tectonic environment and consequent strategic position

Eric R. Force

The ancient archaeological site of Gobekli Tepe in Turkey has attracted a great deal of attention since its discovery (or rediscovery) in 1994.  Its great age—thought to be about 11000 years—in conjunction with the complexity of its cultic/religious architecture (Schmidt 2001) poses new questions about the evolution of civilizations.
The purpose of this posting is not to ponder these questions, but merely to place the location of the site(s) in its tectonic context.  As it happens, I have studied the historic and instrumental seismicity of the sites’ region, for the purpose of interpreting excavation reports of much younger—but still prehistoric—tells there (Force, 2017).  That study has implications for Gobekli Tepe that are not apparent in the study itself, but may be of interest to students of the much older culture.
Gobekli Tepe is 12  km northeast of the modern town of Sanliurfa, Turkey, commonly called Urfa in older literature, and Edessa in even older literature, back to its founding in the Hellenistic era.  The site can be found in Google Earth  images at latitude 37 degrees 13’02.73”N and longitude 38 degrees 51’16.00”E.  Both town and site are at the head of a drainage basin emptying southward into the Euphrates River near Raqqa, Syria, as the Balikh River.   In Turkey this drainage is called the Colop.
The site of Gobekli Tepe is about 50 km north of the Syrian-Turkish border, but is nevertheless at the northern margin of the Mesopotamian plains geomorphically or physiographically.  That is, its location should not be considered as part of the Anatolian province in the sense of its plateaus and mountains.  Indeed, its plate boundary location places it not on the Hellenic/Turkish plate but on the impinging Arabian plate!  Gobekli Tepe is a most strategic site in its segment of the northern margin of the Mesopotamian plains, as was ancient Edessa much later—but before the Syrian-Turkish border divided the drainage basin in two. 
The Balikh/Colop basin at Sanliurfa is a graben, i.e. a tectonic basin, here outlined by north-south faults that extend southward at least to the Syrian border but immediately to the north become the Bozova dextral fault extending northwest (e.g. Selcuk and Gokten 2012, fig. 1).  The age of faulting to form these features is unclear—at least to me—but thought to be Holocene.
The basinal terraces and floodplain at Sanliurfa are bordered by Cenozoic sedimentary rocks, mostly limestones including the Gaziantep Formation of Eocene and Oligocene age.  The site of Gobekli Tepe is in such uplands marginal to the basin. The basin floor was probably important from some combination of its riparian characters for gathering, hunting, and/or agriculture, rather than directly to its tectonic context.   Since the discovery of Gobekli Tepe, related and somewhat similar sites of great antiquity have been discovered nearby, so far all in its Turkish segment (Guler et al. 2012).  The probable southern extension of the graben as Syria’s Balikh drainage is also the site of Neolithic tells, showing a continuity of cultural connection into Mesopotamia (Force 2017 reviews work of Akkermans and others).
The seismic character of the immediate area of Sanliurfa and Gobekli Tepe is shown on generalized seismic risk maps as moderately low, considerably lower than most of Turkey, and lower than the Taurus Mountains immediately north (Erdik et al. 1999; Tsapanos et al. 2005).  That is, the modest modern seismicity of the northern Mesopotamian plains on the Arabian tectonic plate extends into Turkey as an arc south of boundaries between it and the Eurasian and Hellenic/Turkish plates to the northeast and northwest respectively.
Thus there is no reason other than the location of Gobekli-related ancient sites around and near a tectonic basin to suppose that tectonic activity has influenced the course of the sites’ development.  And of course no excavation report suggests any such influence—but that is generally the case in this region regardless of the age of site, even where in retrospect some influence can be gleaned from excavation reports (Force, 2017).  In addition, the death of Klaus Schmidt in 2014 has slowed answers to the many questions his site presents. 
My own method of addressing questions about seismic history of ancient sites is to use the modern instrumental seismic record and the recorded seismicity in the historic period, to establish a rough pattern of intensities and recurrences that can be projected into prehistoric periods.  The pattern can be used to establish seismicity expectations for a given stratigraphic/archaeologic record.  Only time will tell what the reception of this method will be, but unless tectonic plate motions change between prehistoric and historic periods, it seems logical.  My existing data base of instrumental and historic seismicity for the region that includes Gobekli Tepe (Force, 2017) can continue this reasoning. 
That paper examines modern/historical seismicity along three transects, one of which is centered on the Balikh River drainage and extends north into Turkey up to a latitude of 38 degrees, i.e. past Gobekli Tepe.  The main source of historical data is the voluminous compilation by Ambraseys (2009), to which can be added Sbeinati et al. (2005) for nearby earthquakes in Syria.  Along the Balikh transect no modern earthquakes were recorded instrumentally, though several plot on nearby transects.
Quite a few damaging earthquakes are recorded at Sanliurfa (recorded both as Urfa or Edessa) in AD 499, 569-570, 679, 860, 1114, 1157, and 1162.  In addition there are records of earthquakes felt there in AD 1003, 1120, and 1822.  The epicenters of a considerable number of these earthquakes were to the west and northwest, along the Levantine margins of the Arabian plate.  The remarkable number of earthquakes occurring between AD 500 and 1200 is due in part to increased attention due to concurrent religious wars, in which some of these earthquakes played a part (Raphael 2010).
But ten earthquakes in 1500 years (to the present) is remarkable, and the apparent clustering in time even more so.  Indeed the clustering may suggest additional earthquakes in periods when observers were not paying attention.
The Syrian part of my Balikh transect shows damaging earthquake recurrences averaging about 500 years between 36 and 37 degrees latitude (Force, 2017, fig. 3) and this new information for Urfa/Edessa shows a dramatic northward increase in earthquake frequency-–one not apparent in modern seismic risk maps due to their reliance on instrumentally recorded seismic events.

What does this mean for students of Gobekli Tepe?  Perhaps an expectation of archaeologic evidence of seismic events, quite possibly about ten of them given the duration of the site’s activity and the historic record of regional seismicity.  The correspondence of tectonic basins (grabens) with ancient sites of Gebekli type may prove to be significant, but that is currently unclear. 
However, the continuity of this graben with Mesopotamian plains certainly conferred strategic advantage on the site of Gobekli Tepe.  This site could project power southward along its graben.  This view puts Gobekli Tepe into a more regional framework. 


Ambraseys, N.,  2009, Earthquakes in the Mediterranean and Middle East: a multidisciplinary study of seismicity up to 1900:  Cambridge

Erdik. M., Biro, Y. A., Onur, T., Sesetyan, L, and Birgoren, G., 1999, Assessment of earthquake hazard in Turkey and neighboring regions:   Annali di Geofisica v. 42, p. 1125-1138.

Force, E. R., 2017, Seismic environments of prehistoric settlements in northern Mesopotamia: a review of current knowledge:  Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research v, 378, p. 55-69.

Guler, M., Celik, B, and Guler, G., 2012, New pre-pottery Neolithic settlements from the Veransehir district:  Anatolia v. 38, p. 164-180.

Raphael, K., 2010, The impact of the 1157 and 1170 earthquakes on Crusader-Muslim politics and military affairs, in Ancient Earthquakes:  Geological Society of America Special Paper 471, p. 59-66.

Sbeinati, M. R., Darawcheh, R., and Mouty, M., 2005, The historical earthquakes of Syria:  Annals of Geophysics v. 48, p. 347-435.

Schmidt, K., 2001, Gobeki Tepe, southeastern Turkey. a preliminary report on the 1995-1999 excavations:  Paleoorient v. 26, p. 45-54.

Selcuk, A. S., and Gokten, Y. E., 2012, Neotectonic characteristics of the Inonu-Eskisehir fault system in the Kaymaz (Eskisehir) region:  influence on the development of the Mahmudiye-Cifteler-Emirdag Basin:  Turkish Journal of Earth Sciences v. 21, p. 521-545.

Tsapanos, T. M., Leventakis, G.-A., Koravos, G. Ch., Tatsiopoulos, G. A., and Sertaridou, I. Ch., 2005, Seismic hazard and seismic risk analysis in Turkey deduced from mixed files: Journal of Balkan Geophysical Society, v. 8, p. 89-98.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

A comparison of ancient Hellenic and Levantine texts concerning earthquakes

A comparison of ancient Hellenic and Levantine texts concerning earthquakes

Eric R. Force


The Greek and Judaic contributions to cultural history are quite distinctive, and have been so since their earliest records. Here I would like to focus on their early responses to tectonic events, which may afford some glimpses of cultural dynamics.
Both Hellenic and Levantine regions are seismically active, and in antiquity suffered seismic damage. However, the ancient responses to seismicity of Judaic and Greek traditions seem to have differed. It would be interesting to explore the factors in these differences, via both textual and archaeological evidence. Here I will focus on the texts. In order to control as best I can for plate-tectonic and other geologic differences, I address cultural responses throughout the ancient regions in which these two traditions are embedded, hence my title.


Plate tectonic factors.—Both the Hellenic and Levantine regions are impacted by the relative movements of the Eurasian, African, and Arabian tectonic plates (fig. 1 below). The tectonics of the Levantine region are the simpler; both the Arabian and African plate are moving northward in colliding with the Eurasian plate, but the Arabian place is doing so significantly faster. The relative motion is accommodated along the “Dead Sea Rift” fault zone, where the eastern (Arabian plate) side is being translated northward relative to the western (African plate) side. Where there are bends in the rift, upper-crustal holes can occur, and alluvial fan deposits, slumping walls, and lakes such as that of the Dead Sea itself tend to fill the voids. Elsewhere, crustal impingements have produced the Lebanon/Anti-Lebanon mountains. Fault movement has an appreciable vertical component only along such responses to bends, movement being essentially horizontal elsewhere (“sinistral strike-slip”). Large earthquakes are common.
The Hellenic region on both shores of the Aegean Sea is subject to three main types of faulting (fig. 1 after Reilinger et al. 1997). First, the rapid northward movement of the Arabian plate has forced a large wedge of crust to move aside in a so- called escape structure, forming the Hellenic-Turkish microplate (fig. 1). In most of mainland Greece, this motion is distributed across a wide zone oriented NE-SW, and has a horizontal component of “dextral strike-slip.” Second, both the Hellenic-Turkish and Eurasian plates collide with the African plate, which dives under them in a “subduction zone” in the northern East Mediterranean. Movement along this north-sloping boundary has a large vertical component. Third and last, tectonic basins called grabens oriented roughly east-west have opened up due to crustal stretching above the subduction zone. The Corinth “rift,” the Argos basin, and similar basins in western Turkey are examples. Tectonic movement is largely vertical. All three of these types of fault structures have produced large earthquakes.

Other geologic factors.—Earthquake intensity varies with the surface substrate, as do the exposure and preservation of fault offsets. The Levantine and Hellenic regions differ somewhat in their near-surface geologic makeup, and this factor could lead to somewhat different cultural responses.
The geology of populated parts of the Levant includes large tracts underlain by the Lisan and equivalent young sedimentary deposits, formed in basins along previous incarnations of the Dead Sea rift  (Neev and Emery 1967,  1995). Sediments of this type tend to amplify earthquake intensity, and fault movement is obscured by drag in pliable wallrocks. However, older rocks are exposed in many other places, especially along flanks of the rift as at Jerusalem. However, most even of these rocks are slightly friable.
The Hellenic realm, though riven with its own basin deposits, has comparatively more rock exposure in populated areas. Limestone is very well represented there, and most of these limestones have become tough through recrystallization. Where faulting has occurred in these limestones over the last 10,000 years, surface offsets called scarps are well preserved, though details recording movement are progressively degraded by weathering (Stewart and Hancock, 1988).

Responses to geologic factors.--Experiencing an earthquake tends to provoke otherworldly responses in any culture (Robinson 2016), and the active seismicity of both Hellenic and Levantine regions might lead one to expect strong cultural responses. We can next compare the Hellenic and Levantine cultural responses to their earthquakes, and see whether these are explained by their geologic contexts:


Earthquakes per se appear fairly commonly in ancient Greek texts; also pervasive in these texts are treatments of the underworld. Less well known are glimpses in these texts of the structure of the earth relative to earthquakes, as in Hesiod and Aristotle at opposite ends of the classical era.
I will describe these matters in the ancient texts in the roughly separate disciplines of poetry, drama, history, and philosophy, taken in the chronological order in which first entries appear. I make no claim of exhaustive coverage, especially of Hellenistic and later authors, which can reflect non-Hellenic influences. Unlike the archaeological record, I lack links between texts and earthquakes/faulting in the Mycenaean period, though this may be partly because Linear B texts have not been examined with this question in mind.

Poetry.— Homer, recording an oral tradition referring to Bronze-age events, outlines a great deal of formative Greek mythology, including earth-shaking Poseidon repeatedly attempting to alter human affairs (Iliad XX lines 54-70, XIII lines39-90), in the former intending to split the earth’s surface to lay the entire underworld bare. In the Odyssey (V lines ca. 366) earth-shaker sends a giant wave that looks like a tsunami to me. Tectonism seems to function in part as a by-product of conflict among dysfunctional gods.
References to earthquakes, the underworld, and earth structure also appear early in ancient Greek history as the poetry of Hesiod, who refers to his own time. His Theogeny of the 8th century BC, another founding document for Greek mythology, uses the term earthquakes (or shaking earth)  quite frequently. Poseidon as earth-shaker (including several times implied but not named) is responsible for many of them. It is interesting that Poseidon is both earth- shaker and internal earth-smith in both these early works (reviewed by Polimenakos 1996).
Most remarkable to me is that Hesiod’s earthquakes are mentioned in the context of earth structure, in which the deepest layer Tartarus is pointedly aseismic (ca. line 750) and girdled with bronze (ca. line 725). Above Tartarus in the Erebos layer are earthquake-ridden “roots of earth” (ca. lines 680 and 730), and apparently above that are the realms of Hades and of graves. Any resemblance to the core, mantle, and crust of the earth must be coincidental (unlike Hesiod’s division of history into pre-bronze, bronze, and iron ages, in his Works and Days). But zonation of the earth’s interior and some tectonic context is clear.
Pindar in Nemean 9, referring to a mythic tradition of Bronze-age Thebes and the family of Oedipus, has Zeus swallowing Amphiaraus in split-open earth.
In conclusion, mythic tectonic processes appear in contexts of earth structure and the underworld beginning with very early poetry. Two references to Zeus’ involvement (as opposed to Poseidon) in characters being swallowed by the earth in violent events suggest questions about the identification as earthquakes per se, but certainly emphasize the underworld.

Drama.—Next in chronology are ancient Greek dramas beginning with Aeschylus in 458 B.C. Perhaps most significant seismically is his Prometheus Bound, which ends as Prometheus descends underground in a shaking earth (lines ca. 1080), This portion of the drama is sometimes listed separately as a poem “Prometheus amid hurricane and earthquake”. Similarly, Sophocles involves an apparent earthquake in the passing of Oedipus in Oedipus at Colonus (line 1585)
Euripides made free use of earthquakes as pivots for his action, somewhat like our playwrights might use hurricanes. In his Hippolytus, an earthquake located near Corinth is evocatively described, followed by an equally well-described tsunami (lines 1200-1210). In scene III of his Bacchae, Dionysus is liberated by an earthquake, seemingly at his command. Otherwise for Euripides, earthquakes have no specific cause. The underground is central in his Alcestis and his Heracles but not in a tectonic context.
In Aristophanes’ Acharnians, Poseidon is asked to send an earthquake to punish Sparta (line 496), but the petitioner then changes his mind in suitably comic manner. Here, in Lysistrata, and The Assembly Women, earthquakes are mentioned almost as banter, just a commentary on real life.
In conclusion, earthquakes punctuate the action in a number of ancient dramas. Otherwise the appearance of earthquakes constitutes a few poignant passages amid a torrent of thoughts on other subjects. Mentions of the underworld are treated in evocative ways where they occur. An evolution in treatment of earthquakes from mythic toward factual occurs between Aeschylus and Aristophanes.

History.—Herodotus did not mention many earthquakes (though see History V, 85 and 86) but did feature one as pivotal. This is that in Delos (VI, 98), said to be unique in this sacred spot and divide Greek history into epochs.
Thucydides in his History of the Peloponnesian War mentions at least nine earthquakes (Force 2015) during the Peloponnesian Wars, several of them influencing military outcomes, as does Xenophon in the sequel Hellenica (book 3, chapter 2 line 24). These authors note without comment that commanders treated earthquakes as omens. Like Herodotus, Thucydides chooses one earthquake as most pivotal in Greek history, this one near Sparta (ca. 464 B.C.) and which permitted a rebellion of slaves, thus weakening Sparta’s military hegemony.
None of these historians invoked divine causation for his earthquakes, indeed Thucydides contributed a break-through in natural earth process (Force 2015). In III (xi) 89 we have, “The cause in my opinion of this phenomenon (which today we call tsunami) must be sought in the earthquake. At the point where its shock has been most violent, the sea is driven back, and suddenly recoiling with redoubled force, causes the inundation” (Crawley-Feetham translation). Though the earthquake itself was not addressed in terms of natural process, the consequent tsunami certainly was.
In conclusion, ancient Greece’s founders of history treated earthquakes in secular manner (though reporting the participants otherwise), devoid of underworld connection. All were impressed with cultural consequences of earthquakes. Thucydides’ explanation of tsunami as a natural process was prescient.

Philosophy.—Earthquakes are a component in the work of the earliest Greek philosophers. Thales in the 6th century B.C. attempted explanations of several phenomena as natural processes, and he and several subsequent philosophers addressed earthquakes in terms of the movement of subsurface fluids. This tradition continued in the 4th century with Aristotle, who in his Meteorology gave an extensive discussion and critique of causation by subsurface winds, including evidence from distribution, fluid ejection, differing character of shocks, aftershocks, etc. Intermediate in chronology, however, are a number of philosophers who in searching for natural causes look to “spirit” in driving the dynamics (reviewed by Polimenakos 1996). Pythagoras apparently dealt with the problem by declaring Poseidon a force of nature. All these thinkers apparently felt that rapid fluid motion must be required to produce rapid earth response. But worthy of notice here is an insistence on natural or quasi-natural processes and an involvement of subsurface motion.
Plato (in his Timaeus) inspired speculation for millenia about the supposed continent of Atlantis, submerged in an earthquake. It seems likely that this was in preparation for his ideas of a hypothetical ideal society, and may have been inspired by the submergence of the coastal plain of Helike in his own time (Soter 1998), emphasized by Lucretius and Pausanius many years later.
In conclusion, aome ancient Greek philosophers tried to combine mythological and natural agents for earthquakes, but others broached serious questions about entirely natural causes of earthquakes, incorporating subsurface agents.

Summary.—As befits the tectonic environment of the Hellenic world, ancient Greek authors from the beginning incorporated earthquakes as they developed their disciplines. There seems a transition, especially noticeable about 450 B.C. with historians and philosophers leading the way, from mention of earthquakes in supernatural toward factual and then natural contexts (Plato is an exception). Poseidon is accordingly given less credit for causing earthquakes.
For both poets and dramatists, earthquakes commonly heralded the underworld, perhaps predictably as this linkage supported their themes. In some cases identification as earthquakes is not even clear. But it’s interesting that in these evocative Greek texts, the otherworldly nature of earthquakes points toward the underworld.
Ancient Greek historians tended to treat earthquakes as pivotal events, reporting in a secular manner some quasi-cultic responses. Thucydides nailed the natural origin of tsunami relative to earthquakes. Ancient Greek philosophers searched for natural causes for earthquakes in the earth’s subsurface.


The great majority of textual material from the Levant region is Hebraic, from the Judaic cultural tradition. Biblical material is the part of it coeval with the Greek texts summarized above.
Biblical text material has been interpreted in many ways by many authors.  Of course, few have focused on earthquakes. In one method of such analysis, Force (2015) reduced Biblical mention of earthquakes to a sequence presented in Biblical order, which was in turn meant to represent chronologic order of occurrence. Force recognized thirteen stages, referencing each by chapter and verse. For the present paper it seems unnecessary to repeat all thirteen; better to summarize four main stages recognized. Earliest were events ascribed to God with no apparent realization of tectonic activity; these are unwitting accounts by its beneficiaries and victims. Second came tectonic events specifically described as demonstrations of God’s power, potentially altering history. Third was a large number of prophetic predictions of tectonic destruction, forming implied threats for religious manipulation, and last were New Testament visions of tectonism in connection with the end of the world, itself a sort of super-threat. It was noted that natural causes of earthquakes were not contemplated in any of these stages. Indeed it was the mythic context of several of these earthquakes that persisted through the ancient period into the present day.
A second way to organize the scriptural data on earthquakes would be based on the time period of writing and incorporation. For the period of writing itself brings into view the authors themselves and their personal experiences and biases. The chronology of writing and incorporation is complex (i.e. several books are of composite origin and age) and somewhat counterintuitive (table 1). I have used the Wikipedia (“Dating the Bible”) chronology because it represents current consensus.

Table 1. Era of recording or incorporation of selected Biblical books (columns) and era of nominal time of event described (rows), showing mention of earthquakes per se (red)
Era of event or prediction
Era of recording or incorporation
Early Monarchic
Later Monarchic
Joshua 1-14

Genesis and other Torah
Amos, (first)Isaiah
I, II Samuel, Psalms 1-89, I Kings, Jeremiah




Joel, Haggai, Zechariah

The overall pattern that emerges from this analysis, though well-accepted, has an inverse aspect. The earliest-written books are those of the prophets Amos, then (first) Isaiah in the late 8th century B.C. This tradition of prophesy persisted for over 800 years, long into the post-exilic period, finally into the New Testament. It consisted essentially of manipulation involving threats of all sorts of ills especially earthquakes if religious observance did not improve. The term earthquake occurs throughout this tradition. Beginning with the authors of the Deuteronomic history (excepting Joshua 1-14 as below), in the 7th century B.C., the term (sometimes reversed as shaking earth) enters the vocabulary of Hebrew religious history as well as the prophetic books.
The book of Genesis and the rest of the Torah, on the other hand, is post-exilic, composed from several sources, including traditional ones, but rather late and certainly several millennia after the events described. Thus it is interesting that the term earthquake does not appear in the Torah accounts, nor in conjunction with Joshua and Jericho’s conquest, thought to have been written separately from the rest of the Deuteronomic histories. It is possible that the original participants did not use the term; or it is possible that the term did not transmit across the centuries to the writers. Archaeological evidence strongly suggests, however, that events and disasters such as Sodom and Gomorrah, Joshua’s crossing of the Jordan, and the fall of the walls of Jericho had tectonic origins (Neev and Emery 1995, Nur 2008).
     With these results in mind, those of Force (2015) take on a new complexion. It appears that his first stage, which includes these tectonic events—but not labeled as such- -were records of oral traditions whose tectonic significance had long been lost by the time they were recorded (table 1). It is his third stage of prophetic threats and manipulation that both had the earliest origins, and emphasize earthquakes per se. So there never was a time of biblical record when recorders were unaware of earthquakes, indeed some were acutely aware of them, but events that had already become mythic by the time of recordation were ascribed to God’s power rather than tectonism.
     Of particular interest is the book of Amos, the earliest-written. The word earthquake appears in the first verse of the book as an introduction to Amos’ prophesy, which included a forecast of destruction that did occur two years later. Because this earthquake was so severe, its damage at widespread sites could be closely dated at 750 B.C. (Austin et al. 2000). 
     Thus, the zealous prophetic tradition in Judaic culture begins with linkage to an earthquake, and continues with threats of earthquakes throughout Judaic history into the New Testament.
Also of interest is Zechariah 14, which seems to describe particular fault transport directions for a predicted event in this region (“ . . . and half of the mountain shall remove to the north, and half of it toward the south” in KJV), directions that fit those of the Dead Sea rift. It is thought that this chapter was composed in the 5th century B.C., making it approximately coeval with the prescient observations of Thucydides (just prior to the Hellenistic period). Observations linking earthquakes and fault motion had already been recorded in Zoroastrian literature, however (Berberian, 2014).
God is the direct cause of all of these tectonic destructions in the Biblical literature, whether or not earthquakes are described as such. Natural processes are nowhere addressed as possible causes. Indeed the Hebrew literature continued to avoid the subject of natural causes into the Talmudic era, even though Greek influence is noted then (Becker 1998).
Conclusions drawn from voluminous Hebraic literature may, however, apply to the region rather than the culture. We have seen that the tectonic geology of the region is distinctive. Is it possible that cultural response to tectonism is correspondingly distinctive? However, Iron-age texts from other cultures of the region are scarce? For this reason I have looked at discussions of the late Bronze-Age Ugaritic texts with this question in mind. In CAT 1.3 III lines 4-31 (pp. 233-234), Smith and Pitard (2009) characterize Ugaritic treatment of all natural processes as “shamanistic” rather than “Yahwistic”. In CAT 1.4 VIII lines 1-9 (pp. 711-716) they note that Ugaritic treatment of the underworld somewhat resembles the Mesopotamian Gilgamesh Epic, rather than resembling the few Judaic treatments, in which the underworld is represented only by the grave or the bottom of the sea.
This comparison with Ugaritic texts, though necessarily sketchy, strongly suggests that the remarkable treatment of earthquakes in Hebraic literature is due to cultural rather than regional character. Religious imperatives molded this literature from its beginning, and apparently earthquakes and other natural events were used as needed.


The contrast between ancient Greek and Judaic texts with regard to earthquakes is stark. Earthquakes in the Greek literature were treated as pivotal phenomena to be discussed, and to be endured as part of life. Discussion was largely secular, and pervasive throughout the culture. Treatment in the context of their polytheistic religion faded in favor of a search for natural causes. Earthquakes as significant gateways to the underworld is characteristic.
Hebraic/Judaic treatment of earthquakes is relatively monotonic as acts of God, driven by relentless monotheists. Indeed its prophetic tradition was initiated by an earthquake and the earthquake theme continued in its zealous literature for hundreds of years. Neither a search for natural causes nor curiosity about the underworld appears in it.
Both strains of thought about earthquakes persist in our modern world, perhaps inevitably as both Greek and Hebraic thought are foundations thereof.


Ed Wright and Matt Winter contributed thoughts for the Judaic/Hebrew parts, and Jeremy Rutter for the Hellenic part.


Austin, S. A., Franz, G. W., and Frost, E. G., 2000, Amos’s earthquake: an extraordinary Middle East seismic event of 750 B.C.: International Geology Review v. 42, p. 657-671.

Becker, Hans-Jurgen, 1998, Earthquakes, insects, miracles, and the order of nature, in Talmud Yerushalmi and Graeco-Roman culture v. 1, Peter Schafer, ed., p. 387-396: Mohr-siebeck, Tubingen.

Berberian, M., 2014, Earthquakes and coseismic surface faulting on the Iranian plateau: a historical, social, and physical approach: Amsterdam, Elsevier.

Force, E. R., 2015, Impact of tectonic activity on ancient civilizations: recurrent shakeups, tenacity, resilience, and change: Lexington

Neev, D., and Emery, K.O., 1967, The Dead Sea: Geological Survey of Israel Bulletin 41.

------1995, The destruction of Sodom, Gomorrah, and Jericho: geological, climatological, and archaeological background: Oxford

Nur, A., 2008, Apocalypse: Princeton

Polimenakos, L. C., 1996, Thoughts on the perception of the earthquake in Greek antiquity p. 253-260, in Archaeoseismology, British School at Athens Occasional paper 7.

Reilinger, R. E., and 8 others, 1997, Global Positioning System measurements of present-day crustal movements in the Arabia-Africa-Eurasia plate collision zone: Journal of Geophysical Researh v. 102 B5 p. 9983-9999.

Robinson, A., 2016, Earth-shattering events: Thames and Hudson

Smith, M. S. and Pitard, W. T., 2009 The Ugaritic Baal Cycle v. II: Brill, Leiden.
Pp. 233-4 (CAT 1.3 III lines 4-31) Ugaritic treatment of nature more shamanistic than “Yahwistic”
Pp. 711-716 (CAT 1.4 VIII lines 1-9) underworld in the style of older regional treatments cf. Gilgamesh. Compared to Job (7:9) and Jonah (2:7) in which underworld is the grave and sea-bottom respectively.

Soter, S., 1998, Uplift and subsidence of the Helike delta, in Coastal Tectonics, I. Stewart and C. Vita-Finzi, eds.: p. 41-56, Geological Society (London) Special Publication 146.

Stewart, I. S., and Hancock, P. L., 1988, Normal fault zone evolution and fault-scarp degradation in the Aegean region: Basin Research v. 1, p. 139-153

Wikipedia, xxxx, Dating the Bible: 

Fig. 1 after Reilinger et al. (1997).  Simplified tectonic map of the eastern Mediterranean region. Solid lines are strike-slip faults, ticked lines are normal faults, and lines with trianges are thrust faults.  Dashed lies are international boundaries