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Page last updated at 16:54 GMT, Friday, 28 May 2010 17:54 UK

Man and volcano

Ash in Iceland


The ash cloud disruption is a recent reminder of how volcanoes have always intruded on human lives, says historian David Cannadine in his Point of View column.

On a recent flight from Britain to the United States, my plane took a circuitous route to avoid the by-now-all-too-familiar volcanic ash, with the paradoxical result that we flew much nearer to Iceland, and much nearer to the volcano, than we otherwise would've done.

It was certainly worth the detour, as my fellow passengers and I were treated to a grandstand view of one of nature's most extraordinary and terrifying spectacles: billowing smoke, pillars of fire, and molten lava.

David Cannadine
A Point of View, with David Cannadine, is on Fridays on Radio 4 at 2050 BST and repeated Sundays, 0850 BST
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Even when glimpsed from the safe distance of 30,000 feet, this was "shock and awe" with a vengeance, reminiscent of the scenes so vividly described in the letters written by Pliny the Younger to Tacitus when Vesuvius erupted in AD 79.

No wonder the ancient world was so fascinated by volcanoes: the Greeks thought that eruptions were a sign of divine disapproval; and the word volcano derives from the small Mediterranean island of Vulcano, named after Vulcan, who was the Roman god of fire.

The travel arrangements of many people have been seriously disrupted in recent months by the ash which has spewed forth from the Icelandic volcano which has a completely unpronounceable name.

And it seems highly unlikely that any of these grounded passengers would've been much comforted by the knowledge that this is not the first time that volcanic eruptions in Iceland have caused such serious inconvenience - and, indeed, much more than mere inconvenience.

In 1783, one such eruption killed about a fifth of Iceland's population, and it sent a huge cloud of toxic ash and sulphurous gases across Western Europe, with the result that in Britain alone, 23,000 people were thought to have died from the poisoning.


Less than one hundred years later, in 1873, another monster Icelandic eruption sent clouds and ashes across much of Scandinavia. So this latest volcanic intrusion into our lives is but the most recent in a long and ominous historical sequence, and there is no reason to suppose that it will be the last: indeed, the Icelandic prime minister has already said as much.

Eyjafjoell volcano
Activity at Eyjafjallajokull lessened recently

By the time of the terrible Icelandic eruption of 1783, excavations had been proceeding for several decades in Italy to uncover what remained of the Roman town of Pompeii, and its near neighbour Herculaneum, both of which had been overwhelmed by the lava from Mount Vesuvius.

Thanks to Pliny's letters, and other literary sources, this event and these locations had always been known, and there was no need to discover the whereabouts of these two towns in the way that archaeologists would later be obliged to do in the cases of, say, Mycenae or Troy.

By the late 18th Century, it was becoming clear just how much of Pompeii and of Herculaneum had remained intact, as the result of a miraculous process in which destruction had effectively ensured survival.

"Many disasters have befallen the world", Goethe wrote after his first visit, "but few which have given posterity such delight… I have seldom seen anything so interesting."

One figure who shared this view was Sir William Hamilton, a British diplomat and collector, who was appointed envoy extraordinary to the Spanish court at Naples in 1763. Hamilton was also an amateur scientist, and while stationed at Naples, he soon became, as he put it, "mad on the subject of volcanoes", and he wrote several scholarly papers about them.


After the death of his first wife, he married his long-time mistress Emma Lyon; but she soon fell for a promising young naval officer named Horatio Nelson, and in 1798 he arrived at Naples in triumph after his victory at the Battle of the Nile.

The two of them now began an affair in earnest, and Nelson proclaimed his love in words that might have appealed as much to Sir William Hamilton as to his lady: all the lava in Mount Etna, he told Emma, was no warmer than his passion for her. Albeit in different ways, then, there were at least two volcano lovers in this strange, Neapolitan ménage a trios, and when Susan Sontag published her historical novel about them, this was the title she gave it.

By then, Sontag was merely the latest in a long line of authors who've written about volcanoes, and many of them have been attracted to the subject of Pompeii, which soon became one of the most popular tourist sites in the world. They've evoked and embellished the daily lives of ancient Romans which in hindsight were going to end abruptly and horribly in AD 79, while also recognizing that this was a fate of which contemporaries themselves were wholly and blissfully ignorant.

Krakatoa was the most violent, the most cataclysmic, and the most devastating volcanic happening of modern times, overwhelming in its force, and terrifying in its devastation

Among the earliest of such writers was the novelist Edward Bulwer Lytton, who published The Last Days of Pompeii in 1834. In it he used his characters to contrast the decadent culture of first-century Rome with the more robust culture of ancient Greece, and with the Christian religion which was where the future lay.

The Last Days of Pompeii was something of a bestseller in its time, but like all of Bulwer Lytton's novels, it's long since gone out of fashion. Ten years after his death, there was another eruption, far more spectacular than that of Vesuvius, when the volcano-island Krakatoa blew its top, in what were then the Dutch East Indies, and is now Indonesia, in August 1883.

Krakatoa was the most violent, the most cataclysmic, and the most devastating volcanic happening of modern times, overwhelming in its force, and terrifying in its devastation. The sound of the eruption could be heard thousands of miles away, as far as India, Australia and Mauritius.

The immense tidal waves which the explosion set off spread all round the Indian Ocean, killing nearly 40,000 people, and bodies were washed up as far away as Zanzibar. The volcanic ash swirled round the earth's atmosphere for years, causing temperatures to plummet, barometers to go haywire in places as far apart as Bogota and Washington DC, and resulting in vivid and unusual sunsets, with lurid colours and unsettling displays of light.

Had planes been flying then, the whole world of international aviation would have come to a standstill for much longer than the most recent chaos.

Double entendres

Because most of the island of Krakatoa was destroyed in the eruption of 1883, this episode has not received the sort of fictional treatment that Vesuvius and Pompeii have regularly attracted from the era of Bulwer Lytton down to our own time.

During the early 1970s, Frankie Howerd starred in a series entitled Up Pompeii!, which owed much to the example of the Carry On films. It was peopled by characters with absurd names such as Ludicrous Sextus, Amonia and Erotica, and it was full of double entendres and risqué gags.

Pompeii: The Last Day, on BBC
The Pompeii eruption has been dramatised many times

In a more serious vein, Robert Harris published his novel Pompeii in 2003. Set on the eve of the great eruption, it is part love story, part mystery, and it is extremely well informed about the elaborate system of aqueducts by which the Romans provided the city with its water supply.

And in 2008, Dr Who honoured Pompeii with a visitation, in which David Tennant was obliged to confront the moral dilemma arising from his prior knowledge of the impending eruption of Vesuvius: should he intervene to save any of the population, or should he let history run its course?

If, instead, you want something more solid and factual, then read Mary Beard's recent book, which is both a history of Pompeii, and also a visitor's guide to it. It's a very timely work, for these days, assistance is what visitors to Pompeii need, and assistance is also what Pompeii itself needs.

Until the 1960s, the excavations were carried out to the highest standard, and they were overseen by leading archaeologists who enjoyed the support of successive Italian governments. But in recent decades, the management and the funding for Pompeii have significantly deteriorated, which means that one of the greatest historical sites in the world is under very severe threat.

Frescoes are peeling off the walls, there are weeds and water damage everywhere, and many of the ancient buildings are closed and boarded up. Although Pompeii was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1997, its future and its survival seem less assured than at any time since excavations first began.

Having been saved by the devastation of volcanic destruction, Pompeii now seems fated to be ruined by the inadequacies of human preservation. Unlike my recently-diverted flight, this is a very serious and disturbing paradox indeed.

Below is a selection of your comments.

So the excavations were un-earthed and are now weathering. No surprise there. Perhaps if the will and money to protect the excavations weren't in place at the start, they should be left buried until such vision and goal are established.
Tracy, Medicine Hat, Alberta, Canada

Is it that volcanoes have always intruded on human lives, or that humans were short sighted and intruded on volcanos. Since we came second, I'd say it was the other way around.
M Dalton, Toronto

Our salvation is also in nature's own forces. Volcanic ash will linger in the atmosphere not for too long as the weather comes to our rescue by means of wind and/or rain and ice which will disperse the ash over the atmosphere.
Herbert Sitole, London United Kingdom

Considering the almighty power of the ancient and modern volcanoes, I think it's rather more than "an intrusion."
Brianofthecam, Cambridge UK

Mount Tambora was the most violent eruption in recorded history in 1815 - and has been reffered to as Pompeii of the East because of the preservation of artifacts found at the site. The volcano put so much ash and sulphur into the air that 1816 is known in the western hemisphere as the year without summer. Indeed in parts of America there were frosts recorded in June. Krakatoa is the most famous recent violent eruption as telegraph communication lines had been developed by the time it erupted (a 6 on the volcanic explosivity index.) When Tambora erupted (a 7 on the same scale) they had not, making the Tambora eruption largely unrecorded.
Paul Harrison, Redlands, California, USA

I always thought that the eruption of the Tambora volcano in Indonesia in 1815 was much more powerful than the eruption of Krakatoa. Dutch scientits were present soon after the Krakatoa explosion in 1883 and, as a result, the Krakatoa disaster is better documented. However, the Tambora explosion was the ''most powerful explosion in recorded history'' according to the US Geological Survey)
jacques.gilman, Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso

Krakatoa was big, but Tambora, which erupted in 1815 and caused the 'year without a summer' in the northern hemisphere, was about 14 times larger. Surprising how often it's forgotten.
Mark, Canberra, Australia

Pompeii is an amazing site, absolutely massive, beautiful, but yes, becoming delapidated. I went there in September, armed with Mary Beard's brilliantly written book, but felt disappointed by the general state it was in. There is so much more that could be done with it, if only there was the funding, and it is a key site of study in university courses (two of four questions in the Roman section my recent Households and domesticity in the ancient world exam referred to Pompeii)
Ally, Leicester

As we carry on our everyday existence, we give little thought to the inevitable disasters coming our way. The odds of being subjected to e.g a massive tsunami caused by the break up of a volcanic island such as La Palma or Hawaii are very low at any given time. Our life spans are just too short to worry about supervolcanoes, asteroid impact etc.
Robin Cresswell, Halifax, England

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