This paper examines the ways in which the ongoing development of natural archives can be brought to bear to advance and complement existing understandings of human history. Here, we will specifically study the examples of polar ice cores and Ptolemaic Egypt of 305-30 BCE, with additional consideration of Babylon in the same period. Polar ice-cores have long been used to extend our histories of climate-altering volcanic eruptions, which often took place in periods and regions for which little well-dated written evidence is available before the early modern period, e.g. many regions of the tropics. These ice-cores reveal past volcanic events by capturing the atmospheric fallout of anomalous levels of sulphate in annually forming layers of polar ice. But it is only since 2015 that the counting of these layers has been achieved with enough accuracy and precision for the Ancient period to be of use to historians. By reading this new archive in combination with written records, it is possible to first show the impact of major eruptions on the economically critical summer flooding of the Nile and Euphrates, and to trace these economic impacts (as well as potential psychological and religious impacts) on Egyptian and Babylonian societies, in the form of changing commodity prices, sales of land, increased conflict, the issuance of priestly decrees, royal edicts and petitions for relief and redress following failed harvests or acts of theft and violence. With multiple large eruptions occurring in this period, these findings suggest that volcanically induced “hydroclimatic shocks” should be seen as recurrent influences on society, but should also be seen as acting via pre-existing vulnerabilities that reduced social resilience.

About the speaker:

Francis Ludlow, Trinity Centre for Environmental Humanities, and Department of History, Trinity College Dublin. Principal Investigator of the IRC Laureate Award-funded project "Climates of Con!ict in Ancient Babylonia" (2018-2022) and Co-PI of the U.S. National Science Foundation-funded project "Volcanism, Hydrology and Social Con!ict: Lessons from Egypt & Mesopotamia" (2018-2022).

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