As the climate crisis causes water levels to drop, riverbeds to dry up and glaciers to melt, artifacts like old warshipsa ancient citya mosque who have disappeared, and human remains have appeared. This story is part of “Climate Artifacts”, a mini-series telling the stories behind the people, places and objects that have been discovered due to drought and warming temperatures.
In 1904, innkeeper Franz Meyer thought of an ingenious new idea for selling beer.
A resident of Děčín, a trading hub on the Elbe in what is now the Czech Republic, Meyer came from a family of shipbuilders whose livelihood depended on the flow of water, which had shrunk to a trickle. during the summer drought.
Exposed by low water near the city’s main suspension bridge was a huge block of sandstone, a so-called “hunger stone”, where for centuries locals had carved marks to record the effects of drought. Thinking it would make a nice tourist attraction, Meyer chiseled the phrase “If you see me, then cry” in German, installed a beer tap, and charged visitors for the view.
Meyer’s idea was apparently successful enough for another Těchlovice innkeeper, just upriver, to do the same. Later, in the 1930s, another stone was marked “Don’t cry my daughter, don’t complain, spray when the field is dry”, the advertising slogan of Sigma Lutín, a manufacturer of water pumps for farmers .
Since at least the beginning of the 20th century, the Hunger Stones found along the Upper Elbe have been popular historical sights in times of dry weather. But they also hold valuable archival information dating back more than 400 years, records compiled over generations of how the people of the region experienced drought and their reliance on the river for trade and food production.
This summer in the northern hemisphere, during a record bout of dry weather that caused record levels in many European rivers, shipping traffic slowed or came to a halt, and hunger stones along the Elbe and Rhine have again emerged to tell their centuries. old stories of despair. Stones appeared not only in Děčín but also in the Rhine towns of Leverkusen and Worms, where the inscriptions mostly date from the 19th and 20th centuries, and even as recently as 2009.
Although the inscribed phrases for which the stones are best known are not as old as many assume, the older carvings on the stones in and around Děčín date from long before they were reused as tourist traps and advertisement signage.
“Usually there are the initials of the names and the year, sometimes there is also an engraving of the water line,” Vlastimil Pažourek, director of the Děčín museum, told Al Jazeera.
“In several cases, we also know who the people who engraved the inscriptions were. They owned ships or lived from trade along the Elbe.
The first records in Děčín probably date from the 15th century and the first readable record from 1616.
“Highlighting the dry years also had a practical meaning, drawing attention to the risks for the future,” Pažourek said. “The name ‘Hunger Stone’ highlighted the lack of potential livelihoods for the poor day laborers who towed ships and worked there in times of drought.”
The Hunger Stone has not always been the preferred term – other descriptions include ‘frog stone’, ‘monk stone’ and ‘strange stone’, with the first recorded instance of the ‘hunger stone’ appearing in a newspaper in 1842.
From the 11th century
The Elbe rises in the Giant Mountains in the Czech Republic, sweeping through Prague and northwest through the central plain of Germany, passing Hamburg just before reaching the North Sea. At nearly 1,200 km (746 miles), it’s one of Europe’s longest and most important waterways, vital for trade and agriculture since the dawn of civilisation.
Written records of droughts in the region date back to the late 11th century (PDF), with daily weather reports becoming available in the late 15th century. Historical sources report disastrous social and economic effects during times of intense drought, including crop or crop failure, high food prices, water shortages, and even famine.
A church sermon given in Domazlice stated that the lack of water in 1616 – marked on the stone of Děčín – had not been seen for a century. Matthaus Merian noted in his landmark work, Theater Europaeum, that the dry weather of 1666 in Central Europe dried up grasslands and rivers, caused fires in villages and forests, and forced some people to trek up to 10 or 11 km for water. Prayers and religious assemblies were held to appeal for divine help, such as on July 15, 1503, when the people of Prague were forced to fast and pray for rain.
During the catastrophically dry summer of 1842, an Elbe Commission was formed by the states of Austria, Saxony, Prussia, Anhalt, Hamburg and Denmark to describe the flow and levels of minimum water required for navigation. The commission also identified and studied the inscriptions of the Hunger Stones, including those from Děčín.
Hunger stones were still in use during this time, and many have recorded the disastrous two decades of low water that began in 1857, which some scholars believe may have been caused by extensive deforestation in the area, which was industrially the most advanced region of Austria.
Work to regulate the flow of the Upper Elbe intensified at the end of the 19th century, including the construction of dams, dredging and canals. At Děčín, the dams would reduce the water flow enough for its famous Hunger Stone to remain visible for about a third of the year.
Elsewhere, changes to the river permanently submerged some hunger stones, and others were pulverized because they interfered with the passage of ships.
Despite their age, the Hunger Stones of the Elbe still have new stories to tell. A study (PDF) published by Czech hydrological scientists in 2020 revealed that the stones contain more reliable hydrological data than previously thought.
“Traditionally, water management experts and historians… [believed] that the marks of the dry years were just memorial records with no deep meaning and were positioned more or less randomly,” the team wrote.
But the researchers found that unlike markings on hunger stones found on other rivers, such as the Rhine or Mosel, those on the upper Elbe closely matched other evidence of exact water levels during times of drought. .
“The purpose of the creators of the mark was not to make commemorative inscriptions of the drought but to record the exact minimum water level,” the newspaper read.
It was not until the beginning of the 17th century that the recording of river levels began in Europe, in Paris and the German city of Magdeburg, which meant that the hunger stones of the Elbe could extend considerably the data available to study the history of weather and hydrology in the region. . Ancient hydrological measurements, like those of the Nile in Cairo from 622, allow researchers to study historical drought and examine its correlation with global weather patterns like the North Atlantic Oscillation and El Niño–Southern Oscillations.
The effects of climate change will certainly increase the frequency of hot and dry periods in Europe in the coming decades. Drought will become more common, as will reductions in the flow of the Elbe which expose the Hunger Stones along its banks.
According to the local legend of Děčín, there is a solution: building a dam downstream would flood the stone forever, and the times of famine and deprivation would be definitely over.