Artifacts and the remnants of a small wooden house may be clues to the "lost kingdom" of Tambora.

(site) Lewis Abrams; (inset) Michael Salerno

Lost Kingdom Found?

On 5 April 1815, Mount Tambora, a supposedly extinct volcano on the Indonesian island of Sumbawa, began to erupt. Five days later, the eruption reached cataclysmic proportions, spewing as much as 100 cubic kilometers of magma and pulverized rock into the air along with 400 million tons of sulfurous gases. Nearly 90,000 people died. The event still ranks as the largest and deadliest volcanic eruption in recorded history, and it led to an extended episode of global cooling known as "the year without a summer" (Science, 15 June 1984, p. 1191.) Now an international team of volcanologists claims to have rediscovered the first signs of a "lost kingdom" buried by the eruption.

Thus far, the find has been limited to a small wooden house unearthed 25 kilometers west of the volcano's caldera in 2004. When the team, led by Haraldur Sigurdsson of the University of Rhode Island (URI) in Narragansett, excavated the structure, they found the bones of two adults as well as artifacts including bronze bowls and ceramic pots. Co-excavator and geophysicist Lewis Abrams of the University of North Carolina in Wilmington says that the house's location--near the bottom of a gully cut through a 3-meter thick layer of volcanic debris-- makes it "certain" that the structure was buried by the Tambora. In addition, melted glass and carbonized wood beams indicate that the house was exposed to extreme heat.

No other sites in the vicinity have yielded significant artifacts, says Sigurdsson, making it likely that this house was part of the so-called Kingdom of Tambora, which was once known throughout the East Indies for its honey and wood products. And from the style of the decorations on some of the artifacts, Sigurdsson and his colleagues believe that the language spoken in Tambora was related to the Mon-Khmer group of languages, now spoken across Southeast Asia. The team, which announced its discovery last night through the URI press office, had delayed going public with its findings due to an agreement with National Geographic. Sigurdsson plans to return to the site in 2007, where he hopes to unearth a palace he believes is also buried there.

Roland Fletcher, an archaeologist at the University of Sydney in Australia, believes the site does indeed represent the ancient kingdom. "A settlement under the Tambora ash would be likely to be from the state or kingdom" known by that name, he says. But he questions whether the village was powerful enough to boast a palace, noting that it was located inland so that it would not be raided by pirates--a sign of weakness. John Miksic, an archaeologist at the National University of Singapore and an expert on early Indonesian cultures, agrees that Tambora was not a major kingdom. He adds that it's unlikely the Tamborans spoke Mon-Khmer, because earlier research has shown that the island was occupied by Austronesians not related to the Khmers.

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