Plate Tectonics and People

Were the Ancient Writings About the Temple of Apollo True?

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Ruins of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, Greece
Ruins of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi.
Photo credit: Luarvick.

This lesson's Neat-o Interdisciplinary Idea is that solid Earth geoscience can be linked with archaeology. We are going to begin this lesson on faults and earthquakes by reading two related papers about how a team that consisted of a geologist, an archaeologist, a toxicologist, and a chemist worked together to find out whether ancient writings about the Temple of Apollo at Delphi were true. Two-thousand-year-old texts claimed that noxious vapors and springs came out of the ground at the site of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi and that the oracle of the temple got her powers of divination from breathing them. In the early 1900s, geologists and archeologists thought those writings were complete fiction because they found no evidence of any vapors. However, a more thorough recent investigation of the tectonic setting at Delphi, done by the authors of the papers we'll read, supports the ancient writings and even makes a reasonable claim about the probable composition of the gas.

Reading Assignment and Discussion


  1. Read the following articles, available through Library Reserves:
    • Hale, J. R.,de Boer, J.Z., Chanton, J. P., & Spiller, H. A. (2003). Questioning the Delphic Oracle. Scientific American, 289(2), pp. 66-72.
    • de Boer, J. Z., Hale, J. R., & Chanton, J. (2001). New evidence for the geological origins of the ancient Delphic oracle (Greece). Geology, 29(8), pp. 707-710.
  2. As you read, consider the following questions. We will discuss these as a class via a discussion forum.
    • What is the basic tectonic setting of this region? What is going on in terms of the big picture—plate tectonics, and the small picture—local faults.
    • What was the view held by modern archaeologists concerning the Temple of Apollo previous to this study? Why?
    • How did the members of this team work together?

Submitting your work

Once you have finished the readings, engage in a class discussion as described below.

This discussion will take place over the first week of this lesson and will require you to participate multiple times during that period.

  1. Enter the Lesson 7 - Delphic Oracle Discussion Forum.
  2. You will see postings already there, containing the discussion questions above.
  3. Post a response to each question. If you feel that your response has already been "said" by another student, then post a response to someone else's remarks that expands on what has already been said, asks for clarification, asks a follow-up question, or furthers the discussion in some other meaningful way. By the end of the activity, I would like you to post at least one original thought/opinion/question and at least one thoughtful response to someone else's post.

Grading criteria

You will be graded on the quality of your participation. See the grading rubric for specifics on how this assignment will be graded.