Tambora & Indonesian's Pompeii

Like Pompeii, evidence shows a human settlement frozen in time by volcanic pyroclastic flows.

In 1980, people began to take notice when workers from a commercial logging company began dredging up pottery fragments and bones in an area near the little village of Pancasila on the island of Sumbawa, Indonesia. Other locals began finding coins, brassware and charred timber in the same region, all buried beneath a thick layer of volcanic deposits. The finds were not far from the foot of the Tambora volcano, a volcano that, in April of 1815, produced the largest eruption in recorded history. In fact, so intense was the eruption, it's atmospheric effects influenced weather patterns across faraway Europe and North America. And in one evening alone, it destroyed at least one entire village kingdom near its feet.

Acting on the discovery of these finds in 2004, Volcanologist Haraldur Sigurdsson of the University of Rhode Island began investigating the jungle-shrouded area by using Ground Penetrating Radar. He identified a complete house buried under 2-3 metres of pyroclastic flow and surge deposits. Although it was entirely charred, its form was well preserved, making it possible to distinguish beams and bamboo floors. Artifacts found inside the structure included Chinese porcelain, iron tools and copper bowls. Two victims were also discovered; one complete skeleton was found by the hearth in the kitchen area and the second, which was very badly damaged, identifiable only by the leg and a vertebra, was found on the porch.

Sigurdsson's discovery touched off a series of formal excavations beginning in 2006 and continuing to this day under the direction of Dr M. Geria of the Bali Institute for Archaeology. What they have found are, like the remains of Pompeii, the charred but remarkably well-preserved remains of house structures, human bodies, and many of the accoutrements of life frozen in their last moments of time. In 2008, a house was uncovered containing a male skeleton sitting upright, adorned with a copper tobacco box tied to his waist and a ceremonial spear at his side. He wore rings inlaid with precious stones, a bracelet on his wrist, and a large brass pendulum necklace around his neck. During the 2009 excavation season, another carbonized house was discovered, this time with a body lying just outside under the volcanic debris, with his left arm held up to his head, perhaps in a (failed) attempt to protect himself from the falling pumice. In 2011, the remains of half of a house were identified.

One victim who was discovered during the 2009 excavations. His left arm is held up to his head perhaps in a (failed) attempt to protect himself from falling pumice. The carbonized beams of the house are also shown

"Based on the artefacts found, particularly the many bronze objects and jewels, evidence suggests the site was once inhabited by the wealthy or an elite who had grown prosperous through trade" says Emma Johnston, a member of the investigative team and a Ph.D candidate with Bristol University (U.K.). "Historical evidence supports this theory, as Tamborans historically were known in the East Indies for their honey, horses, red dye and sandalwood. The design and decoration of the artefacts suggest that the Tamboran culture was linked to Vietnam and Cambodia."

The principal investigators hope to learn not only more about this buried kingdom, which they estimate counted about 10,000 people, but also about the flow of events and activities that described the details about how they met their deaths.

Says Johnston: "We know from the excavations and deposit stratigraphy that the houses were mostly inhabited when the accumulating pumice fall led to the collapse of the houses, trapping and killing those inside. The evidence uncovered so far indicates this was the fate of all victims identified so far."

The investigaive team will be returning to the site again in 2012. They will have their work cut out for them. "The excavations thus far have only scratched the surface", states Johnston. "The rich finds suggest that there is much more waiting to be discovered at the site."

A detailed article about the eruption and the excavation and study of the lost village kingdom of Tambora will be published in the June issue of Popular Archaeology Magazine.

Excavating carbonized building beams