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  • Print publication year: 2011
  • Online publication date: June 2011

9 - European volcanism in prehistory


… we cannot sideline catastrophic environmental change in our reconstructions of prehistoric culture history.

F. Riede, Journal of Archaeological Science (2008) [152]

Most of us tend not to think of Germany as a country prone to acts of volcanic violence. And yet, about 12,900 years ago, it witnessed a powerful pyroclastic eruption on the scale of Pinatubo's in 1991, right in the heart of the Rhineland.

On the other hand, we are well accustomed to volcanic activity in the Campanian province around Naples. There have, nevertheless, been some events very much greater than the infamous 79 CE convulsion of Vesuvius that sealed the fates of Herculaneum and Pompeii. In particular, approximately 39,300 years ago, the Campi Flegrei (Phlegrean Fields) volcanic system ruptured, disgorging up to 80 times more magma than its neighbour in the year 79.

Lastly, the eastern Mediterranean, too, is home to numerous dormant volcanoes. The best-known is Santorini, whose Bronze Age eruption has been linked to the demise of one of Europe's first great civilisations – the Minoans – and even to the Atlantis legend. This chapter focuses on these three exceptional European volcanic eruptions and considers the evidence for the nature and extent of their human impacts.


The Campanian province of southern Italy is today considered one of the regions of the world at highest risk from volcanic activity. Its volcanoes include the Campi Flegrei, Vesuvius and the island of Ischia (Figure 9.1).