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01 Mar 2006 07:31
Archaeologists have uncovered remains of an Indonesian civilisation entombed by debris from the largest volcanic eruption in modern history.
Mount Tambora’s eruption on April 10 1815 smothered villages on the island of Sumbawa with pumice, ash and rock, and claimed the lives of 90 000 people.
The impact of the blast was felt around the world. The volcano ejected more than 30 cubic kilometres of magma and thrust nearly 400m tonnes of sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere, which caused a global cooling of nearly 1C, creating what volcanologists refer to as the “year without a summer”.
Debris and ash from the eruption brought destruction to crops as far afield as North America, France and Germany.
In Britain, fine particles suspended in the atmosphere created rich, vibrant skies for more than a year.
With the help of a local guide, scientists working on the island have unearthed the village of Tambora.
Inside, a woman was found in the kitchen, her hand next to some molten glass bottles. The house, which stood on on wooden stilts with bamboo sides and a thatched roof, had been incinerated into charcoal by the fiery ash that is believed to have reached more than 500°C.
The remains of a second person were found outside what was probably the building’s front door. Haraldur Sigurdsson, a volcanologist from the University of Rhode Island who is leading the dig, said the entire village, its occupants and culture were encapsulated beneath the ash, making the finding of great cultural significance.
The remains reveal how the village’s 10 000 residents were probably wiped out within moments as the avalanche of hot volcanic ash, rock and gases, known as a pyroclastic flow, struck.
“We know that in an eruption such as that in 1815, that pyroclastic flows extend from the volcano in all directions to a distance of at least 40km radially and within that zone ... there is an extinction of all life,” said Sigurdsson.
The blast was six times more powerful than the eruption at Mount Pinatubo in 1991 and dwarfed that which destroyed the Roman town of Pompeii.
The civilisation on Sumbawa island has intrigued researchers ever since Dutch and British explorers visited in the early 1800s and were surprised to hear a language that did not sound like any other spoken in Indonesia, Sigurdsson said. Some scholars believe the language was more like those spoken in Indochina. But not long after westerners first encountered Tambora, the society was destroyed.
“The explosion wiped out the language. That’s how big it was,” Sigurdsson said. “But we’re trying to get these people to speak again, by digging.”
Artefacts uncovered at the site suggest that Tambora people may have had trade links with Indochina. Pottery uncovered nearby resembles that commonly found in Vietnam.
The dig will help volcanologists predict the potential dangers of volcanoes which remain active today. By feeding details from Tambora into computer models, they can estimate the lethal reach of those volcanoes should they erupt. “Events of this type will occur in the future, and we should be aware of what could happen,” said Prof Sigurdsson.
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