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April 15, 2019

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Per NY Times, roof is wood and cathedral had lots of wooden scaffolding inside for conservation and repairs.

It's the roof and spire that are burning. These are all wood--the roof beams are originals, thus, extremely dried out and susceptible to fires. And the building itself is mostly limestone, which intense heat can cause to crumble because it drives any moisture in the stone out, which basically reduces it to powder. Burning limestone is how people have made plaster since the Neolithic period.

What they said plus extensive use of oil based paint and varnishes.

Burning limestone to make plaster is the primary reason why the region around Jericho and Ain Ghazzal (in Jordan) were deforested in the Neolithic. My friend Gary Rolefson (who taught my wife and I how to excavate at Tell Jemmeh 43 years ago) excavated Ain Ghazzal in the 1980s-90s, and discovered extensive use of lime plaster, whose quality diminished over time in conjunction with the deforestation they were able to document through changing pollen profiles at the site

This is really sad. Notre Dame is perhaps the single most spiritual place I have visited; even the secular can feel it.

Damn! What I don't learn by reading this site. It's almost as good as public television.

Thanks guys — and gal. That was helpful. And now I know.

In three weeks my wife and I are supposed to be in Paris and this Cathedral was to be a highlight of our four days in Paris. Watching this makes me feel physically ill.

I am really sorry to hear that. Watching the footage makes me feel physically ill as well.

If I may ask our host's indulgence, your perspective on what your wife and you will have witnessed would be most welcome.

I felt that way about Westminster Abbey. I visited each evening when I was in London; the organ master would practice, the candles were lit. It was quite magical to experience it all standing next to Isaac Newton!

This fire is such a tragedy. It's very sad to lose such a magnificent, tangible tie to the people who lived before us.

Thank you, and yes - and Chaucer, Darwin and now Hawking! Westminster Abbey is another one of those indelible places.

While I don't want to distract from the ongoing tragedy, the information in your response fascinates me. Have any of these (spur-of-the-moment term) bio-archaeological findings been used as the framework for environmental restoration? In Jordan or elsewhere? I would hope that in a warming world some of these findings might serve as a guide to blunting the worse effects of climate change.

Not to my knowledge, prburger. The modern climate is considerably drier than it was in the Neolithic Period right up through the end of the Early Bronze Age (approximately 3600 to 2000 BCE). So it wouldn't sustain a reintroduction of the species that existed then.

We know from pollen cores that the climate was a lot wetter in those days; the lake at Azrak in central Jordan has been shrinking throughout (it's much worse now because the underlying aquifer, which isn't sufficiently recharged through rainfall, is being pumped out at alarming rates).

This drying toward the end of the Early Bronze Age affected not just the Levant, but Egypt and further south as well. The collapse of the Egyptian Old Kingdom was in part due to failure of Nile floods (documented in the Old Kingdom by recorded Nilometer readings), which brought on famine. And the Nile flood was annually determined by the amount of rainfall in Africa from the annual monsoon.

If you go back further, the Sahara Desert was a green, open Savannah. A general drying trend is observable for millenia, and is partly responsible for having driven hunter-gatherer groups out of the Sahara region and into the Nile Valley in the first place.

In Predynastic Egypt (approximately 6000 to 3150 BCE), potters gathered old wood from the desert west of the Nile Valley to fire their kilns, so the Savannah conditions had already deteriorated by then (especially by 4500-4000 BCE). Years ago, I radiocarbon dated a bunch of potsherds from a Predynastic cemetery, and discovered that the dates they provide are centuries older than the dates of the other materials in the graves, such as grass matting or seeds. If the potters had been cutting living trees to fire their kilns, the dates would have matched much more closely. I could only conclude that they were collecting dead wood out of the desert.

I could go on, but I'm sure I've taxed your patience sufficiently already.

Not at all - this is fascinating; thanks much!

My head isn't hurting yet. But like our good host, perhaps you should recommend some titles that cover this topic. Eco-archaeology -- or whatever you want to term it -- sounds like an intriguing field.

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Your host, P.M. Carpenter (photo credit: L. Reeves)

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