Online Review: Book

Cultural Responses to the Volcanic Landscape: The Mediterranean and Beyond

Floyd W. McCoy


Edited by Miriam S. Balmuth, David K. Chester, and Patricia A. Johnston. Pp. 345, pls. 64, tables 11. Archaeological Institute of America, Boston 2005. $35. ISBN 1-931909-06-7 (paper).

The classicist and historian, the anthropologist and geologist, the philosopher and civil servant join millions of others in happily living on volcanoes. All accept the accompanying risk too often with passing concern and awareness of danger. That provides some apprehension to the volcanologist, emergency planner, and archaeologist as they participate in the uncovering of cultural materials buried by ancient violent eruptions and realize not only the magnitude of a past disaster but the repeat times for catastrophe. Let them write about this unsettling feeling or describe that past calamity, citing their experience or studies with volcanoes, archaeological remains, or contemporary political situations, and you have the makings for this interesting book. As one might expect, and as the variety of subjects discussed in contributions to this edited book attest, living with volcanoes can be a varied experience. No surprises there.

But the surprise with this book, a series of papers from two interdisciplinary symposia concerned with societal response to the advantages and disadvantages of volcanicity, is the varied selection of subjects written about. That variety nicely demonstrates the multidisciplinary components that go into studying cultural reaction to volcanoes—and vice versa—with chapters focusing on science (volcanology, paleoseismicity, paleopathology, stone tools), uses of and adaptations to the volcanic landscape, sociological responses to that changing landscape (past and present), volcanoes in mythology, and attempting to manage an excavation uncovering a town buried in pumice and volcanic ash that today receives the same number of tourist visitors per day as it had as its predestruction resident population.

What else is in these essays on cultural responses to the volcanic landscape? Emergency planners discuss preparations for the next eruption in an urban setting. Classicists and archaeologists recreate responses to past volcanological disasters interpreted from both ancient literature and archaeological site excavations. Even site management and preservation are discussed (in a curious but interesting chapter presenting a somewhat frustrating lament of bureaucratic interference). The uses and application of volcanic products in building and pottery are nicely incorporated (although two of these read more like site reports).

Critical to any multidisciplinary potpourri, such as this book, is a glossary—excellent touch. The effort put into assembling and writing this glossary certainly enhances the book.

Be aware, however, that the conferences from which these papers originated were held in 1995 and 1996. The publication date for this book is 2005. The decade delay in seeing publication of the proceedings from these meetings results in somewhat dated papers with few references beyond that decade, particularly for the articles dealing with the science of volcanology. Apparently in response to this long interval between submission of papers and publication, the editors have provided a brief update in the concluding chapter. This may seem a picky comment, but volcanological research has made huge advances during the past decade. Unfortunately many of the figures are difficult to read, with tiny or blurred print, appearing to be black-and-white reproductions of colored illustrations used elsewhere and then reduced. In the glossary, some of the terminology seems dated (“acid” and “basic” lavas; reference to El Niño as only a phenomenon of the Pacific Ocean [it occurs in all major oceans]; “toothpaste” lava is perhaps better known as “pillow” lava; “aa” is a Hawaiian word like “pahoehoe” [they are not used in other Polynesian languages]). I would also wish that the word “tufa” was included to correct its misuse in archaeological literature as a synonym for “tuff” (this incorrect usage is commented upon in one paper but misused in an illustration).

Here is a nice collection of edited papers that discuss the many aspects of living with volcanoes, their advantages and disadvantages, today and in antiquity. The editors are an archaeologist, a geologist, and a classicist. That assembly of editors has seen to a book that should find good acceptance and interest from scholars and students, one that should be in academic and research libraries, if not in personal research collections (I certainly have a number of pages marked for future reference).

Floyd W. McCoy
Department of Natural Sciences
University of Hawaii—Windward
45-720 Kea’ahala Road
Kaneohe, Hawaii 96744

Book Review of Cultural Responses to the Volcanic Landscape: The Mediterranean and Beyond, edited by Miriam S. Balmuth et al.

Reviewed by Floyd W. McCoy

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 112, No. 1 (January 2008)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1121.McCoy

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