In Search of Ancient Tsunamis: A Researcher’s Travels, Tools, and Techniques


As an archaeologist, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book – a personalised adventure into the science of detecting tsunami deposits in the sedimentary record. This detective story begins with investigations into geological tsunami deposits, then turns to the human cost of those disasters. Without providing a spoiler, forensic archaeology is cited by Goff as the ultimate proxy for discovering unrecorded tsunamis. You will be surprised at the specific archaeological finds that have gone unrecognised and unrelated to tsunamis – till now. Moreover, he emphasises the landscape changes that happen off-site and must be taken into account, using both geomorphology and landscape archaeology. Then again, he takes in ‘negative evidence’ as well as positive, through a necessarily wide-lens regional view of the coast.

The author is arguably the leading figure in developing this new science of tsunami deposition, but he could not do it alone. This is a multidisciplinary effort by a multitude of scholars and scientists of different backgrounds: Goff’s lists include dendrochronology, LiDAR investigations, chemical analysis, as well as archaeology, among many. Tsunami science is not a ‘taught discipline’ but an accumulation of facts generated by these other sciences together with a singular sleuthing out of their relationships and synthesising them into new knowledge. This sleuthing involved much slogging fieldwork by Goff and his team, and herein is fertile ground for the great humour and engaging but revealing anecdotes that teach the science from the ground up. Goff’s colloquialisms may be off-putting to some, but such personal interjections are part and parcel of the very individual nature of this search.

What about tsunami deposits? While nicely laid sand sheets in a systematic layering of sediments (particularly sandwiched by peat) are ideal, tsunami deposits are endlessly variable, often invisible, sometimes known only by proxy, and difficult to access. Goff reviews several investigations of tsunami deposits (mostly in the Pacific, but also the Mediterranean), emphasising that geology, like archaeology, is an interpretative science where lateral thinking and multiple hypotheses are necessary. Often the results are inconclusive but serve to stimulate the next round of investigations. The text jumps around the world and back and forth chronologically, highlighting several ‘serendipity’ moments in Goff’s career, in order to link up the disparate kinds of data found at different tsunami sites and relating to potential tsunami incidents.

Because the author takes great pains to explain geological concepts along the way, then illustrate them with actual tales of fieldwork, this book is ideally suited to any young scholar wanting to follow in Goff’s footsteps. That person is well warned what ‘detecting tsunami deposits’ actually consists of. Mature scholars (especially archaeologists) will revel in their own reminiscences of fieldwork mishaps, trials, and tribulations – would that we could all recount our careers with such reflection. And the general public will be highly entertained, but also enlightened about the ongoing danger of tsunamis in our actively tectonic world. Far from being a dry tome, this book is a powerful exposition on the fallibilities of human nature in the face of inexorable natural phenomena.

In Search of Ancient Tsunamis: a researcher’s travels, tools, and techniques
James Goff
Oxford University Press, £25.99
ISBN 978-0197675984