Monday, December 15, 2008

"Cities In Dust" - Siouxsie & The Banshees, 1985 (gothic rock)

Water was running; children were running
You were running out of time
Under the mountain, a golden fountain
Were you praying at the Lares shrine?
But ohh oh your city lies in dust, my friend
ohh oh your city lies in dust, my friend

We found you hiding, we found you lying
Choking on the dirt and sand
Your former glories and all the stories
Dragged and washed with eager hands

But ohh oh your city lies in dust, my friend
ohh oh your city lies in dust, my friend
your city lies in dust

Water was running; children were running
We found you hiding, we found you lying
Water was running; children were running
We found you hiding, we found you lying
your city lies in dust
ohh oh your city lies in dust, my friend

Hot and burning in your nostrils
Pouring down your gaping mouth
Your molten bodies blanket of cinders
Caught in the throes .......

Your city lies in dust

"Cities in Dust" is probably THE most well known song by gothic rockers Siouxsie & The Banshees, and ironically the song is about probably THE most famous volcanic eruption in history - Mt. Vesuvius. The cities in dust, then of course, are the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum, which were both destroyed by the mountain on August 24, 79 A.D.

Mt. Vesuvius (in Italy) is one of the European mainland's only active volcano to have erupted in the past 100 years. The 79 A.D. eruption is of particular historical (and lyrical) note because archaeological expeditions to the area unearthed petrified "statues" of the townsfolk. i.e the eruption was so quick and deadly that many died right in the midst of their activities and their bodies were forever preserved as ash-to-stone statues. Volcanoes are quite diverse in their eruption behaviors due to the diversity of the composition of the earth's crust beneath and the length of time between eruptions. Some are quite docile, such as those on the Hawaiian Islands. Mt. Vesuvius, however, has a propensity for violent, explosive eruptions more along the lines of something like Mt. Saint Helens in the Pacific Northwest.

For the citizens of Pompeii and Herculaneum, first warnings of the volcano's rumblings came on February 5, 62 A.D. At about mid-day, a long and muffled roar shook the town. Unfortunately, nobody knew was it was, nor did they know where it came from. Dispite being a very active volcano in geologic terms, as far as human time lines went, it had lain dormant for as long as anyone could remember. Plus, because of the prolonged dormancy, there were no records to suggest that this particular volcano ever caused any sort of destruction.

This earthquake lasted for two days. It shook the foundations of buildings, which damaged walls and ceilings. Residents fled the scene for fear of the failing buildings, but many fell victim to many rifts and chasms formed by the shaking ground outside of the cities. Nearby reservoirs broke and the cities were flooded. As with all earthquakes, the duration was short, lasting only a moment with aftershocks lasting for just a few hours after. Dispite the event, citizens returned to their cities and rebuilt what was damaged.

For the next 17 years the earthquakes and tremors continued, and every time, the people of Pompeii and Herculaneum made repairs, intent on making their city more grand and spectacular than it had been previously. Nearing August of 79 A.D., the frequency of these warning signs increased, however their intensity was so slight that buildings were not destroyed, and so the villagers were not alarmed. However, other warning signs that we currently deem as evidence of impending volcanic doom began to arise and were also disregarded. For example, natural wells and springs began to dry up. Today, we understand this sign as a dramatic increase in temperature, which causes the water to evaporate, but to those who lived in Pompeii and Herculaneum, it was merely a sign that the gods were displeased.

On August 20, the earth began to rumble and crack. The usually calm ocean began hurling ferocious waves against the shoreline. Horses and cattle and other animals became uneasy and unsettled. Finally, on August 24, the earth could no longer contain its fury and the mountainside gave way to the tremendous pressure underneath with an earsplitting crack. Firey stones and flames spewed from the mountain's summit sending ash and rock raining over the countryside. Mud flowed from the side of the mountain at incredible speeds, swallowing up and burying anything and everything in its path. Yet even worse were the invisible killers - mephetic vapors which rolled down to the towns silent but deadly - asphyxiating gases such as sulphur dioxide, carbonic acid, and hydrogen sulfide. The most deadly of all volcanic gases, however, is carbon dioxide.

It was now that the people of the sister cities chose to flee. Many of them stopped to retrieve their personal belongings and load up their oxen, horses, and donkeys with whatever they could carry. Because of the pandamonium, many people opted to stay inside in their homes and businesses waiting for the streets to clear. Ignorant of the invisible dangers, still many others took shelter in inner rooms of their homes, believing the structures would protect them from the ash, mud, and other volcanic debris.

For those who waited to long to escape or trusted in their internal shelters, death inevitably came. As many as 400 were asphyxiated by the invisible carbon dioxide that crept through every crevice. Many could not outrun the mudflows. If none of those things were to blame for one's death, then there was yet one more element which no living being could escape: volcanic ash fall, also known as "hard rain". The US Geological Survey has this to say about "hard rain":

"Volcanic ash consists of tiny jagged particles of rock and natural glass blasted into the air by a volcano. Ash can threaten the health of people and livestock, pose a hazard to flying jet aircraft, damage electronics and machinery, and interrupt power generation and telecommunications. Wind can carry ash thousands of miles, affecting far greater areas and many more people than other volcano hazards. Even after a series of ash-producing eruptions has ended, wind and human activity can stir up fallen ash for months or years, presenting a long-term health and economic hazard."

Volcanic ash is not the product of burning things. It is not water soluble, is extremely abrasive, mildly corrosive, and conducts electricity when wet. Yet the particles are tiny enough to be suspended and carried by air currents, which fall to the ground long after the other volcanic dangers have passed. These particles are also minute enough to be inhaled, which causes burning to the lungs, esophogus, and other air passage. The body cannot remove these particles efficiently, so the more ash that is inhaled equates to eventual respiratory failure. In the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum, there was enough hard rain to bury the entire city in 30 feet of volcanic ash in a matter of hours. At this rate, though each ash particle is tiny and almost weightless by human standards, even just a few inches is enough to collapse an entire building.

We know so much detail about this ancient eruption thanks to Roman historian Pliny the Younger who chronicled the events surrounding his uncle's (Pliny the Elder) death, which he wrote about to another Roman historian, Tactitus. Pliny the Elder was also a casualty of this eruption in that he was a maritime commander who tried to use his navy ships to rescue those who fled the area. You can read exerpts of this disaster from Pliny the Younger's letters HERE.

As if this dual tragedy wasn't enough, today Mount Vesuvius isn't just the only active European volcano, it is also the most deadly. While in 79 A.D. the population death of the two cities was limited to only about 15,000, today there are 3,000,000 people living at this mountain's base.

"Cities In Dust" - Siouxsie & The Banshees, 1985

~Information from sources that'll blow you away, such as:

1 comment:

Beth in NC said...

Wow, what a cheerful post. Ha. My mind actually went to Sodom and Gomorrah when I started reading the lyrics.