Dr. Payson Sheets, University of Colorado, Boulder: What Was That Horrible Thing That Happened Around The World In AD 536?
Sponsored by Archaeological Institute of America, Denver Chapter and Tattered Cover Bookstore
Sunday, January 13, 2013 - 2:00pm

Tattered Cover Bookstore
1668 16th Street
Denver, CO 80202
United States

The few literate cultures in AD 536 recorded intense cold, crop failures, starvation, and deaths. About 75% of the people in a northern Chinese kingdom died. Similar problems were reported around the Mediterranean. Tree rings in North America, Europe, and Asia record 15 years of cold beginning in AD 536. Ice cores in Greenland and in Antarctica record a dramatic increase in sulfur in the same year, indicating a volcanic eruption was the cause, and not an asteroid impact. The worldwide sulfur circulation indicates an eruption in atropical latitude, and the greater sulfur in Greenland indicates an eruption north of the equator.

Since 1969 I have been investigating the eruption of Ilopango volcano in El Salvador, at 14°north latitude. I have struggled with radiocarbon dating, but recent improvements and work with colleagues have indicated the eruption must have occurred more recently than the 5th century. It appears the Ilopango Eruption is the most likely candidate for the worst worldwide disaster in the past few millennia.

The presentation includes literate records of the disaster, dendroclimatological dating of the long cold period, ice core records of sulfur spikes, possible impacts on non-literate societies, research in El Salvador on the Ilopango eruption, and recent results of deep-sea drilling by German scientists. With the contributions from multiple disciplines, it appears we are moving toward understanding what happened in AD 536 and afterward.

Professor Payson Sheets is Professor with the Department of Anthropology, University of Colorado, and is primary archaeologist for the University’s excavations at the site of Ceren in El Salvador.  He has worked at many other sites in the Americas, including British Columbia, California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama.  His area of specialization is Mesoamerican archaeology, hazards research, lithic technology, ancient adaptations, remote sensing, and geophysical applications. His research in the past ten years include Director of the Arenal Research Project in Costa Rica, employing NASA’s finest remote sensing technology from satellite and aircraft platforms. Found footpaths connecting habitation sites with lithic material sources, graveyards, and springs and directed the Ceren Program, a multidisciplinary research program integrated with architectural and artifact conservation and with educational-outreach efforts (supported by NSF, and various organizations in El Salvador). He holds his degrees from the University of Colorado and the University of Pennsylvania (Ph.D.), and his main publications include The Ceren Site: An Ancient Village in Central America Buried by Volcanic Ash (revised and expanded, 2006).  In 2006 Professor Sheets was elected a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and named a “College Professor of Distinction” by the University of Colorado in 2008.

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Aaron Theis


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