Blog #23: Graduate Student Feature with Phoebe Thompson

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 currently pursuing an MPhil in Archaeological Science at the University of Cambridge. With a background in Classics and Archaeology, as well as in Geology, my research is typically interdisciplinary and focuses on reconstructing past human-landscape interaction. One of my ongoing research projects examines how past peoples of the Mediterranean interpreted geological phenomena – earthquakes, geogenic degassing (the release of gases at the surface of the earth due to geological processes), tsunamis, or volcanic activity – as they constructed sacred landscapes.  With the eastern Mediterranean being one of the most seismically active regions of the world, and Italy being highly volcanically active, these phenomena were significant aspects of the ancient landscape.

A picture of the author hold a large pick axe while on excavation in Sicily.
Figure 1. The author working on the American Excavations at Morgantina: Contrada Agnese Project in Sicily

Past scholarly discussions of landscape, including sacred landscapes, have often focused upon the role of human interpretation of the surrounding natural world (Figure 1; Ashmore and Knapp 2003). In the eastern Mediterranean, scholars have examined relationships between unique geomorphological features and sacred space, suggesting that these features imbued the landscape with a certain sacred charisma that required the creation and monumentalization of cult sites (Robinson 2016). Others have noticed the interaction of ancient sacred spaces and geological phenomena that frequently affect the Mediterranean Basin, such as faults (Stewart and Piccardi 2017) and geogenic gases (Pfanz 2014). Some even argue that certain sanctuaries, such as that of Apollo at Delphi, utilized geogenic degassing in cult practice (De Boer et al. 2001; Etiope et al. 2006; Piccardi et al. 2008).

Like geomorphological features, geological events also had the ability to imbue a landscape with an inherent sacredness that required monumentalizing. My research focuses on both steps of this process: the initial interpretation and the resulting interaction of cult structure and geological features. Additionally, the interpretation of the natural world is often colored by ideological and socio-political factors (Ashmore and Knapp 2003). As such, I also look at how interpretations of geological phenomena, especially at important sanctuaries, potentially influenced how similar geological phenomena were interpreted as sacred at other sites. In doing so, I try to better understand how people of the past conceptualized the landscapes around them.

What sources or data do you use?

As my research examines the interaction of past people and geology, the sources and data I utilize are interdisciplinary. These sources include ancient text, epigraphy, material remains – architecture and small finds alike – and geophysical and geochemical data. The combination of these sources and data allows for the most complete reconstruction of geology-cult interaction in the ancient Mediterranean. This is because the three parts of my research – the interpretation of geological phenomena, the interaction of cult sites and geology, and the influence of the narratives of geology-cult interactions upon other cult sites – are best examined through different combinations of source material.

One key source of information on the interpretation of geological phenomena is geomythology. Geomythology is the study of evidence of the geological phenomena found in oral traditions and mythology (Vitaliano 1973). Generally, geomythology is understood as a branch of Traditional Environmental Knowledge, which is a body of knowledge concerning human-environmental interaction that is passed down through the generations, often in the form of oral history, songs, beliefs, and/or other artistic expressions. Some famous geomythologies include the story of the fire goddess Pele and the creation of the volcanic Hawaiian Islands or the Judeo-Christian story of the Great Flood. Within a classical context, ancient writers from Pindar to Aeschylus attribute the volcanic eruptions of Mt. Etna and/or the Vesuvius region to the angry stirring of Typhon imprisoned under one or both of the volcanoes (Mayor 2004). Likewise, it is argued that the Delphic origin myth, or Apollo’s slaying of the monster Python and establishment of an oracular sanctuary at Delphi, records a large-scale earthquake that affected the sanctuary site (Figure 2; Piccardi 2000). Even couched in poetic metaphor and symbolism, geomyths help to shed light on both past geological phenomena and how they were interpreted by past cultures. 

Close-up of an Attic red-figure vase with the seated Pythia on the left and King Aigeus on the right.
Figure 2. Attic red-figure kylix from Vulci (Italy), ca. 440-430 BCE, by the Kodros Painter: King Aigeus in front of the Pythia at Delphi. Antikensammlung Berlin, Altes Museum, F 2538 (Wikimedia Commons)
The ancient theater of Taormina in the foreground with Mt. Etna giving off smoke in the distance.
Figure 3. A smoking Mt. Etna seen from the ancient theater at Taormina

How does this research shed light on real people in the past?

The interpretation of geology, both geological phenomena and unique geomorphology, can be found in myths and oral traditions in every corner of the globe (Figure 3; Piccardi and Masse 2007). This is especially true for the Mediterranean, where geological phenomena were a common, even daily occurrence. Taking one of my most recent case studies, Hierapolis (central Turkey), as an example, we can begin to see the significance of geology-cult interaction in the daily lives of past people.

Located in the Anatolian Extension Province, Hierapolis is frequently affected by small- and large-magnitude earthquakes alike. The evidence of these earthquakes can be seen across the city as fractures in architectural remains. A key part of reconstructing local human-environmental interaction is using these remains to understand how people reacted within a cultural and political context. How did they choose to rebuild after more destructive earthquakes? And how did geological activity drive societal change or technological innovation?

Great work is already being done on this aspect of geology-human interaction, such as that by the most recent Grad Student Feature, Amanda Gaggioli. One way to supplement these contributions to the study of past people’s interactions with their environment is through the examination of ideological and religious contexts. At Hierapolis, people experienced geological phenomena every day in the form of geogenic gases used in the ritual practice of the Plutonium, a sacred space dedicated to Pluto and Kore (Pfanz et al. 2019). My research studies geology-cult interaction at both the Plutonium and the Sanctuary to Apollo at Hierapolis, as well as the influences upon the interpretation of geology within these sacred contexts. It is through the study of all these contexts, which played key roles in the lives of people of the ancient Mediterranean, that we will best understand how geology affected the way people interacted with the environment and conceptualized the landscapes they inhabited.

Additional Resources

Ashmore, W., & Knapp, A.B. 2003. Archaeologies of Landscape: Contemporary Perspectives. Oxford: Blackwell.

De Boer, J.Z., Hale, J.R., & Chanton, J. 2001. New evidence of the geological origins of the ancient Delphic oracle (Greece). Geology 29(8): p.707–710.

Etiope, G., Papatheodorou, G., Christodoulou, D., Geraga, M., & Favali, P. 2006. The geological links of the ancient Delphic Oracle (Greece): A reappraisal of natural gas occurrence and origin. Geology 34(10): p.821–4.

Mayor, A. 2004. Geomythology. Encyclopedia of Geology. Available at: https://web.stanford.edu/dept/HPS/MayorGeomythology.pdf  [Accessed September 24, 2019].

Pfanz, H. et al. 2014. The Ancient Gates to Hell and Their Relevance to Geogenic CO2. In History of Toxicology and Environmental Health, 92–117. Elsevier

Pfanz, H., Yüce, G., Gulbay, A.H., & Gokgoz, A. 2019. Deadly CO2 gases in the Plutonium of Hierapolis (Denizli, Turkey). Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences 11(4): p.1359–1371.

Piccardi, L. 2000. Active faulting at Delphi, Greece: Seismotectonic remarks and a hypothesis for the geologic environment of a myth. Geology 28(7): p.651.

Piccardi, L. et al. 2008. Scent of a myth: tectonics, geochemistry and geomythology at Delphi (Greece). Journal of the Geological Society 165(1).

Piccardi, L., & Masse, W.B. 2007. Myth and Geology. London: Geological Society. Available at: http://catdir.loc.gov/catdir/toc/fy0713/2007275494.html [Accessed September 14, 2019].

Robinson, B.A. 2016. Charismatic Landscapes? Scenes from Central Greece under Roman Rule. In J. McInerney & I. Sluiter (eds) Valuing Landscape in Classical Antiquity: Natural Environment and Cultural Imagination, 228–254. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill

Stewart, I.S., & Piccardi, L. 2017. Seismic faults and sacred sanctuaries in Aegean antiquity. Proceedings of the Geologists’ Association 128(5–6): p.711–721.

Vitaliano, D.B. 1973. Legends of the earth: their geologic origins. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Photo of the author in front of a fountain
Phoebe Thompson

Phoebe Thompson is an MPhil student in Archaeological Science at the University of Cambridge. Supervised by Professor Charles French, her dissertation examines site construction, site organization, and the economic network of the Etruscan-Umbrian frontier using soil micromorphology and geochemical analysis. Prior to Cambridge, Phoebe earned a B.A. from Pomona College (Claremont, CA) in Classical Languages and Literatures with a minor in Geology. Her undergraduate thesis, “‘The Sacred Earth, That Shakes:’ The Influence of the Delphic Narrative of Geology-Cult Interaction at Hierapolis”, was an exploration of the role of geology in the creation of sacred space in the eastern Mediterranean. Phoebe’s other research interests include geomythology, traditional environmental knowledge, human-environmental interaction, geoarchaeology, geohazards, the organization of domestic settlements, urban archaeology, landscape archaeology, and settlement modeling. She is also currently co-authoring an article on the reception of some elements of Classical literature and archaeology in J.R.R. Tolkien’s description of the flora of Ithilien in The Lord of the Rings.

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