Culture Destroyed by 1815 Volcano Rediscovered The explosion in 1815 of Indonesia's Mount Tambora was one of Earth's largest volcanic eruptions. It buried a tiny kingdom under billions of tons of ash and rock. Little by little, pieces of the village have surfaced.
NPR logo

Culture Destroyed by 1815 Volcano Rediscovered

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Culture Destroyed by 1815 Volcano Rediscovered

Culture Destroyed by 1815 Volcano Rediscovered

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


It's not often someone stumbles onto a lost kingdom. But that's what a volcano scientist has done on a remote island in Indonesia. The kingdom was called Tambora, named after the local volcano. And it disappeared in a matter of minutes in 1815 under billions of tons of rock and ash during a violent eruption. NPR's Christopher Joyce reports on Tambora's discovery.


Haraldur Sigurdsson has spent 20 years roaming the islands of Indonesia, a place known for apocalyptic eruptions. Sigurdsson was especially drawn to a huge volcano called Tambora on the island of Sumbawa.

HARALDUR SIGURDSSON (Volcanologist/Professor, University of Rhode Island): I knew that it was the largest and the most important volcanic eruption on the earth because it caused the year without a summer, a big global climate change. And it also led to the death of about 117,000 people just in the, on this island and on neighboring islands.

JOYCE: Tambora launched 100 cubic kilometers of rock and magma into the air. That's 10 times more than Italy's Vesuvius, which buried Pompeii in 79 A.D. And 150 times more than Mount St. Helen's. So much ash and dust filled the air that crops failed and people starved as far away as Europe.

During one of his expeditions to the island, Sigurdsson heard a story from a mountain guide about a gulley where people had found bones and ceramics. They called it Museum Gulley.

Mr. SIGURDSSON: The last day on one of my expeditions I went there about five in the evening and it was turning dark, and I had to turn around and get the boat to take me away. But I saw enough to know that this was a very interesting place.

JOYCE: He came back years later with ground penetrating radar. Under the loose pumice of ash, he located more artifacts. Then he found several burned wooden beams sticking up out of the ground. With Indonesian scientists, he uncovered a collapsed building of timber and bamboo. Inside were the remains of a woman.

Mr. SIGURDSSON: She was knocked over on her back by the force of the pyroclastic flow, and she appeared to be holding a machete or a long knife in one hand. And over her arm was a cloth, and we think it was a sarong, totally carbonized, and her body was extensively carbonized, too.

JOYCE: There was the body of a man as well, and glass bottles that had melted. All had been buried in a white-hot cloud that barreled down the mountain faster than a locomotive.

Mr. SIGURDSSON: Pyroclastic flow is rather like a snow avalanche. It's composed of particles of ash and pumice and gas, but a thousand degrees that moves at a high velocity, perhaps up to 100 miles per hour. Far too fast to outrun it.

JOYCE: Few written records of Tambora exist. Colonial British officials visited the place shortly before it was buried. About ten thousand people lived there. The officials recorded 48 words of their language. It wasn't Malay, like other Indonesian dialects, but more like the Khmer language of Cambodia. There is local lore about what caused the eruption. Sigurdsson says the story is that a visitor was offended when he saw a dog in a local mosque. It was the king's dog. The king invited the visitor to dinner at his palace where he served him the dog's hindquarters. Told of this after the meal, the visitor protested. The king had him taken to the mountain, killed, and thrown into a hole.

Mr. SIGURDSSON: And they turned away, and as they walked away, they saw that there was smoke and, coming out of the hole, and they started to run away and then the whole eruption burst out, out of the hole. And that's the beginning of the eruption.

JOYCE: Sigurdsson, who is a professor at the University of Rhode Island, will return next year. In the meantime, Indonesian archeologists plan to excavate more of what is now being called the Eastern Pompeii.

Christopher Joyce, NPR News.

BLOCK: You can see some of the artifacts from Tambora at our website,

Copyright © 2006 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.