Sunday, November 20, 2011

Fukushima and Disasters of Centuries Past

In today's Washington Post, there is an article about the large-scale abandonment of areas surrounding the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant that occurred after March's nuclear accident.  The article focuses on the disaster's effect on the region's cattle industry, but also mentions how the sudden human abandonment left the area "frozen in time."  Because of health risks associated with exposure to radiation, an area of about 12 miles surrounding the plant will probably have to remain abandoned for decades.

It's sad to see how many lives have been ruined by the earthquake-precipitated accident.  I can't imagine how difficult it must be to be removed from a place that is your home, and lose your business to boot.  However, the situation did make me recall several archaeological examples of large-scale abandonment.  Probably the best known example is Pompeii, buried under a thick layer of ash from an AD 79 volcanic eruption.  A similar example from Ceren, El Salvador, reveals the wealth of information that can be gleaned from rapid abandonment and preservation due to volcanic eruption.  The Makah village of Ozette in northwest Washington, buried under a mudslide in about 1700, was also well-preserved and and a fruitful project for investigating continuities in Makah cultural identity.

Plaza area at Aguateca
Yet some examples of abandonment are not linked to an obvious natural disaster.  For example, the Maya site of Aguateca in Guatemala was burned (probably due to warfare) and abandoned at some point during the late classic period (AD 600-830), its residents leaving household materials in the process of use.  This example is especially poignant when compared to the area surrounding the Fukuskima Daiichi nuclear power plant.  Both are examples of how cultural as well as natural disasters can lead to sudden regional abandonment, but also provide a unique glimpse at household practices.  While advanced technology like nuclear power - a cultural adaptation - fuels a complex, inter-connected world, it does not remove our vulnerability to natural and culturally-precipitated disasters.


Inomata, Takeshi and Laura R. Stiver. 1998.  Floor Assemblages from Burned Structures at Aguateca, Guatemala: A Study of Classic Maya Households. Journal of Field Archaeology 25(4):431-452.

McKee, Brian R. 2002. Household archaeology and cultural formation processes: Examples from the Ceren site, El Salvador. In The Archaeology of Household Activities, Ed. Penelope M. Allison, 30-42. London: Routledge.

Wessen, Gary. 1990. Prehistory of the Ocean Coast of Washington. In Handbook of American Indians, vol. 7: Northwest Coast, ed. Wayne Suttles, 412-421. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution.

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