Apocalypse then?

The Laacher See volcanic eruption (13,000 years before present), Deep Environmental History and Europe’s geo-cultural heritage

The project Apocalypse then? The Laacher See volcanic eruption (13,000 years before present), Deep Environmental History and Europe’s geo-cultural heritage, hosted at the Laboratory for Past Disaster Science (LAPADIS) at Aarhus University started in January 2017 and will run for four years with funding from the Independent Research Council Denmark through their Sapere Aude funding instrument. The project integrates archaeological and volcanological perspectives in a comparative study of the potential impacts of Northern Europe’s last major continental volcanic eruption – the eruption of the Laacher See volcano of 11,000 BC located in present-day westernmost Germany – on contemporaneous forager communities. This eruption deposited ash (= tephra) in a broad swath across Europe, from Italy in the south to north-west Russia in the north. Previous research suggested major impacts also on communities far away in, for instance, southern Scandinavia (Riede 2008). This project attempts to investigate the eruption impacts in the areas not immediately adjacent to the eruptive centre but further removed from it. The project also aims to provide a robust historically informed evidence-base for an engagement of deep-time Environmental Humanities with the profound ethical predicaments of present and future climate change and climate catastrophe

Late Pleistocene Europe and the extent of the Laacher See ash fallout (black dots), and archaeological sites where Laacher See directly overlies cultural layers (white circles). The three concentric circles mark the proximal (0-50 km), medial (50-500 km) and distal (500-1000 km) impact zones; the Laacher See caldera is located in the centre of these circles


Capturing the imagination of the public and professionals alike, volcanic eruptions and their human impacts have long been a topic of intense interest. However, blanket explanations of their devastation have also attracted harsh criticism; many see them merely as convenient rhetorical tools to tell and sell dramatic yet ultimately trite stories of past tragedies (Pomeroy 2008). Yet, increasingly high-resolution palaeoenvironmental data are suggesting that much significant past culture change – the emergence or decline of new cultures and civilisations – was indeed concentrated during precisely such ‘moments of crisis’ (Diamond 2005; Tipping et al. 2012), many at least partially volcanically-induced (Buntgen et al. 2016; Huhtamaa and Helama 2017; McCormick et al. 2007; Sigl et al. 2015; Toohey et al. 2016). These new data thus open up for alternative and more nuanced reconstructions of past human|environment relations centred on notions of vulnerability and resilience. The project Apocalypse then? merges three recent developments in the Historical Sciences: On the one hand the ‘environmental turn’ in history, which collapses the traditional dualism of cultural and natural history (Chakrabarty 2009), and on the other the notion of Deep History (Shryock et al. 2011) as an inclusive framework for bio-geo-cultural developments in the long term. Finally, the project follows an explicit transdisciplinary design that considers the material traces of the past as part of a single common empirical record, the detailed study of which requires collaboration. This project thus brings together and benchmarks the humanistic and natural scientific perspectives on past environments and aims to lay the foundation for a Deep Environmental History by providing a historically informed evidence base for discussing long-term human|environment interactions in novel ways. The project develops the framework for Deep Environmental History in the context of one particular in-depth case study of catastrophic environmental change that at once united and divided Europe and created particular conditions for culture change in Scandinavia.

The Laacher See today – a water-filled caldera in a rich and lush cultural landscape in one of the most densely settled parts of Europe.

13,000 years ago the Laacher See volcano, located in present-day western Germany, erupted cataclysmically (Litt et al. 2003; Schmincke et al. 1999), throwing Europe into a proverbial ‘moment of crisis’. Previous work has demonstrated that this eruption deposited ash (= tephra) from Italy in the south to Russia in the north, and from France in the west to Poland in the east (Riede 2012, 2016; Riede et al. 2011; Riede and Thastrup 2013). Archaeological evidence also suggests that people in northern Central Europe were affected negatively by this eruption via, for instance, increased dental abrasion (Riede and Wheeler 2009) and via respiratory health issues (Riede and Bazely 2009) related to ash ingestion/inhalation. Yet, at the same time as northern-central Europe was depopulated, southern Scandinavia experienced a cultural effervescence in the form of the so-called Bromme culture, which I have argued – against received wisdom – reflects not adaption but post-eruption demographic change and social isolation (Riede 2008, 2014b, 2014c; Riede and Edinborough 2012).

This first-order dual hypothesis about cultural consequences as well as the second-order hypotheses about impact mechanisms remain deeply controversial, however, with arguments now focusing on cultural taxonomy, chronology, and analytical methods; the debate has reached a point where only new empirical work will be able to provide resolution (Buck Pedersen 2014; Riede 2013, 2014a, 2017a; Sørensen 2010). Rock-shelters and caves are ideal natural sediment traps that, unlike open-air sites (Housley and Gamble 2015) are highly likely to preserve both archaeological remains and tephra. This makes the powerful new tools of tephrochronology (Davies 2015) patently applicable to seek correlations across sites. The above depopulation hypothesis generates testable predictions for the stratigraphic relations of volcanic fallout and occupation layers, whilst the cultural emergence component generates predictions about the technological and cultural relationships between the Bromme culture and more southerly groups. New discoveries of archaeological remains in direct contextual association with Laacher See tephra (LST) would facilitate a reanalysis – overdue in light of recent empirical work (Riede et al. 2011) and developments in climate impact models (Sigl et al. 2015) – of the eruption parameters and the analysis of the ash’s detrimental impacts on ecosystems and climate, i.e. testing second-order impact mechanism hypotheses. For, instance, the loading of the atmosphere by volcanic gasses may have impacted the environment on different timescales and in different ways, both locally by fallout from the troposphere and more regionally – perhaps even globally – by reduced solar radiation in the stratosphere (Textor et al. 2005, 2003). Potentially, a major re-writing of this part of European prehistory would be required, one that links the observed culture-historical patterns to the particular effects of the Laacher See eruption (LSE).

Together these recent discoveries set the stage for building on but also going significantly beyond previous efforts: First, through fieldwork in the mid-field (50-500km) zone affected by Laacher See fallout we will be able to directly assess the ecological and cultural impacts along a transect from proximal to distal vis-à-vis the eruptive centre. Second, drawing on the same fieldwork data, we will be able to critically assess previous reconstructions of the eruption dynamics themselves using the wealth of new geological information from these excavations, including a evaluation of suggested precursor eruptions, which would have significant bearing on the utility of this eruption’s associated tephra isochrones (Housley et al. 2013; Lane et al. 2012; Schirmer 1995). Thirdly, our reassessment of the contemporaneous southern Scandinavian archaeology will provide a decisive test of current controversies – which emerged as a direct consequence of previous research – surrounding the status of the iconic Bromme culture. Finally, the Laacher See volcano is merely dormant and the possibility – low as it may be – of future catastrophe allows us to use its past eruption as an exemplar of future risks (Clarke 1999, 2008). Northern Hemisphere warming may lead to increased eruption frequencies (Pagli and Sigmundsso 2008; Sigmundsson et al. 2010) and volcanologists have begun to use the LSE as an exemplary case for how Europe may be affected by such a disaster (Donovan and Oppenheimer 2014; Oppenheimer 2011). Geologists, environmental humanists, sociologists and historians are suggesting that we need to move towards greater disaster literacy and geo-ethical engagement (Bohle 2015; Clarke 2004; Rigby 2015; van Bavel and Curtis 2016). The Apocalypse Then? project will provide the critical transdisciplinary foundation for making such engagement – both locally and in a wider European and global arena. These outreach efforts draw on the project’s results as well as comparatively on Europe’s disaster heritage to bolster culturally and historically aware environmental literacy via narratives of past human|environment relations (Capeloa Gil and Wulf 2015; Horn 2014).

Research design

With the first-order hypothesis of human impact in Central Europe and southern Scandinavia respectively clearly formulated, the project’s five Work Packages (WPs) are designed to first formalise second-order hypotheses of impact mechanisms and to then test both them and the central first-order hypotheses. The final WP is concerned with synthesising the project’s results with explicit societal relevance in relation to current debates of environmental change and with outreach.

WPI: Comparative analytical framework

Objectives: To generate spatially and temporally explicit second-order hypotheses regarding impact mechanism against the background of recent and historical volcanism (Barclay et al. 2015; Blong 1984); to integrate ‘social volcanology’ (Donovan 2010) and ‘humanistic volcanology’ (Lockwood and Hazlett 2010) with the deep historical perspective to create a distinct, widely applicable and case-transferable ‘palaeosocial volcanology’ (Riede 2015, 2017b, 2018) analytical framework.

Methods: 1) Open Access database of LST occurrence; 2) Production of a state-of-the-art sourcebook and Open Access database of historically/ethno-historically known response patterns, which will provide the comparative backbone for formulating specific second-order impact mechanism hypotheses.

WPII: Cultural taxonomy of the Bromme culture

Objectives: To quantify and hence clarify the taxonomic and chronological status and chronology of the southern Scandinavian Bromme culture and its network connections to continental Europe and to thereby test the first-order hypothesis of an ancestor-descendant relationship between Central European and southern Scandinavian groups.

Methods: 1) State-of-the-art geometric morphometric analysis of the relevant archaeological material comprehensively registered in the Danish Central Heritage Register; 2) C14 dating and Bayesian modelling; 3) isotopic provenience investigations of potentially exchanged objects as social network proxies.

Initial results from this WP indicate that the traditional taxonomic distinction between the Bromme culture and the contemporaneous Federmessergruppen is actually problematic and may need to be revised (Serwatka and Riede 2016).

WPIII: Ground-thruthing the impact hypothesis

Objectives: To field-test the first-order impact hypothesis via observed stratigraphic and chronological relations, i.e. LST is expected to always cap settlements remains along a systematic transect of sites between 50-500km from the eruptive centre.

Methods: 1) Digitisation/geo-referencing of the Cave Register of Hesse; 2) Predictive modelling for site selection based on known locales to the south and north of the study area; 3) Excavating sites most promising for the preservation of relevant archaeology and tephra using the full battery of modern excavation/post-excavation techniques, especially 3D recording and micromorphology.

WPIV: Novel investigations of the Laacher See volcanic system

Objectives: To provide a better understanding of the LSE itself, potential precursor eruptions and data for constraining the geological parameters of potential future eruptions. To improve the tephrochronological utility of this fallout layer.

Methods: 1) Modelling of the eruption’s fallout dynamics and assessment of eruption duration/precursor eruptions; 2) Sedimentological (tephra particle shape, density and settling velocities via automated detection (D’Anjou et al. 2014; Watson et al. 2011) of ash particles and geochemical analyses (µXRF, EMP and LA-ICP-MS) to quantify potentially hazardous attributes of this eruption’s ejecta and to test the second-order impact hypotheses defined in WPI.

WPV: Synthesis and outreach

Objectives: To diachronically and comparatively contextualize the Laacher See case study with other prehistoric and historic eruptions and their hypothesised human impacts in Northern Europe (Neumann 1990; Price and Gräslund 2015; Risch and Meller 2013; Schmidt et al. 2011). To better understand this volcanic hazard in the midst of Europe, and to re-write part of Europe’s prehistory with explicit links to present concerns of climate catastrophe.

Methods: 1) Joint fieldwork, analysis, and publication; 2) joint public engagement in the field, in the lab and on the net; 3) core-group seminars, targeted workshops/conference sessions as well as a major international conference; 4) museum exhibition and outreach materials.

Dissemination and wider impact

This project’s ambition is to resolve the current controversy surrounding the origin and fate of southern Scandinavia’s first regional culture, the Bromme culture, with significant implications for the standard narrative and for heritage management practice in relation to this period (Riede 2013). At the same time, the project will also provide a systematic and transdisciplinary frame of reference for the comparative study of the impact of extreme environmental events on Deep History. In addition to its specific archaeological and geological objectives, the project also fosters the ambition to contribute to the wider debate about human|environment relations by actively engaging public and policy-makers alike in a discussion about what we can learn from the past in the current situation of climate change, catastrophe and fear (Dörries 2010; Hulme 2008). The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) recent report on natural hazards (Field et al. 2012) not only recognises their occurrence in the present, but also foresees them becoming more frequent – and tragic – in the future. The vulnerability of communities everywhere to, for instance, volcanism is increasing (Chester et al. 2001; Small and Naumann 2001), but rather than being a distant threat, the far-reaching, at times global environmental effects of volcanic eruptions makes Europe, too, vulnerable (Donovan and Oppenheimer 2014). We cannot afford to further side-line such potentially existential threats (Rees 2013), but can we proactively engage a ‘usable past’ (Stump 2013) as a repository of knowledge about such extreme events, especially in this ‘age of insecurity’ (Dawdy 2009)? Despite drawing heavily on palaeoenvironmental data as a tool for impact prediction, the IPCC does, ironically, not draw on archaeological data in constructing their scenarios of future human responses (Van de Noort 2013) and it has been criticised for its biased approach (Bjurström and Polk 2011; Nielsen 2013). Rather than shunning the otherwise so remarkable efforts of the IPCC, however, the Apocalypse Then? project instead aims to complement it and similar endeavours with a deep historical perspective, to complement the natural science of climate and the environment with the much-demanded ‘powerful narratives’ (Carter and van Eck 2014) of human impact – albeit not as just-so stories but as well-founded, historically informed and evidence-based scenarios. To this end, the project will, in addition to its scholarly output, create a public interface through its exhibition as well as reports aimed at relevant stakeholders who will also be invited to project workshops and conferences.

The foundational disaster researcher Gilbert White (1974) has famously argued that optimal resilience blends modern high-tech solutions with pre-industrial response measures. Perched between the Humanities and the Natural Sciences, this project seeks to draw strength from disciplinary interfaces with its field-sites serving as disciplinary and dissemination meeting points, so-called collaboratories (Finholt and Olson 1997). Numerous research areas within the Humanities are currently concerned with re-embedding the environment in history and culture (Nye et al. 2013; Rose et al. 2012; Yusoff and Gabrys 2011). Evidence-based and historically informed, Apocalypse Then? has a potentially significant strategic role to play here by offering a transdisciplinary and globally unique Deep Environmental History perspective on long-term vulnerability and resilience. A major deliverable associated with this project is the monograph Riede, F., 2017. Splendid isolation. The eruption of the Laacher See volcano and southern Scandinavian Late Glacial hunter-gatherers. Aarhus University Press, Aarhus.

Based on the work conducted in this project and as a final major deliverable, Moesgård Museum in Denmark is hosting (Sept 2020-May 2021) a special exhibition with the title ‘After the Apocalypse‘. The idea behind the exhibition is to mirror potential futures in an actual past. To this end, the exhibition showcases the project’s scientific results and then engages visitors in a science-based thought experiment regarding the future. Against a background of climate change – the turbulent changes of the Late Pleistocene as recorded in palaeoclimatic proxies and the IPCC projections for future scenarios – the exhibition draws on the insights ained from recent eruptions in terms of impacts on lives and livelihoods. The exhibition also stresses that such calamities always offer the possibility of positive change, too. While volcanism stands strong in the exhibition, it is not about natural history nor is it shown in a museum of natural history. Instead, it is about lived experiences of climate change and extreme events, and about resilience, vulnerability and coping; about values and choices; and about imagining the unimaginable.

Why an exhibition? Museums are remarkable places of trust, of curiosity and learning that bring together people of different ages and walks of life. Narratives, we know, are effective means of communicating climate and environmental issues (e.g. Morris et al. 2019; Schneider-Mayerson et al. 2020). And recent research further suggests that especially narratives with negative valence lead to more action (Morris et al. 2020). In that sense the exhibition is deliberately uncanny and dark in its design, while remaining open-ended in terms of its conclusions.

Major collaborators and affiliated institutions

  • Prof. Katharine Cashman, Bristol University (volcanology)
  • Prof. Neil Price, Uppsala University (human impacts, ethics)
  • Dr. Claudia Timmreck, MPI-Meteorology, Hamburg
  • Dr. Ulli Kueppers, LMU Munich
  • Prof. Uwe Kierdorf, Hildesheim University
  • Professor MSO Christian Tegner at AU Geoscience
  • Associate Prof. Jesper Olsen at the AU AMS Dating Facility.

The Laboratory for Past Disaster Science operates under the auspices of the AU Centre for Environmental Humanities and in collaboration with BIOCHANGE – Center for Biodiversity Dynamics in a Changing World also at AU.

Contact information

Project Leader: Professor MSO Felix Riede, PhD, Department of Archaeology and Heritage Studies, Aarhus University

Mailing Address: Department of Archaeology and Heritage Studies, Moesgård Allé 20, 8270 Højbjerg, Denmark

E-mail: f.riede@cas.au.dk           

Twitter: @LAPADIS_AU

Project webpage: http://projects.au.dk/lapadis/


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