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In Ancient Times a River Ran Through It
Classics Professor Says a Long-Dead River in Nemea, Greece May Hold Clues to Europe's Dark Ages

By Patricia McBroom, Public Affairs
Posted February 17, 1999

Photo: Stephen Miller

Excavations by classics professor Stephen Miller at the ancient site of Nemea, Greece led to reconstruction of an original location for the Panhellenic Games. Jane Scherr photo.

A tiny Christian village in ancient Greece and a long-dead river have provided the first clues that a terrible drought may have set off the European Dark Ages, at least in the eastern Mediterranean.

The clues come from the archaeological site of Nemea, Greece, where ancient athletic games were held. Stephen Miller, professor of classics, announced the results of recent digs near the site.

While excavating deep into the bed of the small Nemea River that runs through the site, Miller made an unexpected discovery. He found a much larger, older river bed that had completely run dry during the first half of the 6th century A.D.

At about the same time, said Miller, an agricultural community of early Christians at Nemea became impoverished and short on water. They built new wells but used them for only a short period of time.

The Christian community at Nemea was totally destroyed by invading Slavs in A.D. 585, but Miller said the archaeological evidence clearly indicates the community had already fallen on hard times 50 years earlier.

Miller believes these clues, taken together, provide the first evidence of an extraordinary drought in the eastern Mediterranean that may have laid the groundwork for that region's later devastation by plague and marauding Slavic tribes.

His evidence lends weight to a recent theory that the Dark Ages were brought on by a cataclysmic event, a violent volcanic eruption in 536 A.D. that cloaked the skies in volcanic dust and cast the world into cold darkness for more than a year.

The evidence of drought at Nemea and its implications for classical civilization represent a new direction for Miller, whose excavations at the Greek site since 1974 have led to the reconstruction of much of the original setting for the Panhellenic Games, including the stadium and track, a bathhouse and a temple to Zeus.

In 1997, Miller and his team set out to find the course of the ancient Nemea river in order to divert water there and save artifacts scattered throughout the area.

What he discovered, however, were three older rivers and an excellent stratigraphy with which to decipher changes that had occurred since the early Mycenean era in the 12th century B.C.

"We could see cycles of aridity and dampness for more than 3,000 years," said Miller. "There had been a large river during the early Christian era; then, suddenly, there was no river."

The team confirmed through excavation that the river had not been diverted somewhere else, but had actually stopped flowing in the first half of the 6th century A.D.

That period corresponds with worldwide accounts of a massive climatic change, caused perhaps by a volcanic eruption, perhaps in New Guinea in 536 A.D., according to a theory proposed recently by the astrophysicist R. B. Stothers and others, said Miller.

The strange effects were recorded by observers from Rome to China who noted that the sun went dark for more than a year and all the crops failed.

"The Sun gave forth its light without brightness, like the Moon, during this whole year, and it seemed very much like the Sun in eclipse, for the beams it shed were not clear," wrote Procopius of Greece in 536 A.D.

The possibility that massive climatic change caused the fall of the Byzantine Empire was discussed by climatologist William James Burroughs in his 1997 book, "Does the Weather Really Matter?" But he noted that the one piece of evidence missing was a sign of drought in the eastern Mediterranean.

"We now have that evidence," said Miller.


February 17 - 23, 1999 (Volume 27, Number 23)
Copyright 1999, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.
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