Clues to European Dark Ages found in Nemea, Greece, by UC Berkeley professor

By Patricia McBroom, Public Affairs

BERKELEY -- 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 G. Miller, professor of classics at the University of California, Berkeley, announced the results of recent digs near the site in an evening lecture on Tuesday, Dec. 8.

While excavating deep into the bed of the small Nemea River which 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.

According to popular belief, based on Gibbon's classic "Fall of the Roman Empire," barbarians brought about the fall of classical civilization by sacking Rome in 476 A.D. Byzantine civilization in the eastern Mediterranean, however, collapsed about 100 years later after a bubonic plague swept the region and after invasions by Slavic tribes and Persians.

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 1996, Miller led a revival of the ancient games by holding a modern day foot race on the ancient track. Hundreds of participants from around the world, including many celebrities, journeyed to Nemea to take part in the race. The Nemean games will be held again in the year 2000, on June 3 and 4.

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.

Said another source, the Roman writer Cassiodorus: "We have had a winter without storms, spring without mildness, summer without heat. Whence can we hope for mild weather, when the months that once ripened the crops have been deadly sick under the northern blasts? ... Out of all the elements, we find these two opposed to us: perpetual frost and unnatural drought."

Miller said that further confirmation of this unnatural climatic period comes from tree-ring data in several parts of the world. Ancient trees such as the 4,000-year-old bristle cone pines in California show that the years around 540 A.D. were those of the least growth in four millennia.

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.

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