The recent unusually warm weather has resulted in a number of important archaeological sites being revealed as vegetation has died in Europe. The recent drought has also brought to the surface some fascinating archaeological discoveries that have long been hidden in rivers. In the Czech Republic, the low level of water in the River Elbe is revealing large engraved stones from the early modern period and earlier. These are hunger or drought stones that were carved in previous droughts and have now been revealed as the water level has fallen. They are allowing us an insight into how drought impact Europeans and how they responded to extreme weather.
History of Drought Stones
In the early modern and the medieval period, the population lived at a subsistence level and any problems with the harvest could lead to hunger or even outright famine. The harvest was dependent on the weather and events such as drought could have cataclysmic consequences. When the river level fell the population knew that there were hungry times ahead. Researchers have established – based on the study of tree rings – that Europe has experienced major droughts in the past few centuries.
Rocks exposed by the low water levels of the River Elbe. ( CC BY 2.0 )
During times experiencing this natural disaster, people inscribed warnings on the large stones that were exposed because of the falling water level in Central Europe. The idea behind these drought or hunger stones was that when they were exposed that this was ominous for any agrarian society. According to the Daily Mail , the hunger or drought stones’ ‘appearances in history meant for people to get ready for troubles’. They are mainly found in ethnic German lands and are often regarded as a form of famine memorial. One of the last known instances of the practice occurred during the hungry years of 1816-1817.
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Hunger stone found on the Elbe at Decin. (Image: idecin)
The exposure of the stones
The recent high temperatures in Europe have been record-breaking. The River Elbe that rises in the Czech Republic is one of the great European Rivers. The persistent lack of rainfall means that the level of this river has fallen in a way not witnessed in decades. Over a dozen drought or hunger stones have been exposed by the rapid fall in the water level. These are known in German as ‘Hungersteine’.
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The “hunger stone” at the left bank of the River Elbe at Děčín-Podmokly (Brázdil and Kotyza, 1995). (Image: ResearchGate)
The Elbe drought stones can now be seen near the northern Czech town of Decin on the German border. One stone is considered to have one of the oldest watermarks in Europe, that ‘dates to 1616’, reports the Irish Examiner . It bears a chilling inscription, with ‘When you see me, cry’, according to the Daily Mail . It also bears the initials of those who chiseled the message and the years of famine dating back centuries. The last time that the stone was exposed was in 1918 during WWI, when Germany was experiencing famine-conditions.
The Tradition of Drought Stones
These stones are not unique and there have been other drought stones that have been located that date back to the fifteenth century. Most of the stones are from the fifteenth and seventeenth century, which are periods associated with droughts in Europe. They were first noted by researchers in the nineteenth century and one of the earliest documented references to a hunger stone was in 1876. The stones are usually striking stone formations such as features known as plates or boulders on the river bed. They all bear some message warning about hard times and the date that they were inscribed.
This drought stone at Decin has been cleaned and made accessible to the public. (Image: idecin)
One of the drought stones near Decin are something of a tourist attraction and many people visited during the recent high temperatures, as it is expected to be submerged for decades. The stones are showing us that people had a folk memory of environmental disasters and famines. They inscribed the stones to warn future generations and also as a way to commemorate the suffering of those who endured droughts and hunger in the past.
Top image: Hunger stones have been revealed in Europe. Source: CC BY-SA 3.0
By Ed Whelan