Description of research
About four thousand years ago, a major eruption of the Monte Somma Vesuvius devastated the landscape and the flourishing Early Bronze Age society then occupying the southern part of the region of Campania (Italy). Following an initial small eruption, which is thought to have allowed the population to flee the area, heading inland rather than towards the sea, the so-called Avellino (AV) pumice eruption phase deeply buried the Early Bronze Age landscape to the north and east of the volcano (Sulpizio et al. 2010). It was only during construction work in 1972, near the town of Palma Campania, that the first settlement buried by the Avellino eruption was discovered (Albore Livadie 1980). Since then, Italian archaeologists have uncovered and described many more Early Bronze Age settlements of this so-called ‘Palma Campania facies’, all with clear stratigraphic connections to the eruption (Albore Livadie 1999; Di Vito et al. 2009; Saccoccio et al. 2013; Talamo 1998). Some of the remains, perfectly preserved by the eruption products, have been deservedly publicised as ‘the Bronze Age Pompeii’.
Further away from Mount Vesuvius the impact of this eruption would obviously have been less devastating, but in these distal areas the Avellino ash can still be found in sediment cores from lake beds and from the Adriatic seabed, where they form an excellent tephrochronological marker bed (e.g. Sulpizio et al. 2008; Zanchetta et al. 2011). The precise date of the Avellino eruption, which has long been the subject of debate among archaeologists and geologists, was recently fixed by robust radiocarbon dating to 1995+-10 BC (Sevink et al. 2011 and 2013; see also Passariello et al. 2009). The Avellino eruption must have wrought both immediate and long-lasting havoc in much of the Campanian coastal plain. Dramatic evidence is available to show that people were forced to flee taking only their most valuable possessions, and were unable to save all of their livestock (Passariello et al. 2009). At a somewhat longer time-scale, major historic ash falls of only a few cm thickness are known to have caused mass starvation by destroying crops (Self 2006), and thicker ash falls may severely affect topography, hydrology, and soil properties. A recent review of archaeological research in Campania (Di Lorenzo et al. 2013) concludes that, whilst a few areas seem to have recovered within decades after the Avellino eruption, it took up to several centuries before the Bronze Age population had fully recovered to pre-eruption levels.
Whilst the impact of the eruption within Campania itself continues to be studied intensively, little thought and no research effort has so far been spent to establish the subsequent whereabouts of the refugee Early Bronze Age people population. The central hypothesis of this research program is that a significant percentage of the refugees must have decided to resettle in the nearest coastal plains to the north – the Pontine Plain and Fondi Basin of South Lazio, and that we should therefore be able to prove this by tracing the ecological, demographic and cultural impacts that this immigrant population must have had. That no such impacts have yet been found despite the long Dutch tradition of landscape research in Southern Lazio is, as we shall argue below, due to the particular geological history of this area.
Starting in the 1970s, the soils and geology of the south Latial coastal plains (the Pontine plain, Fondi basin and Garigliano delta) were studied and mapped in detail by physical geographers from the University of Amsterdam (Sevink et al. 1984). Later on, the archaeology of the Pontine plain was studied by teams from the Universities of Amsterdam, Leiden and Groningen (Voorrips et al. 1991; Attema 1993; Van Leusen 2002; Van Joolen 2003). In particular, the recent investigations by the Groningen Institute of Archaeology in the Pontine plain have conclusively demonstrated that Bronze Age sediments and, indeed, settlements have been preserved deep beneath more recent geological strata (Feiken et al. 2012; Feiken 2014). Being part of a geologically sinking zone (a graben), nearly all of the archaeological evidence for the Early and Middle Bronze Ages has now been shown to lie buried some 1.5m below the present land surface – a depth reached only rarely by modern agricultural and construction work. This explains why the Italian State’s archaeological records for the coastal plains of south Lazio contain only three finds locations of Early Bronze Age sherds (the details of a fourth location have been lost; Alessandri 2007). Interestingly, those same records show that in the next phase (Middle Bronze Age 1/2) the Pontine Plain becomes much more densely populated, just when the population of Campania reaches its lowest ebb following the Avellino eruption (Alessandri 2013) …
Crucially for the research program, the distal ash from the Avellino eruption has now been found in the Pontine Plain in the sediments of a large late Holocene inland lake and river plain. Corings and test trenches (extensively described in Bakels et al. 2013, Feiken et al. 2012 and Feiken 2014) demonstrate that these sediments hold rich paleo-ecological and archaeological records. These discoveries now for the first time open up the exciting possibility of a detailed study of the Early Bronze Age in the coastal plains of southern Lazio – in particular with regard to the environmental and cultural impacts of a refugee population fleeing both from the eruption itself and from its adverse long-term effects back home in Campania.
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Alessandri, L. 2013. Latium Vetus in the Bronze Age and Early Iron Age / Il Latium vetus nell’età del Bronzo e nella prima età del Ferro, BAR International Series 2565, Oxford
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Sevink, J., van der Plicht, J., Feiken, H., van Leusen, P.M. & Bakels, C.C. 2013. The Holocene of the Agro Pontino graben: recent advances in its palaeogeography, palaeoecology, and tephrostratigraphy. Quaternary International 303, 153-162
Sulpizio, R., Bonasia, R., Dellino, P., Di Vito, M.A., La Volpe, L., Mele, D., Zanchetta, G., Sadori, L. 2008. Discriminating the long distance dispersal of fine ash from sustained columns or near ground ash clouds: the example of the Pomici di Avellino eruption (Somma-Vesuvius, Italy). Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research 177, 263-276. doi:10.1016/j.jvolgeores.2007.11.012
Sulpizio, R., Cioni, R., Di Vito, M.A., Mele, D., Bonasia, R. & Dellino, P. 2010. The Pomici di Avellino eruption of Somma-Vesuvius (3.9kaBP). Part I: stratigraphy, compositional variability and eruptive dynamics. Bulletin of Volcanology 72, 539–558
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Van Joolen, E. 2003. Archaeological land evaluation. A reconstruction of the suitability of ancient landscapes for various land uses in Italy focused on the first millennium BC. PhD thesis, Rijksuniversiteit Groningen (PDF download)
Van Leusen, P.M. 2002. Pattern to Process: methodological investigations into the formation and interpretation of spatial patterns in archaeological landscapes. PhD Thesis, University of Groningen (PDF download)
Voorrips, A., S.H. Loving & H. Kamermans, (eds) 1991. The Agro Pontino Survey Project. Methods and Preliminary Results, Amsterdam (Studies in Prae en protohistorie 6)
Zanchetta, G., Sulpizio, R., Roberts, N. et al. 2011. Tephrostratigraphy, chronology and climatic events of the mediterranean basin during the Holocene: an overview. Holocene 21: 33-52
Structure of research
Description of research
The Avellino Project