Blog Post #57: Crisis, Migration, and Resilience with Stephanie Martin

In 2021, Peopling the Past ran a month-long blog series in April on human-environment relations. This year, we’re dedicating April to the (related) area of human migration in the past, and its implications for understanding how we came to be who we are through migration, and how we balance our ever-evolving understanding of human movement with senses of place, rootedness, and identity.

Migration and mobility are behaviors that have been written into our DNA, starting with the very first bipedal steps our ancestors took in Africa millions of years ago, and they continue to shape our modern world. Countless migrations of the past have irreversibly changed the course of global and local histories, while contemporary movements influence political movements, policy developments, the global economic system – the very fabric of our society. Migration has always been a strategy of human communities to adapt to changing circumstances, a survival tactic, and a means of resilience in the face of adversity. My research focuses on migration as an adaptation to crisis, and as a fundamentally human activity throughout history (Baker and Tsuda 2015; De Genova 2020). 

Archaeological data can be considered a “usable past” (Riede and Sheets 2020) and a critical source of knowledge for informing present-day debates about migration and highlighting migrants’ strategies of resistance and resilience. By bringing the past and present into dialogue with one another through the common thread of migration, I build multi-temporal narratives to address contemporary issues such as human responses, adaptations, and resilience to climatic and environmental crises. In this vein, I recently examined migration as an adaptive, resilient response to three specific volcanic crises: eruptions of Mount Vesuvius ca. 1900 BCE, AD 79, and the next, impending, future eruption (figure 1).

A painting of mount Vesuvius erupting at night. Red lava flows down the side and shoots out of the top, and black smoke clouds encircle the volcano.
Fig 1. Vesuvius erupting at Night. Oil on Canvas. 36 x 50 in (91.5 x 127 cm). William Marlow. Public domain. circa 1768 
footprints alternate in a walking pattern, are preserved in the now stone ground
Fig 2. Thousands of footprints in the ash deposits of 1900 BCE testify to an en masse exodus from the devastated zone. Pierpaolo Petrone. Public domain. 21 March 2006. 

In 1900 BCE, small villages of farmers and shepherds were scattered throughout Campania around Mount Vesuvius. The inhabitants may not have known that the mountain posed any risk, but when the eruption began, people quickly gathered their valuables and food, loaded carts, and fled to the northeast (Di Vito et al. 2009, 2013; Laforgia et al. 2009). This is well documented by thousands of footprints, along with hoofprints and cart tracks preserved by ash from the eruption (figure 2). There are signs that survivors attempted to return to the destroyed areas within 10-20 years, but these resettlements failed, and the region directly impacted by the volcano was left abandoned for centuries. Only around 1400 BCE did people migrate back into the region around Vesuvius (Cazzella and Recchia 2008; Di Lorenzo et al. 2013), and many of these new villages were established on top of or very near to sites originally abandoned during the eruption. This may suggest that the communities entering the region were descendants of the eruption survivors, but there is no definitive proof currently. 

The most famous eruption of Mount Vesuvius, which is well known to many still today, occurred in 79 CE (figure 3). The cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum were obliterated and thousands of victims were caught in the volcano’s wrath (figure 4). Other towns and villas nearby were abandoned as people fled (Beard 2008; Petrone 2019), and historical accounts indicate that the Roman Empire provided disaster assistance to regional towns where refugees sought shelter, and which sustained damage from earthquakes and ashfall during the eruption (McCoy 2014). A small number of people returned to the destruction zones quickly, digging tunnels and pits into the ash to recover valuable items, but this return was only temporary. The areas immediately surrounding Vesuvius were left empty, and only resettled centuries later. 

a painting of mount vesuvius erupting , and the buildings of pompeii on fire, as the people fall down and flee
Fig 3. Alessandro Sanquirico’s set design depicting the eruption of Vesuvius, the climactic scene of Giovanni Pacini’s opera, L’ultimo giorno di Pompei. Carlo Sanquirico (active 1820s–1830s) after Alessandro Sanquirico (1777–1849). Public domain. 1827. 
grey stone casts of the fallen human victims of the vesuvius eruption lay on display beside each other in various positions
Fig 4. Casts of a group of human victims from the 79 AD eruption of the Vesuvius. Lancevortex, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0. 30 January 2000. 

These two ancient eruptions represent the largest, most violent events of Vesuvius’ eruptive history which disrupted human populations in Campania, Italy. Archaeological data from the 1900 BCE and 79 CE eruptions can be used today to inform modern populations of the hazards and responses that could be expected in the event of a new eruption. The responses of impacted communities highlight resilience and adaptation by human populations around Mount Vesuvius, particularly through migration out of the area for varying lengths of time, and through capacities to cope with environmental and geological changes resulting from the eruption. 

Currently, approximately 4 million people (iStat 2019) may be greatly at risk in the event of another major eruption similar in size to the 1900 BCE and 79 CE events (figure 5). Detailed knowledge of these explosive eruptions of Vesuvius is currently not utilized in risk management considerations, yet this data could be incorporated to lower vulnerability and to improve resilience for modern populations. The Italian government does have an emergency plan in place for a future eruption, but it is based on models for a much smaller eruption (Dobran 2019; DPC 2018; Rolandi 2010). This is a critical oversight, given that volcanoes tend to erupt on a cyclical basis, and the two largest eruptions of Vesuvius in human history occurred approximately 4000 (1900 BCE) and 2000 (79 CE) years ago. This two thousand year gap between large-scale eruptions suggests that Vesuvius could be a ticking time bomb, and we need to be ready. While a large-scale, worst-case scenario eruption like 1900 BCE and 79 CE is not guaranteed to happen, archaeological data on human responses during such crises provides a critical source of knowledge that could be implemented to save lives and should not be neglected. 

The city of Naples and the Bay of Naples are in the foreground. Mount Vesuvius is in the background. It is hazy with blue skies.
Fig 5. The Bay of Naples, Italy under the shadow of Vesuvius. Vyacheslav Argenberg.  
Creative Commons Attribution 4.0. 6 May 2006, 14:26:06.,_Italy,_A_view_over_Bay_of_Naples,_Port_of_Naples_and_Mt._Vesuvius.jpg 

The Vesuvius case study allows archaeological data on past migrations and crisis to be brought into dialogue with issues, hazards, and potential crises facing modern populations. Drawing on archaeological data as a usable past, however, has much broader applications. Climate change, drought, warfare and violence, and political instability were frequently part of migration decisions in the past and continue to plague communities around the world today. My research therefore ultimately aims to tie together migration experiences in past and present, to bring to life complex experiences which ancient migrants may have faced, while bringing contemporary awareness to the fact that migration is, has, and will always be a critical component to the existent – the very survival – of humanity. 

Further Resources

Published Work  

Martin, S.C., 2020. Past eruptions and future predictions: Analyzing ancient responses to Mount Vesuvius for use in modern risk management. Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research 396, 106851. 

Works Cited and Further Reading 

Baker, B.J., Tsuda, T., 2015. Introduction, in: Baker, B.J., Tsuda, T. (Eds.), Migration and Disruptions: Toward a Unifying Theory of Ancient and Contemporary Migrations. University Press of Florida, Gainesville. 

Beard, M., 2008. Pompeii: The Life of a Roman Town. Profile, London. 

Cazzella, A., Recchia, G., 2008. A View from the Apennines: The Role of the Inland Sites in Southern Italy during the Bronze Age, in: Grimaldi, S., Perrin, T., Guilaine, J. (Eds.), Mountain Environments in Prehistoric Europe: Settlement and Mobility Strategies from the Paleolithic to the Early Bronze Age. Proceedings of the XV World Congress of the International Union for Prehistoric and Protohistoric Sciences (Lisbon, 4-9 September 2006), BAR International Series. Archaeopress, Oxford, pp. 137–143. 

De Genova, N., 2020. The Convulsive European Space of Mobilities. Political Anthropological Research on International Social Sciences 1, 162–188. 

Di Lorenzo, H., Di Vito, M.A., Talamo, P., Bishop, J., Castaldo, N., de Vita, S., Nave, R., Pacciarelli, M., 2013. The Impact of the Pomici di Avellino Plinian Eruption of Vesuvius on Early and Middle Bronze Age Human Settlement in Campania (Southern Italy), in: Meller, H., Bertemes, F., Bork, H.-R., Risch, R. (Eds.), 1600 – Kultureller Umbruch Im Schatten Des Thera-Ausbruchs? = 1600 – Cultural Change in the Shadow of the Thera-Eruption?: 4th Archaeological Conference of Central Germany, October 14-16, 2011 in Halle (Saale). Landesmuseum für Vorgeschichte, Halle (Saale), pp. 253–265. 

Di Vito, M.A., Castaldo, N., de Vita, S., Bishop, J., Vecchio, G., 2013. Human Colonization and Volcanic Activity in the Eastern Campania Plain (Italy) between the Eneolithic and Late Roman Periods. Quaternary International 303, 132–141. 

Di Vito, M.A., Zanella, E., Gurioli, L., Lanza, R., Sulpizio, R., Bishop, J., Tema, E., Boenzi, G., Laforgia, E., 2009. The Afragola Settlement near Vesuvius, Italy: The Destruction and Abandonment of a Bronze Age Village Revealed by Archaeology, Volcanology and Rock-Magnetism. Earth and Planetary Science Letters 277, 408–421. 

Dobran, F., 2019. Vesuvius and Campi Flegrei Evacuation Plans: Implications for Resilience and Sustainability of Neapolitans, in: Dobran, F. (Ed.), Resilience and Sustainability of Cities in Hazardous Environments. GVES, Napoli, pp. 368–376. 

DPC (Dipartimento della Protezione Civile), 2018. Update of the National Emergency Plan for Vesuvius (Dossier). Civil Protection Department – Presidency of the Council of Ministers, Governo Italiano. 

Laforgia, E., Boenzi, G., Amato, L., di Vito, M.A., Fattore, L., Stanzione, M., Viglio, F., 2009. The Vesuvian “Pomici di Avellino” Eruption and Early Bronze Age Settlement in the Middle Clanis Valley. Méditerranée 112, 101–107. 

McCoy, M.T., 2014. The Responses of the Roman Imperial Government to Natural Disasters (29 BCE-180 CE) (Ph.D.). University of Arkansas. 

Petrone, P., 2019. The Herculaneum Victims of the 79 AD Vesuvius Eruption: A Review. Journal of Anthropological Sciences 97, 69–89. 

Riede, F., Sheets, P.D. (Eds.), 2020. Going Forward by Looking Back: Archaeological Perspectives on Socio-ecological Crisis, Response, and Collapse, Catastrophes in Context. Berghahn, New York. 

Rolandi, G., 2010. Volcanic Hazard at Vesuvius: An Analysis for the Revision of the Current Emergency Plan. Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research 189, 347–362. 

Stephanie Martin

Stephanie Martin completed her Ph.D. in Anthropology/Archaeology at the University of Arizona. She received her B.A. in Classical and Near Eastern Archaeology at Bryn Mawr College, and has conducted fieldwork in Greece, Italy, Azerbaijan, the United Arab Emirates, and in the United States as a CRM archaeologist.  

Her research focuses on migrations and crisis, and her dissertation was titled “Migrations and Crisis in the Mediterranean: An anthropological dialogue on past and present migrations”. In addition to studying ancient disasters and migration, she is currently working on issues of present day migration and contemporary archaeology. She uses both archaeological data and ethnographic interviews with contemporary migrants to interrogate the deep entanglement of the concepts of migration and crisis and to examine the complexity of migration journeys. This new research continues to focus on migration as a powerful adaptation tool that humans use and have always used when facing difficult or dangerous situations. 

Published by Peopling the Past

A Digital Humanities initiative that hosts free, open-access resources for teaching and learning about real people in the ancient world and the people who study them.

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