Despite what housing prices in the San Francisco Bay area may suggest, most people have an understanding of how dangerous living on an earthquake fault-line can be. It helps that since San Francisco’s historic quake in 1906, a lot of research has been done on what causes earthquakes, leading to more safely engineered buildings that can survive a tremblor. Of course, before people even considered the notion of plate tectonics, seismically active locations have been surprisingly active real estate markets. In fact, there’s a chance that the occasional shake-up actually attracted people, since they interpreted earthquakes as being divine in origin.
Guessing why the ground shakes
Geologist Iain Stewart from the University of Plymouth noticed an odd trend in building locations in ancient Greece, as many cities, temples and monuments were built directly on active fault lines. On it’s own that’s not that odd, but the fact that ancient people’s repeatedly rebuilt ruined structures at these locations indicates that there was a strong motivation to do so. Without scientific explanations and predictions to help shape people’s reactions, Stewart suspects that the ground’s spontaneous movement was likely understood to be an expression of the gods’ will. Even if a building was shaken to dust, knowing that a deity had taken an interest in a particular plot of land boosted its prestige as a sort of ‘holy’ site.
In some cases, the intersection of geology and faith is fairly clear. The famed Oracle of Delphi described visions that foretold the future and explained the actions of the gods. While the accuracy of those interpretations may be up for debate, a biochemical component has been found for the seer’s visions, as ethylene gas was likely produced underground, and released with each bit of seismic activity. The priestess was then probably subject to hallucinations, and would share the her descriptions of these sights as guidance for her visitors. Similarly, an oracle at Perachora Heraion may have lost their divine gift after a quake blocked off a water supply to vision-inducing hot springs in 300 BC.
Picking fault lines on purpose?
Even ignoring these more mind-altering interactions with fissures in the rock, Stewart believes that the ancient Greeks weren’t rebuilding on fault lines at random. It’s hard to move a city to avoid seismic activity, but it should have been possible to a least move a broken temple off a fault. Instead, Stewart things the Greeks rebuilt at the same locations on purpose, possibly to harness the inexplicable energy of that spot. While Stewart has a list of at least four more cities that seem conspicuously located along active fault lines, he admits that he’s looking at this from a geologist’s perspective. He’s hoping that archaeologists will look for evidence of people’s intent to build where the ground shook, helping answer how they rationalized living in such a risk-prone place.
As for the Bay Area… the weather really is lovely most of the year, and the local produce is hard to beat, plate tectonics be damned.
Source: Ancient Greeks May Have Deliberately Built Sacred Sites on Earthquake Faults by John Dyer, Seeker