“The bay trees in our country are all wither’d, And meteors fright the fixed stars of heaven; The pale-fac’d moon looks bloody on the earth And lean-look’d prophets whisper fearful change;”
The decline and fall of the Roman Empire has been much chewed over and discussed by scholars for centuries. Mostly they debate the causes of its political collapse, but almost as debated is the issue of when Classical civilization ended exactly. The last nominal emperor in the West was in 476 AD and that is often cited as the dividing line, but in truth the political system was in decline for a long time before that and, as Professor J. B. Bury pointed out in one lecture long ago, when the last puppet emperor Romulus Augustulus was deposed, no one in the West imagined that there would not be some figurehead placed on the throne to replace him after a year or so. Moreover, the status quo of barbarian—Roman relations in the West, as chaotic as it was, remained more or less in place for several generations more. In the East, the Imperial government went on without a beat and Justinian, is generally regarded as both the first ruler of the Byzantine era and the last emperor of the Roman one. Yet even the East suffered a massive trauma and near collapse in the sixth century. Ancient civilization did end and the Middle Ages, at least in the West, was a very different period than that which preceded it. Moreover, it is generally to the middle decades of the sixth century that we look to as the period of transition from one to the other.
Now as in all other things in historiography, you will get various parties arguing that there was no ending and no beginning, that the Dark Ages weren’t dark at all and so forth. Admittedly, because of the lack of survival of many written sources which might otherwise illumine things for us, the period following Classical Civilization demise appears more dismal than it might otherwise be. But there was a collapse beyond the political one: in mid sixth century we have record of famines and a catastrophic plague which spread across the known world, killing off millions of people—perhaps even more than the Black Death of the late Middle Ages, which led to the end of Medieval Civilization. But while famine and plague are certainly proximate causes, in recent decades there has been a gradual dawning among some researchers that a singular natural catastrophe triggered these economically and socially disruptive events.
This is not an abstraction, nor is it solely based on literary sources which, while some academics tout the virtues of “close linguistic analysis,” often result in the same source being used to prove opposing viewpoints. In particular, scientists studying ice cores going back many millennia and more recently the assembling of continuous sequences of tree rings dating back into the Neolithic and beyond, have observed anomalies in the geophysical record around the middle of the sixth century AD which hint at a climatic event of staggering proportions. This is not theory but scientific fact; it was severe and it lasted a number of years. It certainly triggered massive famines worldwide and, as a rule, where famines occur plagues are not far behind.
What was this singular event was that triggered a worldwide climatic crisis? Here’s where it gets a bit dicey; we have the physical evidence, but what the source of the crisis was is more problematical. Professor Mike Baillie, an Irish dendrochronologist of some standing in the scientific world, first observed that at certain times during the Holocene, tree ring growth has displayed a dramatic change—a change which could only mean that the trees in question suffered a dramatic trauma. This shift in the tree ring pattern transcends locale: it was noticeable in Irish tree rings, in those from Germany, from the US, as well as other places in the world, all centered around ca. the 630-645 AD time frame. Ice core samples similarly reflect something really bad going on in the climate about the same time. Tracking down the villain, Baillie at first considered volcanic activity, which can spew massive amounts of particulate matter into the upper atmosphere; while not entirely discounting this, however, Baillie concluded that rather it was the effect of either an impact, or the near earth grazing, by a large cometary body which triggered this climate disaster which killed millions and ended Classical Civilization.
Many historians, I gather, have not warmed to his ideas about catastrophic events causing culture change. Immanuel Velikovsky, back in the 1950’s argued something similar and then proceeded to rewrite history—something historians don’t like. Well, Velikovsy’s cosmetology was entirely wrong and his theories rightly dismissed. But Velikovsky did comb through a welter of ancient sources for references to celestial events, many of which became mythologized in the form of fire gods and dragons; and when the hard science began to emerge about comet and asteroids affecting earth in recent times, some (not all) of his citations began to not look so absurd after all.
Catastrophists still reject Velikovsky’s basic premises, but some of the ancient sources he cited have proven of value, even if historians still tend to ignore them as fictitious or as fantasy. Bear in mind, every year we pass through the debris of various comets—shooting stars we call them—and are mostly harmless. One such meteor shower, the Draconid, is particularly interesting because dragons are one ancient metaphor for comets. Now Baillie’s theory of a cometary cause for the mid-sixth century event is not dependent on am actual impact—although that may have occurred. A series of earth grazing comets, occurring one after the other, could also spew enough space dust, meteors and Tunguska-like fragments to trigger a prolonged climatic crisis as well. The proverbial “dirty snowball” of 536AD and ensuing other close calls may well have ended what was left of Classical Civilization.
However, besides the skepticism of academia, in recent years Baillie’s thesis has been challenged, if not discarded, by an archaeologist/anthropologists working in Central America. Dr. Robert Dull, environmental scientist researching the Classic Maya Collapse, has argued that the dramatic and sudden change which occurred to Mayan Civilization, and posited that a major volcanic eruption in El Salvador is what not only caused the collapse of the Mayans but of Classical Civilization as well. That a massive eruption occurred was well known: the giant caldera of Lake Ilopanga exists to prove the event. Dating, however, was considerably more problematical. Finally, according to the National Geographic documentary series, Perfect Storms, Prof. Dull did find one carbonized tree trunk which he had analyzed, and which yielded a date close to 636 AD—the approximate time of both the Mayan and the Classical collapses. Because National Geographic carries far more clout in the media than the obscure scientific journals Prof. Baillie has published in, or the specialized books that Baillie has published on the subject, Dr. Dull’s theory seems have become dominant—at least among anthropologists and the media.
So here we have it: Dull versus Baillie, fire versus ice; but who is correct? I’m sure there are some academics out there who would say “none of the above;” but before rejecting both out of hand, I would recommend reading Mike Baillie’s Exodus to Arthur, which provides a good summary of his theories up to 1999. Where Baillie relies on sub Roman British historians for his chronology of the fifth and early century, I’m afraid he is off, but that is not a defect in his ideas, merely of the historiography he relied on to supply him historical dates; where he instead relies on his dendrochronolgy and on ice core evidence, he is at his strongest. For Dull, the Ilopango eruption is THE cause; while the documentary makes a good case for the Classic Maya Collapse being triggered by the Ilopango supervolcano, the linkage to the Justinian Plague and associated famines is assumed rather than proven. However, see the “Dark Age Volcano” episode of Perfect Storms, either on the National Geographic Channel or on YouTube:
The way National Geographic weights the evidence, it makes Dull’s thesis seem as though it is the sole explanation of both events. Moreover, more than ten years before, Prof. Baillie had theorized that cometary events might actually trigger volcanic events; certainly the reverse cannot be true. So, while Dr. Dull’s arguments seem persuasive, his is not necessarily the only explanation. The controversy continues and one would hope that a healthy discussion in the future will lead us all closer to the truth.
More recently, scientists analyzing ice core samples with up to date techniques, have found that much of the “stuff” that was deposited ca. 536 AD is extraterrestrial in origin: “I have all this extraterrestrial stuff in my ice core,” study leader Dallas Abbott, of Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory opined to LiveScience/Huffington Post in 2013. While acknowledging that they also found traces of volcanic material also dating to 536, Dr. Abbott said it almost certainly wasn’t big enough to change the climate so dramatically.
Who is correct? My own opinion is that Baillie is on the right track; but that does not necessarily negate Dr. Dull’s research. Unfortunately, while Dr. Baillie has written about his theories extensively, I could not find any academic publicatons by Dull, just articles in the popular media and, of course, the National Geographic documentary. I understand that he presented his theory orally at a meeting of the Association of American Geographers in 2012, but couldn’t find a copy of that lecture or any subsequent paper in print form. Perhaps Dr. Dull’s academic papers are available somewhere and I just haven’t located them. Or perhaps the geographer has fallen prey to the chronic problem which besets archaeologists: digging and digging and not publishing their findings in a timely manner. I have, unfortunately, known some distinguished archaeologists who perished before they published.
Regardless, I do believe that from time to time catastrophes of staggering proportion do strike without warning and when they do humans are virtually powerles to change the course of events. While it would be nice to think that the immutable forces of history control the march of events like some great orderly engine, it rather seems that nature’s fickle hand of fate intervenes to jumble things up from time to time for us. At the least, it would be good to learn more about this celestial pinball game before we get behind the eight ball once more, no?