Earthquakes, Sculpture and the Archaeological Record

Tumbled columns on the Northern Street
Earthquake “rubble” at Northern Street, Scythopolis (Beit Shean). Photo: TMK, May 2009.

Archaeoseismological research typically focuses on urban landscapes (see, for example, Andrew Wilson’s recent piece on Aphrodisias, or my own humble contribution on the Lykos Valley). Late antique assemblages of earthquake rubble at sites, such as Scythopolis (above), indeed show very nicely how earthquakes could affect urban life in devastating ways.

What is much less systematically discussed in scholarship is the impact of earthquakes on the sculptural landscape of ancient cities and sanctuaries. After all, statues were often placed in relatively exposed locations – such as on pedestals and bases – that would have made them prone to both direct and indirect effects of earthquakes. This point – that I have impressionistically explored in a contribution to this volume – is very nicely underlined in the image below of a “survivor” from the 8.3-magnitude earthquake that struck Stanford University (and the surrounding communities) on 18 April 1906.

Fallen statue of Louis Agassiz, Stanford main quad, photo: Frank Davey, 1906.

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