Blog Post #21: Grad Student Feature with Amanda Gaggioli

One of Peopling the Past’s goals is to amplify the work of young and/or under-represented scholars and the amazing research that they are doing to add new perspectives to the fields of ancient history and archaeology (broadly construed). We will thus feature several blog posts throughout the year interviewing graduate students on their research topics, focusing on how they shed light on real people in the past.

April is Earth Day month, so here at Peopling the Past we’re featuring researchers who study human-environment relations in the past and the role of the natural world in human history.

What topic do you study?

I am an archaeologist in the Department of Classics and Stanford Archaeology Center at Stanford University. My ongoing dissertation focuses on human-environment relationships with respect to earthquakes and associated seismic phenomena in the Greco-Roman world. Earthquakes were and are still a persistent environmental hazard experienced in the Mediterranean, especially the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean, where some of earth’s major tectonic plates converge. Since some of the earliest excavations in the Aegean by notable archaeologists, such as Heinrich Schliemann and Sir Arthur Evans, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, earthquakes have been considered a factor behind observed destruction in cultural material remains.

Past scholarship in Mediterranean archaeology has relied on specific types of architectural destruction to identify earthquake factors. However, distinguishing earthquakes in the archaeological record presents some critical difficulties, since other factors, such as warfare and post-depositional processes, can cause similar types of destruction. This difficulty hinders the ability to accurately identify earthquakes in the archaeological record, and hence also limits the interpretation of their effects on society and culture.

Amanda explaining architectural destruction and ongoing excavation at Kourion in Cyprus.
Fig. 1. Amanda explaining architectural destruction and ongoing excavation at Kourion in Cyprus.

Previous interpretations of earthquake effects on society and culture have rarely extended beyond narratives of disaster and collapse (e.g. Nur and Cline 2000; Stiros 2001). However, Greco-Roman texts unveil a more complex reality of earthquake hazards. Some of the most striking accounts of earthquakes from the Greco-Roman world concern disaster scenarios in which death and destruction to the human-built environment led to a significant social disruption. While earthquakes were a common experience, these disaster-type scenarios represent a minority in the overall corpus of Greco-Roman earthquake accounts. Such accounts point out connections between earthquakes and not only disaster but also religion, geophysical forces and conditions, political and military history, human behavior, and of course the human-built environment. A venture into Greco-Roman accounts of earthquakes offers a glimpse into the complexities of life on shaking land and expands the types of questions one can ask about the factors of earthquakes in the archaeological record.

What sources or data do you look at?

Identifying and interpreting the realities of human-earthquake relationships in the Greco-Roman world requires new types of data and analytical techniques in archaeology. I work with interdisciplinary datasets, namely associated archaeological soils and architectural remains, primarily from the Helike Delta Plain in the northwest Peloponnese, Greece. I am also working with comparative data from sites in Turkey (Erdogmus et al. 2020) and Cyprus (Gaggioli in press). The archaeological record of the Helike Delta Plain has revealed a number of architectural destruction layers interpreted to be caused by earthquakes in occupation horizons, spanning the third millennium BCE up to present times. I am using techniques from geoarchaeology to reevaluate identifications of earthquakes in the archaeological record and interpret human-earthquake relationships over the short- and long-terms.

In addition to analyzing architectural destruction characteristic of seismic phenomena, I also target evidence of reconstruction and the use of seismic resilient architectural features. Furthermore, applications of soil micromorphology are necessary for linking archaeological evidence of destruction and reconstruction with geological residues of earthquakes. Soil micromorphology is the study of features and structures of undisturbed in situ soils in thin section at the microscopic level. If types of soil microfeatures related to seismic activity are identified in the topographic levels associated with the foundations of damaged structures, then an earthquake is more securely associated with observations of destruction and reconstruction activities.

The soil micromorphological evidence of earthquakes and associated architectural destructions and reconstructions speak to the ways in which earthquakes factored into cultural material choices and organization of the human-built environment.

Fig. 2. Amanda taking a soil sample for micromorphological analysis.
Fig. 2. Amanda taking a soil sample for micromorphological analysis.
How does this research shed light on real people in the past?

Just as Greco-Roman earthquake accounts elucidate the political and cultural factors implicated in the effects of earthquakes and related seismic phenomena, my archaeological data shows how divisions of nature and culture break down. The cultural, natural, historical, and political intermix in unique ways and implicate both the types of geological deformation and the types, levels, and extent of material destruction, reconstruction, and technological innovation observed. Earthquakes were a common experience in the Greco-Roman world and my research is beginning to unravel the relationship between earthquakes, disaster, resilience, and societal development. My new types of datasets and methodological approaches address previous challenges in Mediterranean archaeology, contribute to an earthquake environmental context of Greco-Roman history and culture, and give the earthquake environment an active, agential role.

Amanda preparing soil thin sections for micromorphological analysis.
Fig. 3. Amanda preparing soil thin sections for micromorphological analysis.

The environment is often treated as the passive backdrop of historical developments. Larger historical and archaeological works for the Greco-Roman world usually provide short geographical and environmental introductions but then pay little attention to the environmental context of human history, and still less to the environment as an agent in history. Environmental change is one of the toughest political issues society faces today and one that our culture is becoming increasingly invested in. In partial response to this, climate and history have gained prominence in academic research in recent years. My research contributes to this growing emergence of studies concerned with the relationship between environmental hazards and societal and cultural development and change.

Headshot of Amanda Gaggioli
Amanda Gaggioli

Amanda Gaggioli is a Ph.D candidate on the Classical Archaeology track at Stanford University. She received a B.A. in both Archaeology and Classics with a minor in Near Eastern Studies from Cornell University. She also completed an MA in Anthropology at Stanford. Amanda’s research includes interdisciplinary approaches that combine ancient textual, archaeological, and natural scientific approaches to past human-geological environmental relationships, in particular earthquakes and associated seismic phenomena, in the eastern Mediterranean. Her research interests include human-environment relationships, resilience archaeology, archaeological science, geoarchaeology, soil micromorphology, archaeoseismology, resilience archaeology, traditional environmental knowledge, and the Late Bronze Age and Early Iron Age transition in the eastern Mediterranean. Her PhD research includes archaeological fieldwork in Cyprus, Turkey, and Greece, spanning the third millennium BCE to fifth century CE, that aims at understanding how people were impacted by and responded to earthquakes and associated seismic hazards over both the short- and long-terms. She analyzes ancient textual sources that document earthquakes together with the material and geological residues of earthquakes from the archaeological record. She applies the techniques and approaches of archaeoseismology and soil micromorphology on targeted samples of architectural and geomorphological remains in order to determine relationships between humans, geological environmental change, and disaster both in the context of ‘collapse’ during the Late Bronze Age and also across temporal and spatial scales.

Amanda currently holds a Stanford Interdisciplinary Graduate Fellowship, National Geographic Early Career Grant, and a Multi-Country Fellowship with the Council of American Overseas Research Centers in support of her interdisciplinary dissertation research and fieldwork in Greece and Cyprus and her memberships with the American School of Classical Studies and the Cyprus American Archaeological Research Institute.

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