Geology for Global Development


‘Pompeii’ by Robert Harris – A book review

The restored version of John Martin's Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum

The GfGD blog theme this month is science communication, and so regular blog contributor Heather Britton reviews a book which she believes contains some useful geological and human experience, in the form of a gripping novel.

The Geology for Global Development blog is not a site renowned for book reviews, but when a fiction book embraces geoscience as much as Robert Harris’s ‘Pompeii’ there are few reasons not to write about it on this platform. The book was recommended to me by my petrology professor at university, because, as she put it at the time, it is the only book she had ever read which quotes a geology textbook at the beginning of every chapter. Needing no further encouragement, I began reading, and I’m very glad that I did.

The book is set across the events leading up to, during and after the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD. Through the eyes of four starkly different members of Roman society – a hydraulic engineer, a scientist, a rich landowner and his daughter – the eruption is recorded in immense detail. As a reader it is clear that Robert Harris has done extensive research on the eruption, but inevitably some aspects, particularly the reactions and experiences of the characters individually, are filled in with more than a little artistic license. Nevertheless, the snippets from textbooks on Vesuvius at the beginning of each chapter match-up with the geological events of the story, reminding the reader that although the book is very much a work of fiction, the experiences had by the characters are representative of those of real people.

The protagonist of the book is Attilius, a hydraulic engineer sent from Rome to southern Italy to replace his predecessor, Exomnius, who has mysteriously gone missing. In the aftermath of an earthquake (an ominous warning sign of the tragedy to follow) the main aquaduct supplying water to the region is damaged, and Attilius is sent out to repair it. It is whilst taking on this endeavour that unusual events begin to occur, both social and geological, with the climax of the action coinciding with the eruption that has made Pompeii famous today. Despite every reader being aware of what the various events described in the book are leading up to, there is more than enough fiction in the story to make the tale far from predictable, with the case of the missing Exomnius taking centre stage and the eruption acting as a dramatic backdrop –and catalyst – of these events.

A further aspect of the books that I enjoyed was the authentic feel of the region around Vesuvius, including the cities of Pompeii, Herculaneum and Misenum. At school I dropped history as soon as I was given the opportunity, but even with only the most basic historical knowledge I found the book very accessible. Robert Harris does well not to overwhelm the reader with incomprehensible Roman terminology and instead the difference between today’s society and that of this era are drip-fed. I found myself learning about the culture of the Romans without realising I was doing so, and appreciate the insight into this ancient civilisation.

And why have I forced a book review upon GfGD blog readers? This month’s blog topic is science communication, and Robert Harris provides an excellent example of how science can be appreciated through works of fiction. ‘Pompeii’ picks out the links between various geological events, such as volcanic eruptions and earthquakes, and combines them with a gripping fictional tale showing the impact that these events have on individuals. I am certain that this text wouldn’t be out of place on the bookshelf of any avid reader of the GfGD blog.

Robert Emberson: Geomythology – Why understanding cultural traditions of landscape are important for sustainable development

Every culture has myths and legends about their native lands. Before we understood the geological forces that forced up great ranges of mountains or sculpted barren deserts, humans needed an explanation for the scale and majesty of natural phenomena. Stories of deities inhabiting volcanoes, or angry gods shaking the very ground upon which people lived, helped people make sense of disasters when tectonic forces were unimagined. Since the advent of the scientific method, and secularised science, such tales are often forgotten when we look at a landscape; why resort to a story when the facts say otherwise?

Devil’s Tower, Wyoming. Image courtesy psaudio / Pixabay

In some cases, it’s true that such stories don’t offer geologists much factual evidence about how the landscape formed. Even beautiful stories about features like the Devil’s Tower, in Wyoming, USA; the ancestral tale tells of people pursued by a giant bear; once they had reached the top of the peak, the bear could not reach them, but the scratch marks on the sides were testament to its attempts. Today, we know these are classic examples of columnar jointing. Although we might enjoy the story, it definitely doesn’t tie to the more modern understanding!

But there are some instances where we should perhaps pay more attention to myths, and particularly in the context of geology and sustainable development. While the tangible evidence of geological processes are often visible at a grand scale, it’s also true that the signals or proxies we look for to understand these processes can be very scarce. Trace fossils, or small shifts in element abundances, for example; we should take advantage of every shred of evidence we can find. As a result, some scientists have been turning to ancestral stories – in particular those about catastrophic events – for information.

Researchers have found tantalising clues about past events in mythical tales, and it seems often there is no smoke without fire. Amongst other studies, geologists have found evidence of volcanism in previously thought-dormant Pacific Volcanoes from local accounts, and evidence of giant floods in China, partly linked to tales of Emperor Yu 4000 years ago. The cultural memory of such giant catastrophes is etched into the myths told there; it seems that using these stories could help us better establish the timing and recurrence of natural disasters, allowing for improved risk analysis and development in tune with natural events.

There’s another, perhaps even more important aspect of geological myths to bear in mind for sustainable development. It’s increasingly well understood that the best approaches taken to encourage development, economic or otherwise, will differ across the world, driven by cultural differences. Development anthropologists could point to studies (e.g. see here) indicating that the definition of quality of life varies widely to suggest that a local approach would be the most sensible in approaching development, rather than assuming a standard ‘western’ approach would work everywhere.

The relationship of people to their landscape is, for the same reasons, an important variable to consider when discussing development. For example, Mt Machapuchare in Nepal is of special significance to Hindus, and as such is off-limits to climbers (and indeed has never been summitted). It is not the only mountain steeped in myth in the Himalayas,  and as such, it would be a mistake to assume that the burgeoning tourist industry could operate freely on every mountain. Similarly, the recent decision to ban tourists from climbing Uluru in Australia may not make economic sense, but consideration of cultural associations clearly is more important.

Some of these cases may seem isolated. But every culture has its own unique relationship with land, which is to some degree (big or small) influenced by myth and legend. Applying the same development strategy in each setting is misguided – and to me it seems this is particularly true for the modern concept of treating the landscape as a commodity to be exploited for profit. Indigenous peoples (in Canada, for example) have treated the land they depend on in a highly sustainable fashion, informed by their cultural memory of fables and myth. We may not be able to return to such a state of living in the modern era, but if we want to build a more sustainable economy and change our current ‘business as usual’ model, it would be fitting to look to those cultures that have achieved a sustainable fashion of living – and particularly fitting to ask ourselves what about their cultural memory encouraged them to live that way.

Robert Emberson is a science writer, currently based in Victoria, Canada. He can be contacted via Twitter (@RobertEmberson) or via his website (