Berenike Fortress Well Speaks of Volcanic Apocalypse
Like in all ancient cultures maintaining access to fresh, unpolluted water, was infinitely more valuable than owning vast tonnages gold, silver and jewels. Archaeologists exploring a water well in ancient Egypt have discovered evidence that a coastal city was abandoned more than 2,000 years ago when the fresh water spring dried up.
The reason for the rapid decrease in water which caused the well to dry is thought to be a major volcanic eruption, somewhere on the other side of the world. So far researchers are unsure as to which of the geo-giants was responsible.
The Berenike site and environs. The fortress walls are dashed where less certain. (J. Harrell using a satellite photograph from Google Earth / Antiquity).
Digging into the Foundations of Egypt’s Military-City
Berenike, also known as Berenice, Troglodytica and Baranis, is an ancient Egyptian seaport situated on the west coast of the Red Sea , about 260 km east of Aswan in Upper Egypt and 140 km south of Marsa Alam. Professor Marek Woźniak, from the Institute of Mediterranean and Oriental Cultures in Warsaw, Poland, reports in his study that the city was founded between 275 and 260 BC.
The researcher has said that a severe drought caused the main city well to dry up sometime between 220 and 200 BC. The entire settlement was abandoned for several centuries. Ultimately, the Roman Empire resurrected the city and in 30 BC it became their southernmost port.
Western part of the Berenike gate complex with the well, water-storage basins and related structures, looking to the north. (S.E. Sidebotham / Antiquity)
Because Berenike was so strategically located it was no ordinary city and it could perhaps be better described as a military or naval headquarters. Since 2014 Professor Woźniak has been excavating at this ancient settlement where he unearthed the remains of the ancient fortress walls and the main gate. In the new paper published in Antiquity, co-written with Professor James Harrell from the University of Toledo in Ohio, the researchers have described their findings at the city water well that dried up between 220 and 200 BC.
M. Woźniak at work in the Berenike well, preparing drawing documentation. (J. Rądkowska / Antiquity)
What Caused the Rapid Weather Changes at Ancient Berenike?
After the well dried up, sands were blown into it which effectively preserved the well. What’s more, all the ancient artifacts that had been deposited in the well over the last 2,000 years were trapped in the sand, including two bronze coins minted before 199 BC. In Heritage Daily , Woźniak explains that they suspected the drought lasted several years, effectively drying up the well completely. The big question they wanted to answer was what kind of change happened in the climatology to have caused the well to dry up so quickly.
According to Woźniak, “the most likely cause is a volcanic eruption.” His conclusion leans on a 2017 Yale University study published in Nature that determined that in 209 BC a volcanic eruption released lots of sulphate aerosols into Earth’s atmosphere causing the summer rains over the Nile headwaters to fail. Woźniak and Harrell are convinced that a volcano was responsible for the collapse and abandonment of the military city of Berenike, and the hunt is now on to pin point the responsible volcano.
Accretion ring and top of the aquifer on the well’s western wall at Berenike. (M. Wozniak / Antiquity)
The Four Horsemen of the Berenike Apocalypse
The pair of archaeologists have suggested four possible volcanoes which could account for the well at Berenike drying up and the military-city being abandoned.
1.Popocatéptl (“smokey mountain” in the indigenous Náhuatl language) is an active stratovolcano located 70 kilometers (43 miles) south-east of Mexico City.
2.Mount Pelée is an active volcano at the northern end of Martinique in the Lesser Antilles Volcanic Arc of the Caribbean.
3.The Tsurumi group of lava domes are located near the hot spring resort city of Beppu, Honshu Island, Japan.
4.Hakusan is a dormant volcano along the border between Ishikawa and Gifu Prefectures.
The artifacts found in the well are helping the team to date the events at Berenike: a) A coin from Ptolemy IV b) An amphora labelled with the name of its owner. (S. E. Sidebotham / Antiquity)
Now, the pair of researchers must look for micro-geological evidence in the well to try and establish which of the four fire-breathing monsters dried up the well at Berenike, and caused the ancient Egyptians to abandon this important strategic site.
The full paper is published on Antiquity, DOI: https://doi.org/10.15184/aqy.2021.16
Top image: Gypsum counterweight from the Berenike well’s sand fill and fragments of amphora found in the well’s south-west niche. Source: S. E Sidebotham / Antiquity Publications Ltd
By Ashley Cowie
Thanks, Ashley, for your precis, on this research.
Wondering; when the Romans resurrected the town, had the aquifer re-established itself, or did they import water via clever engineering?