Monday, March 06, 2006

Ancient village dug out

Scientists unearthing an Indonesian village buried almost 200 years ago by the largest volcanic eruption in history have described it as a potential "Pompeii of the East". One of history's most violent volcanic eruptions blasted the island of Sumbawa in the East Indies in 1815. The sulfurous gases and fiery ashes from Mount Tambora cast a pall over the entire world, causing the global cooling of 1816, known as the "year without a summer".

The explosions killed 117,000 people on the island, now part of Indonesia, and wiped out the tiny kingdom of Tambora, on the volcano's western flank. The avalanche of pumice and ash buried the town under three metres of debris, with only four of its estimated 10,000 residents surviving. "Events of this type will occur in the future, and we should be aware of what could happen," said Haraldur Sigurdsson, a geophysicist at the University of Rhode Island.

In an announcement on Monday at the university , a team of Indonesian and American scientists reported uncovering bronze bowls, ceramic pots, fine china, glass, and iron tools in gullies running through the jungle 25 kilometres from the volcano. Preliminary excavations exposed the carbonised framework of a house measuring about six metres by 10 metres. The log beams, even some of the bamboo siding and thatch roof, are charcoal black, but the original shape of the house is preserved. Skeletons of two adults lay where they died, one of them clutching a large knife.

"There's potential that Tambora could be the Pompeii of the East, and it could be of great cultural interest," Dr Sigurdsson said. The volcano is dormant, not dead. It has rumbled to brief life twice since 1815, mere burps compared with the destructive eruption that cost the mountain more than 1000 metres of its height, reducing its elevation to 2851 metres. The summit crater still smells of sulfur venting from the depths. Dr Sigurdsson said Indonesian archaeologists had examined the artefacts and were planning systematic excavations this year.

Their first impression of the material suggested that the Tamboran culture was linked by ancestry or trade to Vietnam and Cambodia.The many bronze pieces and historical evidence from Dutch and, briefly, British colonial days, Dr Sigurdsson said, supported the belief that Tamborans were "quite well off". Dr Sigurdsson and researchers from the University of North Carolina and the Indonesian Directorate of Vulcanology made the discovery in 2004 after a local guide told them of gullies where people were picking up strange objects.

A six-week survey with ground-penetrating radar showed the outlines of boulders, terraced fields, and the house. Spot excavations yielded more pottery and bronze, some bones and teeth, knives and a whetstone, even carbonised rice.

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