The Dark Geocultural Heritage of Volcanoes

*Content warning*

Near the end of this post when talking about Vesuvius is an image of skeletons.

Earlier this year, my first ever peer-reviewed journal article came out. This was the result of collaborative work as a visiting researcher in the archaeology department of Aarhus University, Denmark. I’m going to summarise the thought process behind the piece and what we focused on with the four volcanoes we chose.

How did it happen?

Well…the power of Twitter! Felix contacted me as he was interested in combining my knowledge of social volcanology with his interests in cultural heritage in some way. So with a little planning, I ended up living in Denmark for 5 months, working on this paper as well as finishing writing up my PhD, was fun.

Why dark/geo/cultural heritage?

From the start, we knew that volcanoes and their landforms have a special place in societal culture around the world. We revisited the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, a United Nations report published in the early 2000s. The assessment was focusing on the consequences of ecosystem change for human wellbeing, looking at the different “services” ecosystems provide, but we decided to look at one particular area called “Cultural Services”. Cultural services of ecosystems provide more “invisible” and most of the time, immeasurable benefits for humans. This include education, aesthetics and sense of place.

Categories of cultural ecosystem services

When I looked at this graphic, I could see that volcanoes can fit into all of those subcategories one way or another. So, for the cultural heritage side of volcanoes, we kept this graphic in mind throughout. But we also wanted to keep in mind that heritage is also contested, and fed into the way we looked at geoheritage and dark heritage as well. This is because in some cases, it is clear that geo and dark heritage, are also contested.

For geoheritage, we kept it broad to include geoconservation, geotourism and geoethics as well. Volcanoes are essentially geological landforms, so it was important to understand what they represent in these disciplines. We wanted to focus on what makes volcanoes geoheritage, how can the geological features be persevered and used for educational purposes, the reasons why people engage in geotourism in volcanic areas and also any ethics attached to these sites, especially if volcanic eruptions had recently occurred and impacted communities in some way.

Lastly, Felix suggested I read up on dark heritage and dark tourism. And boy, it was fascinating. Dark heritage is related to places of human trauma and destruction of the built environment, whilst dark tourism is exploiting these sites for profit by having people visit. In the literature, many acts of violence in public and private spaces are considered as “dark”, for example: battlefield sites, abandoned prisons, places of genocide, assassination and even ghost walks. I recommend visiting the “Dark Destinations” portion of the Dark Tourism website to find out how dark on the “darkometer” scale sites are and just get lost in the dark history of some well known and not so well known sites around the world.

What was interesting is the reasons why people visit these sites. Most go to pay their respects to the deceased and learn the reasons why it happened. Some sites become popular because of TV series and movies. What is even more interesting is how these dark places are contested by being uncomfortable, unwanted and/or dissonant heritage for some (usually locals) but interesting attractions for tourists.

We kept the reasons into why people visit dark heritage sites, how they are contested and how can these places be used to educate in our minds. We believed through dark heritage, we found our way to bridge the gap between cultural and geoheritage, as volcanoes are naturally dark sites with the death and destruction they can cause.

Why these volcanoes?

We decided to suggest different reasons why Soufrière Hills Volcano on Montserrat, La Soufrière on St. Vincent, Vesuvius in Italy and Laacher See in Germany are good examples of dark geocultural heritage, by provide a few points for each and how they could be integrated. We decided to arrange them in chronological order from recent to deep history, with me focused on the Caribbean, whilst Felix focused on Europe.

I have always wanted to research Soufrière Hills, so jumped at the chance to focus on this volcano as the second Caribbean example to focus on. For the geoheritage, I focused on the volcanic hazard processes. For the dark heritage, the destruction of Plymouth and the legacy of colonialism was the focus whilst the cultural heritage, I chose an interesting perspective and focused on the significance of St. Patrick’s Day and how it connects those who were displaced by the volcano’s activity.

Abandoned Plymouth_Lally Brown1996
Plymouth, Montserrat (Brown, 1996)

As my PhD was looking at La Soufrière already, I focused on colonialism, slavery and the death and destruction caused by the volcano as dark heritage. For geoheritage, I focused on how the island, not just the volcano, provides great geological outcrops to show volcanic island processes but also the growing ecotourism sector of the island surrounding the rainforests and beaches. For the cultural heritage, I focused on the indigenous and archaeological sites.

La Soufriere trail_Jazmin Scarlett_2016
La Soufriere Rainforest Trail (Scarlett, 2016)

Vesuvius and the 79 AD eruption makes Pompeii and the surrounding areas destroyed the perfect case study for dark geocultural heritage. Felix focused on the fascination and popularity of the archaeological sites of showing what it was like to be a Roman during those times as cultural heritage. For geoheritage, the focus was how the sites destroyed by Vesuvius helped the volcanology and archaeology disciplines develop. The dark heritage was the destruction and preservation of bodies.

Tourists taking pictures of Vesuvius 79 AD victims, Pompeii (Scarlett, 2018)

Lastly, Felix talked about the volcano he has researched: the Laacher See. This is a Maar Lake in Germany, and erupted near the end of the last Ice Age approximately 12,900 years ago. It was a caldera forming eruption, causing damaging local pyroclastic density currents. It also disrupted the social networks of European hunter-gatherers, effecting how tools were made. This was the focus of the dark heritage, whilst the surviving roman and medieval sites and underground beer storage were the cultural heritage. The geoheritage was the ignimbrite outcrops and the chronology of the event, as it provides great learning points for volcanologists.

Laacher See
Laacher See, Germany (Sauer, 2018)

What next?

I would love to explore this concept in more detail for other volcanoes, seeing how geoheritage and cultural heritage can be integrated and used for education through the notion of dark heritage. But only time (and money) will tell where this will be. I believe the “lessons learned” approach really does benefit not only locals and volcanologists, but can be a sombre reminder for tourists in how dangerous and beautiful volcanoes can be.


*Featured image taken by Tabassum (2019).

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