'New Pompeii' uncovered on Indonesian island

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The Independent Online

Scientists say they have discovered a new Pompeii on one of the tropical islands of Indonesia, a town preserved under the ash from the biggest volcanic eruption of modern times.

The researchers believe that what they have uncovered are the last remains of a civilisation that was wiped out by the cataclysmic eruption of Mount Tambora in 1815 on the island of Sumbawa.

So far a team from the US and Indonesia has unearthed the remains of a thatched house, with the carbonised bodies of two people still intact inside it. But the academics believe this is just one corner of an entire town which was home to 10,000 people and lies preserved under the ground.

"There is potential that Tambora could be the Pompeii of the east and it could be of great cultural interest,'' said Professor Haraldur Sigurdsson of the University of Rhode Island, who led the excavation. "All the people, their houses and culture are still encapsulated there as they were in 1815."

The eruption of Mount Tambora on 10 April 1815 was the biggestrecorded. It was four times more powerful than the eruption of Krakatoa in 1883. It was so loud it was heard 1,700 miles away, and people felt the concussions of blasts for 1,000 miles around.

The eruption sent up a column of smoke 28 miles high. Ash fell up to 800 miles away, and 40 miles from the volcano it fell so thickly that roofs of houses caved in under its weight. More than 10,000 people were killed in the immediate eruption, by lava, rock and hot ash. In the weeks that followed, as many as 117,000 died as crops failed in fields choked with ash, and from disease.

The civilisation of Tambora died out . "The explosion wiped out the language. That's how big it was," said Professor Sigurdsson. "But we're trying to get these people to speak again, by digging."

The Western world had only just encountered the Tambora civilisation when it was extinguished. British and Dutch explorers reach-ed Sumbawa in the early 1800s and spoke of encount-ering a civilisation that spoke a language unlike any other in Indonesia.

The new finds have borne out contemporary accounts that Tambora was not a primitive society but a civilisation. They have found bronze, pottery and glass. In the house they found carbonised remains of a woman in what appears to have been the kitchen, with a melted glass bottle and a metal machete close by. The remains of a second person were found outside what appeared to be the front door.

"If it's true that they found such remains, it will reveal the culture at that time," said Atje Purbawinata of the Volcanological Survey of Indonesia.

The researchers say the pottery they found bears a striking resemblance to pottery from the Mon Khmer civilisation in Vietnam and Cambodia of the time. Other academics have dismissed speculation the Tambora civilisation might have migrated from Indochina, saying it is more likely the pottery arrived by trading.

The lost town was discovered by Professor Sigurdsson and his colleagues in 2004 after they followed a guide who said local people had found ancient artefacts in the area. But there have been accusations from the Indonesian Institute of Science that they did not obtain a permit before digging in the area.

The eruption of Mount Tambora is of interest amid current concerns over climate change. It spewed so much ash into the atmosphere that it caused "global cooling" to such an extent that 1816 was known as "the year without a summer", or "Eighteen hundred and froze to death". In the US state of Maine, crops were killed by frost in June, July and August. Brown snow fell in Hungary. Globally, the temperature fell by 1C.