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Volcanic eruption may have forced ancient Egyptians to abandon a city

Water being pumped out of the gate chamber housing an ancient well in Egypt

M. Woźniak

Ancient Egyptians abandoned one of their coastal cities more than 2000 years ago, when the supply of fresh water dried up. The cause may have been a major volcanic eruption, possibly on the other side of the world, that triggered a severe drought.

Archaeologists have been excavating the city of Berenike on Egypt’s Red Sea coast on and off since 1994. Berenike was founded between 275 and 260 BC, but was temporarily abandoned sometime between 220 and 200 BC, before being repopulated for many centuries. After Egypt was annexed by the Roman Empire in 30 BC, Berenike became the empire’s southernmost port.

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Berenike was “a kind of combination of city and military base”, says Marek Woźniak at the Institute of Mediterranean and Oriental Cultures in Warsaw, Poland.

Since 2014, Woźniak has been excavating the remains of a gate and tower in the fortress wall. With James Harrell at the University of Toledo in Ohio, he has now described a well sunk into the floor of the building. The well still accumulates water today. “It tastes pretty good, although actually a bit salty,” says Woźniak.

However, the well dried up between 220 and 200 BC, and sand was blown into it by the wind. This sand is preserved in the well, and contains two bronze coins dating from the decades before 199 BC. Elsewhere in the fortress, there are few artefacts from that time, suggesting Berenike was abandoned.

There must have been a drought lasting several years to cause the well to dry up, says Woźniak. He says the most likely cause is a volcanic eruption. In line with this, a 2017 study led by Jennifer Marlon at Yale University found that, in 209 BC, a volcanic eruption released lots of sulphate aerosols into Earth’s atmosphere. This caused the summer rains over the Nile headwaters to fail. The lack of rain could explain the well drying out, which perhaps helped encourage inhabitants to abandon the city.

It is unclear which volcano would have been responsible. Woźniak and Harrell suggest four possibilities: Popocatéptl in Mexico, Pelée on the island of Martinique in the Lesser Antilles, Tsurumi or Hakusan, both of which are in Japan.

Journal reference: Antiquity, DOI: 10.15184/aqy.2021.16

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