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September 4, 1618: The landslide of Plurs

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Truthful and terrible new description/
from the sudden destruction/
of the well known village of Plurs in Bergel/
and situated in the provinces of Bünten/
how suddenly a landslide came down from the mountain/
and the entire village in a moment covered/
elevated from ground/ buried/ thrown away and eradicated/ occurred in this year 1618.

Fig.1. Description and depiction of the landslide that destroyed the Swiss village of Plurs September 4, 1618, from a contemporary handout (the precursor of modern newspapers) printed in the German city of Augsburg.

August 25, 1618, after our modern calendar September 4, was the first sunny day after a rainy period from August 15, to August 20, and the inhabitants of the village of Plurs (former Swiss village, today Italian), situated in the shadow of the mountain Conto, enjoyed the weather.
The mining for talcum, by locals called “Lavazzi [-stone]” and appreciated for its fire resistance, found in outcrops at Monte Conto had brought for centuries a humble wealth to the entire region.
500m above the village the horizontally disposed talcum layers in the gneiss were excavated in a very careless way – no boles were used in the mines, and no material was relocated in the older tunnels to support the weight of the overlying mountain, even the authorities never controlled the security of these improvised quarries.
Instabilities, like fissures in the rocks and noises coming from the mountain were noted for years, but not considered threatening. Local chronicles tell that before July 25, 1618 “the mountain [is] always torn [apart], it is even open and 10 years ago [it was] fissured.
August 25, strange phenomena’s were observed, the ground trembled and fissures opened just under standing persons, from the inside of the mountain loud noises were coming, bee swarms flee from the forest or felt dead from the sky, cows left their pastures and in some places an intensive stench like from sulphur laid in the air.
Fortunat Sprecher zu Bernegg, commissary of the nearby village of Claven (the modern town of Chiavenna) reported: “After midday there began rockfall and debris flows went down, destroying some vineyards at Chilan” (a village located southeast of Plurs).

Bartholomäus Anhorn, pastor of Claven: “At 4 o’clock in the afternoon a rock fall of the mountain of Conte happened, from the side were the Lavazzi are mined.
Anhorn continues to describe the facts as happened September, 4: “It was torn out [the mountain], but not so much, until the beginning of the dark of night. Then from the mountain the greatest part broke out with great noise, and has buried completely the beautiful place with the small village of Chilan.
Reports of witnesses describe the terrible sound, a large dust cloud with “lightening” and a “strange, stinking vapour“.
Fortunat Sprecher mentions regarding the dust cloud “even if I was at a half of hour distance of Plurs, my hat become covered by the raised dust. The river Mara was dammed by the Rufi [the ancient word for landslide] for one and a half hours. The landslide at many places is 5 Spiess [ca. 30m, modern thickness estimates of the landslide deposits range between 8 to 10m] thick and you can’t see any sign of the church [-tower].

The landslide occurred at midnight, burying the entire village of Plurs and killing estimated 1.000 to 2.500 people, there were only six “survivors”, locals that in the fatal night were not at home. The cause of the disaster is obvious: weakening of the lower parts of the mountain by careless mining and infiltration of water in the opening fissures of the rock.

Fig.2. and 3. Print by Johann Hardmeyer, Zurich 1618, depicting Plurs before and after the landslide, commissioned by the great Swiss scholar and naturalist Johann Jakob Scheuchzer (1672-1733).

In 1618 the explanation was not based only on geology (in contrast to later landslides). It’s interesting to note that after the disaster rumours were put in circulation, depicting the inhabitants of Plurs corrupted by their wealth.
The clergyman Francé tells the story “of an earthly paradise with all sorts of lusts“, and the disaster is “an example of the fury of god above sins“, then “the peaks of the mountains, who raised behind Plurs, felt down and the entire place […] with all people became buried in night and terror.

It’s not possible to describe/
The unspeakable power of god/
So he on the evening of the 25 August/
Terrible has done in this valley to the village of Plurs/
Where a part of the mountain was taken down/
Just on Plurs/
(Anonymous, Chiavenna in August 26, 1618)

A more “naturalistic approach” (without neglecting the divine interference) is tried by Eberhard Werner Happel in his “Relationes curiosae, oder Denckwürdigkeiten der Welt“, published in a first edition with various volumes in the years 1683 to 1689:

What a large earthquake can do, the small city of Pleurs can testimony […] it laid under a steep rock wall and there were much rich and noble people. In the year 1618, the 25. August on the old calendar, with sunset, that great overhanging rock was torn apart by a might subterranean force and thrown on the city, the greatest part of it buried and destroyed with all churches, houses and palaces which were abundant.
It was such a piece of rock, that thousand of people couldn’t possibly move it and so Pleurs was beaten in the earth, nothing as some houses and a small church, so near, and yet untouched, could be seen after the fall.
No living soul could escape from it, and it’s impossible to see were the city once was situated. But it was situated on the river called Mera, who was so obstructed by the fallen boulders that the water grow in height and so another city – named Claven – was threatened with doom. But God finally showed to the water a way nearby the mentioned city – so it was saved.

Today nothing reminds the old Plurs, still buried under the landslide – the area today is used for pasture and agriculture. Only chronicles tell of two recuperated items in 1767 and 1861: the bells of a church were found in the debris.

References:

HAUER, K. (2009): Der plötzliche Tod. Frühneuzeitliche Bergstürze in den Städten Salzburg und Plurs kulturhistorisch betrachtet, LIT Verlag: Münster-Hamburg-Berlin-Wien-London-Zürich: 241
HÖFLER, H. & WITT, G. (2010): Katastrophen am Berg – Tragödien der Alpingeschichte. Bruckmann Verlag: 144

David Bressan About the Author: Freelance geologist dealing with quaternary outcrops interested in the history and the development of geological concepts through time. Follow on Twitter @David_Bressan.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. meteomar 4:41 pm 03/29/2012

    A paper very interesting and rich of original documentary sources.
    The real limitation of this work is that it does not shows to the reader that the catastrophe of Piuro is a very strange geological phenomenon because:
    1. the remains of the body of the landslide are insufficient to justify a catastrophe like that
    2. it is impossible to identify the surface of rupture on the mountain that faces the village.

    In my opinion a complete geological survey carried out without pre-concepts and a complete analysis of the documentary sources could be essential to define the real causes of this catastrophe.

    Luigi Mariani – Milano (Italia)

    Link to this
  2. 2. David_Bressan 12:39 pm 04/9/2012

    A rock avalanche instead of the more classic landslide could possibly account for the devastation, the historic descriptions seem quite clear and uniform in attributing the catastrophe to a rockfall, also the descriptions of precursor events, airburst and the formation of a dammed lake seems to elaborate to consider other explanations aside rockfall or a possible fabrication of the event (as proposed by some authors) – but I´m searching for further geological information, if there is something new I will add it to the post

    Link to this

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