Monday, May 21, 2007

HANNIBAL'S ROUTE through the Alps is under investigation by a Classics Lecturer at Stanford:
"Few historical problems have produced more unprofitable discussion than that of Hannibal's pass over the Alps," said the mid-20th-century historian F. W. Walbank, whom Patrick Hunt, a lecturer in the Classics Department, quotes in acknowledging the difficulty and exhilaration of researching the subject. Hunt, director of the Stanford Alpine Archaeology Project, estimates that 20 major studies and articles have focused on it in the past century alone.

He has been investigating the question for the past decade. Now, he hopes he may have found the answer.

"It may be hubristic and definitely ambitious of me to think I might be able to prove that route," he conceded. His most notable predecessor was Napoleon Bonaparte, who reputedly carved his name under Hannibal's on rocks he found in the Alps.

But Hunt has new scientific tools to assist his investigation, and with them have come a profusion of evidence. As the first geoarchaeologist to tackle the question, Hunt has employed methods as diverse as analyzing rock weathering rates, scrutinizing lichen growth, studying pollen records and modeling historical glaciation on computers to help him envision how the land today might be different from that described in ancient texts. Ultimately, the tools will help him comprehend how feasible it was that certain paths were taken by Hannibal and his army traversing the mighty Alps.


The next leg of his investigation is to look for hard evidence in the form of artifacts. "You have to assume that an army of 25,000 people plus elephants is going to leave a record of its passage," Hunt said. "But to date, not one Carthaginian coin has been found in the Alps proper."

And so he proposes new methods. "I think the topography has sufficiently changed over several millennia so that if the evidence is there, it's not going to be on the surface. I would look not on the direct route, but down the precipices," he said. Also, he said, efforts should be focused where the geology is stable, where rapid erosion would not have buried remains deeply.

Hunt and his team have identified 19 sites to excavate and are awaiting from the European governments the permits that are required before any evidence can be removed from the land. Hoping to be at the cusp of a breakthrough, Hunt and his research have attracted attention and funding from Helen and Peter Bing and the National Geographic Society.

I hope they get funding and find something.

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