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Twilight of the gods? The 'dust veil event' of AD 536 in critical perspective.


'Then it was destroyed by the volcano'

Over the last ten years or so, questions of human-environmental interaction, and particularly the cultural impact of natural disasters, have developed a growing prominence in archaeological research. In their ancient reflection of contemporary social concerns, it is not difficult to understand why these issues have been debated with renewed urgency, and also found their way into popular science writing on the past (Fagan 2000, 2004; Diamond 2005). Natural cause and social effect have been directly linked: for example, in a chain of argument dating back to Fouques work of 1879 (1998), seismic calamity and volcanic eruptions were once regularly blamed for bringing about the 'end' of the Minoan and Mycenaean civilisations, and for generally disrupting the Bronze Age societies of the region. The proponents of widespread social collapse through long-term environmental dislocation have attracted considerable critique within the archaeological community (e.g. Tainter 2008; Inglis & Pryor 2009; McAnany & Yoffee 2010), emphasising notions of resilience, the potential for ancient civilisations to recover (or not) after substantial environmental impacts. Debatable over-estimates of cultural dissolution following natural disasters have also tended to push the very real consequences of such catastrophes towards the academic fringe, what one might call the 'then it was destroyed by the volcano' school of history (Pomeroy 2008). Several recent collections have emphasised that communities once thought to have been eliminated by natural disasters, or which would once have been assumed to have succumbed, in fact achieve renewed stability relatively soon (e.g. Torrence & Grattan 2002; Grattan & Torrence 2007, with particular reference to the Americas). Accordingly, a more nuanced perspective is now the norm (for recent works on the Aegean see Friedrich 2009; Warburton 2009; Knappett et al. 2011).

Alongside the science-based study of environmental catastrophe, a new emphasis on so-called 'geomythology' has emerged, exploring how understandings of such events may have been articulated through stories of gods, supernatural powers and the cosmos (the term was coined by Vitaliano in 1968; see also Piccardi & Masse 2007). The concept of geomythology has clear problems, inherent in its central attempt to link the hard science of environmental cause and effect with the humanities-based study of oral tradition and epic literature (e.g. Baillie 1998; contra Buckland et al. 1997). These include the serious risk of circular argument and 'confirmation bias' (Rundkvist 2011). The addition of archaeology to the mix provides further complications through an attempt to assess social response articulated in material culture. However, the limitations of certain case studies are no reason to reject all the others, and with sensible caution the principle remains both logical and viable in its historical utility.

Conscious of these debates, we here examine a specific event of this kind, the so-called 'dust veil' of AD 536, and critically explore its interpretation from a range of interdisciplinary perspectives. By way of explanatory example, we then present a number of new conclusions about its impact and possible geomythological legacy within a single region--in some ways the least-studied of the many areas affected--namely Scandinavia.

The dust veil event of AD 536: textual scholarship and the environmental sciences

The first observations of what scientists later termed the 'dust veil' appear in a number of Late Antique sources dating to the same time (Arjava 2006). The most detailed and dramatic description comes from the Roman official Cassiodorus, writing outside Ravenna, in whose Variae we read of "something coming at us from the stars" that produces a "blue-coloured sun", dims the full moon and results in "a summer without heat ... perpetual frost ... unnatural drought". The crops wither in the fields, nothing grows and all the while "the rays of the stars have been darkened". With almost scientific observation he records some kind of opacity apparently very high in the stratosphere, narrating how "things in mid-space dominate out sight" and describing how a cloudy mist "condensed by some sort of mixture.., permits neither the natural colours, nor the heat of the heavenly bodies to penetrate". Most significantly, "this has not happened in the momentary loss of an eclipse, but has assuredly been going on equally through almost the entire year" (all quotes from Barnish 1992: 179-80). Similar descriptions of a prolonged celestial darkness, unseasonal chili and failed harvests are found in the securely-dated and independently-created works of Procopius, Zachariah of Mytilene, John the Lydian and John of Ephesus (Arjava 2006). Again, they all relate how the sun was so obscured over the Mediterranean and the Near East that it hardly cast a shadow from the beginning of AD 536 to the end of summer AD 537. Even Mesopotamia experienced frost and snow in the summer of AD 536.

A powerful confirmation of the effects of the dust veil can be found in a series of fossil tree-rings that indicate how the summers in the northern hemisphere, from Siberia in the east all the way to the western United States, were unusually cold from AD 536-545, in places even until AD 550. In eastern Siberia and northern Sweden the average summer temperature has been estimated to have dropped by 3--4 degrees centigrade, a dramatic worsening of the climate. However, this data also seems to indicate that there were in fact two clearly separate periods of severe climatic downturn, the first in AD 536 and the second in AD 540-542, with fewer cold periods in between (the tree-ring data is debated in Briffa et al. 1990, 1992; Baillie 1994, 1995: 84-93, 1999, 2008, 2010; d'Arrigo et al. 2001a, 2001b; Grudd et al. 2002; Grudd 2006; Salzer & Hughes 2007).

Whether or not its effects endured or were repeated, for as long as 15 years, all sectors of the research community agree today that in AD 536 something drastic occurred to affect the global environment, reflected in so many proxies as to leave no doubt that it was a widespread catastrophic event. Its consequences varied geographically in their severity and longevity, and also in the degree to which they have left a mark in the textual and archaeological record.

What caused the AD 536 event?

In the early 1980s the American geoscientists Stothers and Rampino began to search the Classical sources for descriptions of volcanic eruptions, in order to compare them with data from the natural sciences (Stothers & Rampino 1983; Stothers 1984). Over the next decade these accounts were then linked with information on the ice-cold summers that occurred in China, amongst other places, during the years AD 536-538, which caused widespread ruined harvests and starvation (Rampino et al. 1988; Baillie 1994, 1999; Gunn 2000). Stothers and Rampino felt able to make connections with a significant layer of sulphuric acid in the Greenland ice from around the year AD 540, which they suggested derived from a violent volcanic eruption some years earlier (Stothers & Rampino 1983; Stothers 1999). Later investigations of major deposits of sulphates in the ice of both Antarctica and Greenland seemed to confirm this presence of sulphuric aerosols, which were argued to have come most plausibly from a volcanic super-eruption that probably occurred in the tropics, still circulating in the stratosphere over the entire globe for several years after AD 536 (Traufetter et al. 2004; Larsen et al. 2008). This would have resulted in much of the sun's warmth being reflected upwards, with a consequent serious cooling of the earth's surface. Over the last three decades various candidates for the volcano have been proposed, including sites in Papua New Guinea (Stothers 1984) and Java (Keys 1999). Recent work by Dull et al. (2010) suggests a link with a massive eruption in EI Salvador, pyroclastic flows from which have been shown to have killed trees in AD 535.

The original supposition of a 'nuclear winter' enduring over several years caused by a single massive eruption is now thought increasingly unlikely by volcanologists (Grattan, J. pers. comm.). Volcanic dust falls from the stratosphere relatively quickly and the volume of water vapour also limits the quantity of sulphur that can be oxidised into an aerosol, the latter being the most powerful mechanism for climate change. However, even allowing for the full range of academic debate, the causative options are not numerous: the dust veil must have resulted either from one or more volcanic eruptions of unusual magnitude; from one or more extraterrestrial impacts, involving whole or fragmentary comets and/or meteorites; or from some combination of these. The latter possibility is important, because the 'event' usually discussed in the singular may in fact have represented the cumulative effects of several events occurring within a short space of time, perhaps in different places. This is particularly relevant to the medium-term impact, and what seems to have happened to the climate in various parts of the world for several years after AD 536.

However, while the location and nature of the event(s) remain unclear, the existence of extreme weather phenomena in and after AD 536 is unquestionable. Our primary purpose in this paper is to examine the issue from the perspective of the humanities. Put simply, the reasons for the solar darkness of AD 536 do not necessarily need to matter more to students of its consequences than they did to those actually experiencing them. At a human level, if your harvests have failed and your family faces starvation then you have other priorities than knowing precisely why the summer has turned to winter (though as time goes on you may begin to invent reasons, or adopt those given you by others). Arguments put forward by the advocates of volcanoes, comets and asteroids have their own contested validity, but do not substantially affect archaeological and textual research into how the people of the mid sixth century reacted to whatever it was that had happened. This is our subject here, and one we offer as a critical counterpoint to the polarised environmental discussion of the AD 536 event(s).

The archaeology of the Fimbulwinter

The consequences of the dust veil as they can be read through dendochronology strongly imply a pattern of intermittently colder summers and a shorter growing season, colder winters, increased humidity and stormier weather. But cold winters as such have never been a difficulty for low-tech agrarian societies in the northern hemisphere. The overbearing problem has been cold summers. It has long been known that large areas of agricultural land in northern and central Europe returned to forest during the middle and later sixth century, the so-called 'Migration Period Crisis', but the data has not been previously placed into a larger environmental context. In many regions four to seven generations would pass before the cultural landscape returned to its former dimensions (Welinder 1975; Andersen & Berglund 1994; Berglund et al. 1996; Behre et al. 1996; Vervruggen et al. 1996; Bork et al. 1998; Berglund 2003). It is hard to avoid interpreting this general and surprisingly sudden woodland advance as the expression of a dramatic agricultural decline, which would surely have caused a similarly marked reduction in population with long-term effects.

Of necessity in a brief paper of this kind, much of the supporting data must be generalised, but by way of example we can take one detailed regional study. In eastern central Sweden during the AD 500s, the majority of villages were abandoned, with new settlements later founded in drastically reduced numbers on slightly higher ground nearby. This constituted the greatest change in settlement patterns in Sweden for 6000 years. The complete data for Uppland province, some 86 sites, have recently been brought together from a trawl of the grey literature as part of the massive excavation project for the new E4 motorway north of Uppsala, now published in six volumes. In an overview of the settlement evidence from all periods, Hans Gothberg notes (2007: 440) that the total number of occupied sites across the province falls by a staggering 75 per cent during the sixth century. This is all the more striking when the data is displayed visually (Figures 1 & 2) and it is clear that the agrarian economy was actually expanding in the centuries prior to the collapse, which appears to have happened suddenly. In many cases, the settlements abandoned at this time had been in continuous use for more than 1000 years.

As a comparison to the settlement data, Daniel Lowenborg (2010: paper V, and in press) has looked at graves in Vastmanland province, adjacent to Uppland in the central part of the country, and found an identical pattern. Figure 3 shows the dated periods of use for every excavated prehistoric cemetery in Vastmanland, a total of 65 sites. With only five exceptions, all the grave-fields that had been in continuous use since the pre-Roman Iron Age (and some began even earlier) were abandoned during the sixth century. We do not have more precise dating than this in most instances, but again it is clear how a millennium or more of tradition came to an end across the province. This may have been either a sudden or a gradual process, but in any event it occurred over a period of less than 100 years. As these burial grounds went out of use, a range of entirely new cemeteries were founded in previously unoccupied locations, and it is these that developed through the Vendel and Viking periods until--and in some cases beyond--the adoption of Christianity. Moving in from the macro-scale of provinces, one can also trace the same cycle of contraction and dislocation at individual sites. A good example is Torun Zachrisson's 2011 archaeological review of the royal power centre at Gamla Uppsala, where she notes that the climate catastrophe coincides with the transformation of the agrarian landscape as exactly as our current dating allows (Zachrisson 2011: 146).

The same phenomenon is demonstrated all across central Sweden by Renck (2008), with clear parallels elsewhere in the northern provinces of Halsingland and Medelpad, and even as far south as Smaland near the Danish border. This picture is also replicated consistently over the rest of Scandinavia for which we have data. As confirmation of population decline, the period immediately following these events in Sweden and Norway has generally produced very few indications of settlements, graves, material culture, iron production and fortifications, by comparison with the periods both before and after (see Graslund 2004, 2008 for all these regions). In several areas of southern Norway the number of known burial finds after AD 536-545 are 90-95 per cent fewer than in the period before (Solberg 2000: 180-82, 197-98).

The situation is, if anything, even worse on the small Baltic island societies of Oland and Gotland. Over 1300 Iron Age house foundations have been recorded on Oland, all apparently abandoned in the sixth century (Stenberger 1933; Fallgren 2006), while on Gotland at least 1900 similar deserted structures have been documented (Carlsson 1979). A handful of village sites have been excavated in their entirety, bringing the picture into sharper focus. One such is Vallhagar in eastern Gotland (Stenberger 1955; Figure 4), a prosperous community that came to a violent end in a single event in the mid sixth century when the village was burned, with bodies still left lying in some of the houses. Similar destruction seems to have swept over the Oland ring-forts and many other sites, with an increase in fortified refuges at the same time (Herschend 2009 gives a good overview of these social processes).


Ruined harvests and grazing for two years in a row, combined with several cold summers and shorter growing seasons for a further decade, would have led unavoidably to serious famine in archaic agricultural societies. It seems reasonable to suggest that the populations of Scandinavia in the mid sixth century may have been halved. As if this were not enough misery, the climate disaster may have unleashed the Justinian pandemic that reached Western Europe in AD 541, with drastic effects on the peoples of the southern and central continent (Little 2006; Rosen 2006: 201-203). It should also be noted that DNA from the plague bacillus Yersinia pestis has now been identified in contemporary skeletal material from southern Germany and France (Wiechmann & Grube 2005; Drancourt et al. 2007).


On this broad canvas of social unrest and sharp agrarian decline, Lowenborg (2010, in press) uses Klein's 2007 work on the opportunities generated by crises to discuss how some sectors of Swedish society may have taken advantage of a demographic disaster. It may be that the events of the mid sixth century were critical for the development of the strikingly different political economies of the later Iron Age, manifested in new types of monumentalised cemeteries and settlements, in new locations, and thus formed one catalyst for the long social trajectory that ultimately resulted in the Viking diaspora and the transformation of the North.



The Danish archaeologist Morten Axboe was the first in Scandinavia to consider the possible impact of the AD 536 event(s) in relation to the 'Migration Period Crisis'. In several papers, and especially in a chapter of his doctoral dissertation, he outlined a suggestion that the large numbers of 'sacrificial' gold deposits in Scandinavia from the sixth century may be connected with the solar disaster; he also made a link with the Norse myth of the Fimbulwinter (Axboe 1999, 2001a, 200lb, 2004, 2005, 2007: ch. 9). At the time, Axboe was a lone voice on this subject in the North, and his work was both brave and challenging, but the link between the bracteate finds and the dust veil event is now being taken up regularly. One example is Kent Andersson's work (2011: 94-107) on the Soderby hoard from Uppland province, Sweden, which appears to date from this time. Here, the bracteate images, usually interpreted as representing the gods, have been defaced and mutilated, as if their power was rejected for some reason.

Following the publication of the new environmental data noted above, one of us (BG) has recently taken this Fimbulwinter connection further to argue that the information from the Late Antique textual sources has a detailed counterpart in these Norse traditions of the Ragnarok--the final battle at the end of the worlds (Graslund 2008, 2009; see also Hultgard 2004), and that this may reflect the archaeological material from the mid sixth century. We can now examine these claims in more depth.

The evidence of Old Norse poetry

The exact date of composition for the corpus of mythological poetry that forms our current foundation for pre-Christian Norse beliefs has long been debated. In the shape that we currently have them, it seems that the earliest poems were finally put into order around the turn of the first millennium AD, before being committed to vellum some 150-200 years later. That said, it is equally clear that they are merely the end result of centuries of addition and reworking, and that they contain numerous elements that go back to at least the fifth century. Among the narratives that thus emerge are several stories of Migration Period warriors both in Scandinavia and beyond (Attila was particularly popular), all known and confirmed from other contemporary sources. In other poems, such as Voluspa ('The Seeress's Prophecy'), it has long been argued that almost all the material culture described is of pre-Viking, sixth-century date (first proposed in Nerman 1958, 1963). The notion that these poems might preserve some memory of an event like the AD 536 disaster is therefore entirely consistent with the current interpretations of these texts.

Gylfaginning ('The Tricking of Gylfi') forms a major component of Snorri Sturluson's Edda, an early thirteenth-century Icelandic text that not only served as a kind of handbook for medieval poets but also forms one of our main sources on Norse mythology. In section 51 of the text is a brief account of traditions relating to the fimbulvetr, the 'great' or 'mighty' winter that serves as a forewarning of the Ragnarok, the destruction of all the worlds and their inhabitants, even the gods themselves. It is told how the mythical king Gylfi visits the AEsir gods and enters a hall where three men are seated. He asks them what they know about the Ragnarok. One of them answers:

First of all that a winter will come called Fimbulwinter. Then snow will drift from all directions. There will then be great frosts and keen winds. The sun will do no good. There will be three of these winters together and no summer between (Faulkes 1987: 52-53).

In strophes 39-40 and 54 of Voluspa it is indicated that the Ragnarok begins when the children of the wolf Fenrir carry off the moon, attack the sun and paint the home of the gods red with their blood. It also says that the sun's rays are dark and the stars are no longer visible in the following (i.e. at least two) summers, and that the weather is out of balance. This is in agreement not only with Gylfaginning (and other Norse mythological texts) but also with the Classical sources.

Note that these are clear descriptions of specific weather conditions, including their appearance, duration and precise effects--very far from the generic end-of-the-world stories found in many mythologies, accounts of severe but nonetheless rather vague destruction. The core of the Norse stories can be confidently dated to the later Iron Age (c. AD 5501000), and as noted above there are many circumstantial references that support a mid sixth century context for the material culture that they describe.

It is probable that sudden changes observed in the iconography of stone monuments also relate to the sixth-century event. The Gotland picture stones are monumental grave markers and memorials carved with symbols and figurative images that are often linked to the cycles of Norse mythology (Lindqvist 1941-42). During the fifth and early sixth centuries the stones commonly feature a large whirling disc as the primary image, interpreted as the sun on the basis of many centuries of Scandinavian parallels going back to the Bronze Age, and seen as evidence of a long-held prehistoric solar cult (Kaul 2004; Figure 5). In the sixth century the whirling disc disappears completely, and is replaced by symbols that seem to relate more directly to the stories of gods and heroes that we know from the Viking Age (Andren 2012). It seems that whatever happened in the mid AD 500s not only devastated the rural economy and population, but also resulted in a change of religious ideas in which the sun suggestively fell out of favour.


There is nothing to suggest any textual collusion between the Northern myths and the Late Antique sources, and that the textual, vulcanological, dendrochronological, palaeobotanical and archaeological source categories are independent of one another further reduces the possibility of circular argument. If we follow Zachariah of Mytilene and see the darkening of the sun beginning in early March of the year AD 536, and place its approximate end in September AD 537, we have a period of 18-19 months when the sun was powerfully misted over and winter weather prevailed during the European summer. Whatever was in the stratosphere was almost certainly of variable thickness and longevity in different areas and latitudes. If it thinned out slowly, it cannot have been easy for the people of the time to say when exactly the sun returned to normal. In northern latitudes with naturally weaker sunlight, the clouded sun was probably experienced for rather longer than in the south.

Serious, if intermittent, reductions in summer temperatures for as long as 10-15 years must have reduced evaporation and probably increased rainfall (Buntgen et al. 2011). At this time the water levels rose in Swedish lakes and watercourses, and in many bogs, which indicates a higher water table and increased humidity. At the same time the water temperature fell in the North Atlantic (Jansen & Koc 2000). These conditions are matched by John the Lydian's description of extremely humid conditions in Europe (Arjava 2006). In eastern central Sweden the majority of villages of this period lay on the clay soils near wetlands and watercourses, before moving as we have seen in the mid sixth century to higher and drier ground nearby. The catalyst for this may have been problems with rising groundwater, overflowing rivers and the damage to timber buildings arising from damp and mould that spread with the humidity.

Such a lengthy catastrophe must naturally have generated suspicion of the gods' ability to control the environment, and suggested that they were destined for the same unfortunate fate as mortals. Whatever its cause(s), the abnormally long dust veil of AD 536-537, with its blood-red sunsets, ice-cold summers, chill winters and serious famine must have been experienced as a frightening foretaste of the world's ending. But when this did not happen and the sun actually returned, perhaps the terrifying memory was instead woven into an imagined image of a coming destruction, the Ragnarok, which long thereafter held sway over the Northern peoples as their own version of Apocalypse. The final scenes of the Ragnarok myth, when sun, earth, gods and humans are resurrected in a paradisiacal milieu, can be interpreted as a reflex of the happy moment when warmth returned after the Fimbulwinter, and a new, hopeful time of light opened up for those who had survived.

There is one final but compelling piece of evidence. As we have seen, in Voluspa we find the term Ragnarok used for the battle at the end of the worlds, but Snorri's Edda has the alternative form ragnarokkr. Early scholars of Old Norse interpreted this to mean 'twilight of the gods', hence Wagner's famous Gotterdammerung that the tales inspired (Mullenhoff 1873). This reading was dismissed by later research, and modern textual scholars usually interpret the Ragnarok to refer to the 'end' of the gods (Holtsmark 1968). However, as Bernhardsson (2007) has recently shown, the is in risk is a neutral wa-stem, suggesting the substantive rok(k) or rek(k), 'darkness', and the strong associated verb rok(k)va, rek(k)va with no other meaning than 'darken'. The old reading of the gods' 'twilight' or 'darkness' is thereby not only now again shown to be more likely, but in fact forms a perfect literal description of the long eclipse that not even the highest powers were able to avert.


The traditions of the sun and moon's disappearance in the Fimbulwinter and Ragnarok have generally been interpreted as purely mystical in nature. But when they are relocated in a broader context of natural history and archaeology, and re-read in the light of Late Antique sources, their obscurities are removed. Instead, what appears is actually a remarkably clear and consistent image.


In the above discussion, we are not arguing that the late Iron Age cultures of the North were 'destroyed by the volcano' (or the comet, or the asteroid, singular or plural). In avoiding such exaggerated simplifications, it is nonetheless important to observe that the dust veil really happened and does seem to have had a very considerable socio-cultural impact. In the present paper we have noted some of the archaeological markers for the damage within just one specific region, Scandinavia. With its lower margins of agricultural resilience, the North can also serve as a useful laboratory of the more drastic effects that really can follow environmental impact. The social effects of the episode can also be seen in the period of recovery. In the Scandinavian late Iron Age, we can clearly observe new structures of power with an increased focus on elite ownership of land. This may perhaps have been provoked by the fact that, in the middle of the sixth century, large areas of agricultural soil were suddenly left without obvious occupants.

We believe that several categories of independent data combine to suggest that the Old Norse traditions of the Fimbulwinter and Ragnarok may collectively remember terrifying experiences of starvation and collapse as a result of extreme weather phenomena during the years AD 536-550.

The terrible Fimbulwinter must have lived long in Northern folk memory, and been retold, sung and embellished with mystical interpretation. When a tradition like this is based on a completely mutual external experience, where there was no doubt in people's mind as to what happened, it would have long been impossible to embroider the story in an unrealistic manner. Only when explaining why the sun, moon and stars disappeared and at last returned was there room for the poetic fantasy of myth.


For their discussion and assistance, we would like to thank Anders Andren, Morten Axboe, Bjorn Berglund, Francois-Xavier Dillmann, Bjorn Gunnarson, Hans Gothberg, Frands Herschend, Anders Hultgard, Daniel Lowenborg, Heimir Palsson, Linda Qvistrom, Olof Sundqvist, Henrik Williams and Torun Zachrisson. We are also grateful to Mike Baillie, John Grattan and two anonymous referees for their comments to an earlier version of this paper.


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Received: 18 July 2011; Accepted: 1 November 2011; Revised: 13 December 2011

Bo Graslund (1) & Neil Price (2)

(1) Department of Archaeology and Ancient History, University of Uppsala, Box 626, SE-751 26 Uppsala, Sweden (Email:

(2) Department of Archaeology, University of Aberdeen, St Mary's, Elphinstone Road, Aberdeen AB24 3UF, UK (Email:; and Rock Art Research Institute, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa
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Title Annotation:Research
Author:Graslund, Bo; Price, Neil
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:4E0SC
Date:Jun 1, 2012
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