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Durham University

Department of Archaeology

All Research Projects

Medieval and post-medieval earthquakes in Europe

A research project of the Department of Archaeology.


Seismic catalogues of historic events play a significant role in hazard mitigation across the European Union. Based mainly on documentary surveys or driven from an earth-science perspective, the archaeological verification of seismic activity remains under-researched. The aim of ArMedEa (April 2014 – March 2016) was to develop the analysis of the physical impacts of earthquakes, tsunamis and seismically-induced landslide during the later Middle Ages (here 1000-1550 AD). Our work is at a European scale and adopts a specifically archaeological approach to collate and integrate information from a wide range of sources including standing buildings, buried stratigraphical sequences and palaeoenvironmental data. We worked on projects in the Azores, southern Spain, Italy and Cyprus. We offered a preliminary presentation of our research activities in a paper published in 2015 (ArMedEa project: archaeology of medieval earthquakes in Europe (1000-1550 AD). First research activities, 6th International Inqua Meeting on Paleoseismology, Active Tectonics and Archaeoseismology, 19-24 April 2015, Pescina, Fucino Basin, Italy, pp. 166-169). This research was supported by a Marie Curie Intra European Fellowship within the 7th European Community Framework Programme. You can find more about the results of the ArMedEa project here: but please contact us if you would like to know more. The research papers developed out of this project are referenced on the ArMedEa blog and we are currently editing a monograph for the Society for Medieval Archaeology which touches upon many of these themes. This will be published in 2019. We cover techniques of recording of seismically-affected sites in a 2018 paper (Assessing earthquake effects on archaeological sites using photogrammetry and 3D model analysis, Digital Applications in Archaeology and Cultural Heritage).

We are now working on a second 3-year project funded by the Leverhulme Trust entitled "Risk and resilience: exploring responses to earthquakes in Europe: 1200-1755". Chris Gerrard, Dave Petley, Paolo Forlin and a fourth scholar will be investigating the evolution of responses to seismic disasters in Europe from the 13th century to the Great Lisbon earthquake (1755). The project is designed around a number of key-questions such as: what is the historical, archaeological and architectural evidence for post-disaster recovery in Europe in the period 1200-1755? How did communities react and how did they prepare for the future? Do geographically distant pre-industrial societies react to seismic hazards in similar ways? Can we trace the emergence of different seismic cultures in pre-industrial Europe? What are the key factors which shape the human response to a pre-industrial earthquake and the ability of a region to recover? Was Lisbon 1755 truly an innovative moment in risk management or merely the climax of a much longer tradition of responses developed in Europe over several centuries?

The study area for this project is a broad geographical transect running west-east which crosses Portugal, southern Spain, Italy, the Alpine Arc in Switzerland, Austria and Slovenia, the Balkans and the Carpathians in Romania, and Greece. These are the regions of Europe which are most at risk from seismic hazards today just as they were in the past.

A historical geographic information system will be created to capture and analyse reactions during the post-disaster phases of large (magnitude higher than 6) historic earthquakes. These responses range from processions, public masses, the search for scapegoats, the supply of food, economic support, tax exemption, structural repairs, reconstruction, settlement abandonment, the foundation of new towns, earthquake-resistant techniques, scientific treatises, just to name a few of them. We hope to isolate any patterning in strategies and understand the development and possible decline of seismic cultures over the long-term.

The second phase of the project is an in-depth analysis of four study areas. Possible candidates for fieldwork focus on (a) the Lisbon Region, Algarve, Andalusia and Murcia, all hit by destructive earthquakes and tsunamis before AD 1755, (b) central and south Italy (including Sicily), one of the most densely populated European regions affected by large seismic disasters with very short recurrence intervals, (c) the Corinth area, the Aegean Islands and Crete, all regions characterised by the highest level of seismic hazard in Europe. In addition, research could be extended into (d) poorly known areas of Eastern Europe such as Albania and Transylvania, where there is a lack of research. The problem of representativeness is covered in a 2017 paper (Exploring representativeness and reliability for late medieval earthquakes in Europe, Natural Hazards 84:1625–1636).

The third phase of the project will evaluate regional, thematic and chronological bias within the data, re-assess and articulate the evidence for resilience and recovery from major historic seismic disasters. Particular attention will be paid to archaeological evidence such as the extent and nature of damage, structural repairs and reinforcing architectural and urban elements. We will attempt to define those regions and periods in which different reactions and procedures first emerge, and compare and contrast perceptions, recovery and protection procedures within their social and religious context. These ideas are developed further in our 2017 paper ‘The archaeology of earthquakes: The application of adaptive cycles to seismically-affected communities in late medieval Europe’, Quaternary International, 446:95-108

Tents and wooden barracks surrounding Siena al tenpo de tremuoti (at the time of the earthquake) in 1467. Drawing by Francesco di Giorgio Martini.

The new town of Avola Nuova (Sicily, Italy), built after the seismic disaster of 1693.


From the Department of Archaeology

Scottish Soldiers Project

Cooperating with the Palace Museum in China