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International Geoscience Programme (IGCP)

Geoscience in the service of society

How can planners, politicians and citizens prepare for earthquakes? Damaging earthquakes on faults typically recur at intervals of centuries to millennia but the seismographs that register them have only been around for about hundred years. To reduce the hazard from earthquakes we need a longer record of them than can be provided from such instruments. Archaeological evidence has the potential to determine earthquake activity over millennial time spans, especially where integrated with historical documents and geological evidence.

Archaeology can be used in three ways to help confront the seismic-hazard threat. First, where archaeological relics are displaced they can be used to find earthquake faults, show in which direction they slipped during the earthquake and establish comparative fault slip-rates. Second, archaeological information can date episodes of faulting and shaking. Third, we can search for ancient signs of seismic damage. The obvious difficulty with the last approach is that it is hard to distinguish between damage caused by an earthquake and that caused by another destructive event, such as war or the natural failure of foundations. Typologies of earthquake-characteristic damage have been proposed but rarely have they been subjected to a critical and systematic analysis. Consequently ‘archaeoseismic indicators’ are accepted by some earthquake scientists and rejected by others.

The key element of the International Geoscience Programme IGCP 567 is our contention that archaeological evidence can make a valuable contribution to long-term seismic-hazard assessment in earthquake-prone regions where there is a long and lasting cultural heritage. We have identified the Alpine-Himalayan region as the ideal laboratory, because the archaeoseismological studies that have already taken root in the Eastern Mediterranean can be extended to neighbouring regions, most importantly south along North African shores, north into the Caucasus Mountains, and east into western Asia. By going from the shaking table to the archaeological remains the project intends to develop a broadly accepted methodological framework to what reliably constitutes seismic damage. As well as trying to establish this common methodological framework that is crucial for archaeoseismology to develop into a recognised and legitimate field of earthquake science, case studies from these regions will address specific questions relating to the locations, timing and size of past destructive earthquakes and so will aim to contribute specific information for seismic-hazard analysis.

But there is a wider remit for our activities, because our research clearly has important humanitarian and economic implications. As illustrated by the 2003 collapse of the World Heritage site in the Bam (Iran) earthquake, cultural heritage sites themselves are threatened by seismic destruction. Clearly, there is a growing need to understand how ancient structures and monuments respond to faulting and ground shaking. On an even broader scale, our work will contribute to our understanding of ancient history, elucidating why some cities were abandoned or why former societies suffered decline, and confronting the enduring attraction of fault lines in luring peoples, ancient and modern, to settle along persistent danger zones. In other words, this project will contribute to our own cultural heritage.

About IGCP

Geoscience in the service of society

The International Geoscience Programme (IGCP) is a joint initiative of UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) and IUGS (International Union of Geological Sciences).

The primary aim of the programme is to facilitate international collaboration amongst scientists from around the world in research on a multitude of geological problems. Currently, IGCP operates in about 150 countries, involving several thousands of scientists, active in a wide range of disciplines related to Earth Sciences. The programme aims at enhancing geoscientific knowledge and expertise in developing countries by focusing on capacity building, knowledge transfer, and the active involvement of geoscientists from developing countries. With the special emphasis on the benefit provided to society, IGCP reaches out beyond the Earth Science community to decision makers, government planners and policy makers, and promotes geoscience public visibility.

IGCP recently evolved to a programme concentrating more on applied geosciences, promoting the use of geosciences in global issues of societal benefit. One of the objectives IGCP pursues is improving our understanding of the geological factors affecting the global environment in order to improve human living conditions. Hence, one of the topics of particular interest to IGCP is ‘geohazards: mitigating the risks’, to which IGCP 567 is central by guaranteeing the potential of archaeoseismology as a legitimate and complementary source of seismic-hazard information.

Project leaders

Manuel SintubinKatholieke Universiteit Leuven, Belgium

Iain StewartUniversity of Plymouth, U.K.

Tina NiemiUniversity of Missouri-Kansas City, U.S.A.

Erhan AltunelEskişehir Osmangazi Üniversitesi, Turkey

For more information

Visit our website ees.kuleuven.be/igcp567/

Contact us at igcp567@ees.kuleuven.be