Twilight of the Gods? the 'Dust Veil Event' of AD 536 in Critical Perspective

Article excerpt


'Then it was destroyed by the volcano'

Over the last ten years or so, questions of human-environmental interaction, and particularly the cultural impact of natural disasters, have developed a growing prominence in archaeological research. In their ancient reflection of contemporary social concerns, it is not difficult to understand why these issues have been debated with renewed urgency, and also found their way into popular science writing on the past (Fagan 2000, 2004; Diamond 2005). Natural cause and social effect have been directly linked: for example, in a chain of argument dating back to Fouques work of 1879 (1998), seismic calamity and volcanic eruptions were once regularly blamed for bringing about the 'end' of the Minoan and Mycenaean civilisations, and for generally disrupting the Bronze Age societies of the region. The proponents of widespread social collapse through long-term environmental dislocation have attracted considerable critique within the archaeological community (e.g. Tainter 2008; Inglis & Pryor 2009; McAnany & Yoffee 2010), emphasising notions of resilience, the potential for ancient civilisations to recover (or not) after substantial environmental impacts. Debatable over-estimates of cultural dissolution following natural disasters have also tended to push the very real consequences of such catastrophes towards the academic fringe, what one might call the 'then it was destroyed by the volcano' school of history (Pomeroy 2008). Several recent collections have emphasised that communities once thought to have been eliminated by natural disasters, or which would once have been assumed to have succumbed, in fact achieve renewed stability relatively soon (e.g. Torrence & Grattan 2002; Grattan & Torrence 2007, with particular reference to the Americas). Accordingly, a more nuanced perspective is now the norm (for recent works on the Aegean see Friedrich 2009; Warburton 2009; Knappett et al. 2011).

Alongside the science-based study of environmental catastrophe, a new emphasis on so-called 'geomythology' has emerged, exploring how understandings of such events may have been articulated through stories of gods, supernatural powers and the cosmos (the term was coined by Vitaliano in 1968; see also Piccardi & Masse 2007). The concept of geomythology has clear problems, inherent in its central attempt to link the hard science of environmental cause and effect with the humanities-based study of oral tradition and epic literature (e.g. Baillie 1998; contra Buckland et al. 1997). These include the serious risk of circular argument and 'confirmation bias' (Rundkvist 2011). The addition of archaeology to the mix provides further complications through an attempt to assess social response articulated in material culture. However, the limitations of certain case studies are no reason to reject all the others, and with sensible caution the principle remains both logical and viable in its historical utility.

Conscious of these debates, we here examine a specific event of this kind, the so-called 'dust veil' of AD 536, and critically explore its interpretation from a range of interdisciplinary perspectives. By way of explanatory example, we then present a number of new conclusions about its impact and possible geomythological legacy within a single region--in some ways the least-studied of the many areas affected--namely Scandinavia.

The dust veil event of AD 536: textual scholarship and the environmental sciences

The first observations of what scientists later termed the 'dust veil' appear in a number of Late Antique sources dating to the same time (Arjava 2006). The most detailed and dramatic description comes from the Roman official Cassiodorus, writing outside Ravenna, in whose Variae we read of "something coming at us from the stars" that produces a "blue-coloured sun", dims the full moon and results in "a summer without heat . …