Inside a secret Soviet missile base — 20 years later

July 7th, 2011

KURESSAARE, ESTONIA–When I was growing up the Soviet Union was simply an unchangeable fact of life. The United States had an implacable enemy, and we were locked in a struggle that would last my lifetime, at least. That lifetime was almost certainly going to be short, of course, because sooner or later someone would push the nuclear button and, in the words of the Kingston Trio, “… we will all be blown away”.

Thus it is very much an existential treat to have lived into my sixth decade and be able to walk through the remains of a secret Soviet missile base to get to the Suuriku Cliff locality this morning. The Evil Empire collapsed, the Baltic States were liberated, and massive overgrown concrete bunkers stand as evidence of a nearly unimaginable past only 20 years old. I am privileged as a geologist to be able to travel to such places and feel the turning points of history.

While constructing this Google Earth image of Tagalaht Bay to show the location of this Soviet base (one of dozens on the island, by the way), I saw something cool in the south: ancient shorelines. Saaremaa, like most of the Baltic region, is experiencing post-glacial isostatic rebound. The land is rising at least 2 mm per year (and in some places much more), so the sea is retreating. These shorelines are only a few thousand years old.

Wooster Geologists return to Suuriku Cliff, Saaremaa, Estonia

July 7th, 2011

KURESSAARE, ESTONIA–Today we visited one of Rob McConnell’s (’10)  Senior Independent Study field sites on the northwest coast of Saaremaa. Suuriku Cliff (N58.50875°, E21.99818°; see above image) is an exposure of the Jaani Formation (Lower Silurian, Wenlock). There are two members here: the upper Ninase (most of the cliff) and the lower Mustjala. Rob sorted out the paleoecology and environments of deposition of these two members using samples from this location and two others.

We were here today to find additional crinoid calices to continue a project Bill Ausich, Olev Vinn and I are pursuing. We found a few, too, although none very photogenic. It was also a chance for us to see more examples of Silurian limestone and fossils before we leave the island on Saturday.

Nick Fedorchuk and Rachel Matt at Suuriku Cliff. We want to show that some Saaremaa cliffs really are more than a meter high!

Panorama of Tagalaht Bay south of Suuriku Cliff near Veere. This bay is where German naval and infantry forces invaded Saaremaa on October 11, 1917, in Operation Albion.

The painful history of the Sõrve Peninsula, Saaremaa, Estonia

July 6th, 2011

KURESSAARE, ESTONIA–This country has had the historical misfortune to lie between the Russians to the east and the Germans to the west with all their imperial ambitions in the last few centuries. The terrain is deeply glaciated and thus has few natural defenses beyond thick forests, extensive bogs, and rocky coastlines. It has been occupied by Crusaders, Swedes and Polish-Lithuanians besides the multiple incursions of Germans and Russians. The 20th Century has been especially painful for Estonians.

Yesterday the Wooster Geology Estonia team worked near Kaugatuma on the proximal end of the Sõrve Peninsula on the southwestern tip of Saaremaa Island (see the images above). We then traveled south down the full length of the peninsula to Sääre. We visited a small, eccentric military museum and learned much about the history of this region. I think this strip of land is emblematic of the recent historical travails of Estonians — and thousands of Russians and Germans as well.

This is a panoramic image looking from the top of an old Russian gun emplacement looking south to the end of the Sõrve Peninsula at the village of Sääre. For a larger view of this panorama, please visit the Sõrve Peninsula Wikipedia page. This peninsula, by the way, has only been connected to Saaremaa for about 2500 years. It and the other eastern Baltic islands are still rising from the sea as a consequence of post-glacial isostatic rebound.

On the left Rachel and Nick explore a massive concrete gun emplacement near Sääre. These were built by Imperial Russians to house the 12-inch guns shown on the right in a museum image. These guns commanded the western entrance to the Gulf of Riga. They were captured by the German Army in October 1917. Note that this was a World War I battle.

The Soviets occupied and annexed Estonia in 1940 following the secret protocols of the earlier Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Nazi Germany declared war on the Soviet Union in June 1941, and in October turned its attention to conquering the Baltic islands. In November 1944, the Soviets returned and re-invaded Estonia and its islands. Some of the fiercest fighting took place in the Sõrve Peninsula in both invasions, as can be seen in the above maps photographed at the Kuressaare Castle Museum of Saaremaa. Note the November 1944 Russian amphibious landing at Kaugatuma. You can see why the Sõrve Peninsula has a significant number of landmines still remaining in the undeveloped forests. (Since 1999 there have been at least 77 casualties from landmines and unexploded ordnance in Estonia.)

A Soviet artillery observation post (from the 315th Coast Guard Battery) disguised as a windmill. A nearby gun emplacement was connected to it through an underground bunker. The complex was captured by the Germans in the 1941 invasion. At the time, of course, there were far fewer trees.

Foxholes dug by defending German troops on top of Kaugatuma Cliff in November 1944. As you can see from the map above, the Soviet amphibious landing was successful. On November 24th, against a direct order from Adolf Hitler, the Germans evacuated the Sõrve Peninsula and thus the last part of Estonia they held. The Soviets reported that up to 7000 German soldiers had been killed on Saaremaa, Hiiumaa, and Muhu islands during their offensive.

Nick holds the rusted remains of a World War II artillery shell found near Sääre.

The museum we visited was filled with objects collected from the World War I and World War II battlefields on the Sõrve Peninsula. This shelf of bullet-riddled German helmets was particularly poignant. There was a similar shelf of Soviet helmets.

This is the text of a monument we found in the woods on the way to Sääre. It is the only such memorial I’ve seen here in all three languages of the combatants. (I could not find a way of editing out my own ghostly reflection.)

Without the old trenches, bunkers and decaying concrete fortifications, it would be hard to believe such violent events happened on these quiet islands. The occupations by the Nazis and Soviets had their own much more ghastly horrors as well, including mass executions, deportations and concentration camps. It is over now, though, and we can freely wander these beautiful shores and absorb ourselves in the arcane details of Silurian paleoecology while enjoying the flowers, butterflies and very friendly Estonian people. Here’s to peace and the vigilance to maintain it.

An intricate Silurian stromatoporoid reef on the island of Saaremaa, Estonia

June 27th, 2011

KURESSAARE, ESTONIA–Stromatoporoids are extinct calcareous sponges that were very common in shallow water environments of the Silurian. They are especially abundant in the middle Silurian of the Baltic Region. Today we visited a site called Katri Cliff where a reef composed of stromatoporoids is exposed. Olev Vinn is shown above studying them (with the inevitable remains of a Soviet coastal border guard post in the background).

Stromatoporoids made hard, dense skeletons of calcite, sequentially adding layers to them like onions. At Katri Cliff we found many examples of these sponges with rugose corals and tabulate corals embedded inside them. Apparently the sponge grew up around the coral skeletons, immuring them alive. The interesting question is whether the sponges and the corals had a mutual beneficial relationship or if they were actually competing for resources like space and food.
Stromatoporoid showing conical rugose corals in its skeleton.
Stromatoporoid broken in half and revealing an embedded tabulate coral.

We have placed this ancient reef on the list of possible projects for Rachel, but we won’t know what she is going to pursue until we visit the nearby island of Hiiumaa at the end of the week.

And in case you’re tired of so many fossils and seascapes in this blog, here’s another bit of history we saw today: Below are trenches built at the top of Ninase Cliff. The tragedy of 20th Century Estonian history is that we can’t immediately tell who dug these trenches. Was it Imperial Russians in 1917 defending against the invasion of Imperial Germans? Could they have been built by Soviets against the invading Nazis in 1941? Or maybe Nazis in 1944 fighting the re-invading Soviets? There is some satisfaction on this part of the coast to observe that the sea is slowly eroding these trenches back into the ancient limestone gravel from which they briefly appeared.

A geological and historical tour of the Polish Jura

June 23rd, 2011

SOSNOWIEC, POLAND–A most memorable day traveling through part of the Polish Jura with Michał Zatoń and his delightful family of his wife Aneta and son Tomasz (4 and a half years old). The Polish Jura, also known as the Kraków-Częstochowa Upland, is a long exposure of Upper Jurassic (Oxfordian) limestones in southwestern Poland. We saw a bit of the rock yesterday — a hard white carbonate with a core of lithistid sponge mounds. The area is deeply eroded by karstic processes and so has vertical cliffs, pillars of limestone, sinkholes and caves. Since at least the 14th Century there have been stone fortifications (called “Eagles’ Nests”)  built on these rocks overlooking the deep valleys and access to inner Poland. One of these is the Castle of Pieskowa Skała shown above.

Michał Zatoń showing how the Jurassic limestones are used to effectively lengthen and strengthen the castle walls at Pieskowa Skała. When bedrock is used like this it is called evocatively “living stone”. A similar use of living stone was recorded in this blog two years ago from Jerusalem.

A large karstic pillar called Hercules’ Club near the Castle at Pieskowa Skała. It is juxtaposed with the castle most dramatically when viewed from down in the valley and is included in almost every early drawing or painting of the castle.

Another one of the Eagles’ Nests is Ojców Castle built in the second half of the 14th century by King Kazimierz the Great commemorating the exile and hiding in the area of his father Władysław Lokietek (called “The Elbow-High” because of his stature). The cliffs give this castle (now in ruins) an excellent view of the valley below.

The 14th Century King Władysław Lokietek mentioned above hid from his rivals in this karstic terrain. There is a legend that he took refuge in this particular cave now called “Grota Lokietka”. It is a good excuse to develop the cave into a tourist attraction. We walked through the slippery, dark and cold passages and chambers with a large crowd of enthusiastic Poles examining cave structures and listening to tales of cryptic royalty.

The third castle of the day is not in the Polish Jura, but I’ve included it for completion. It is Będzin Castle in Będzin, a small city next to Sosnowiec and the home of Michał and his family. It too was built in the second half of the 14th Century and obviously took advantage of the local geology, in this case exposures of Triassic limestones. More on the tragic history of Będzin in a later post. We had a very interesting, informative and touching tour of the city center near the end of the day.

I again want to thank my Polish paleontologist host, colleague and friend Michał Zatoń for arranging a wonderful and productive visit. I shall return with Wooster students someday soon. I am certain they will enjoy their visit and work here as much as I have.

Wooster Geologist in Poland

June 20th, 2011

SOSNOWIEC, POLAND–I arrived today in Poland to work for a few days with my friend and colleague Michał Zatoń of the University of Silesia. We are going to study together some of of our favorite fossils (microconchids and other sclerobionts) and then visit local quarries in the Jurassic. This trip is supported by the Henry Luce Fund for Distinguished Scholarship at Wooster. On Friday I fly on to Estonia where I’m meeting Rachel Matt (’12) and Nick Fedorchuk (’12) for their Independent Study projects in the Silurian carbonates on the islands of Hiiumaa and Saaremaa.

Michał’s department is located in Sosnowiec, a city that is part of the Katowice Metropolitan area. (A view of an older part of Sosnowiec is shown above.) Like all of Poland, this region has a very complicated history. It was an important merchant city because of its location near the borders of the German, Russian and Austro-Hungarian Empires. Its main industries were badly damaged in World War I, and it was one of the first places occupied by Nazi Germany at the start of World War II. The heavy hand of 1950s communist architecture (large concrete block buildings) has been somewhat muted by recent renovations.

An industrial part of Sosnowiec.

Michał made certain I had a good traditional Silesian-Polish meal this afternoon. It began with a soup called “zurek” made with potatoes, hard-boiled eggs, mushrooms, tiny cubes of beef, and something that gave it an almost lemony-sour taste. Our main course was “ruskie perogi” filled with potato, white cheese, and fried onions. These apparently come from Red Ruthenia, a region now in Ukraine.

It is going to be a multicultural scientific experience this week!

The very tall Earth Sciences Department building on the campus of the University of Silesia. They take their geology very seriously here.

Wooster Geologist in … a library

June 8th, 2011

WASHINGTON, D.C.–And not just any library — The Library of Congress. I am in the Thomas Jefferson Building, the front of which is shown above. In the heart of the Jefferson complex is the Main Reading Room (see below), where I’m occupying a desk in one of the concentric circles for readers. To get in I had to preregister as a researcher online and then file an application to receive a cool Reader’s Identification Card with my picture on it. I’m also demonstrating a fact about scientific research: for every hour spent in the field or lab, at least ten are required staring at a computer screen.

The Main Reading Room is extraordinary. It is circular with a giant dome above and a balcony level lined above with allegorical Greek female plaster statues 10 feet high symbolizing Religion, Commerce, History, Art, Philosophy, Poetry, Law and Science. Just below is a ring of 16 life-size bronze statues of Famous Men (all men) who led lives of thought and, I suppose, reading. (Unlike in Wooster’s Timken Science Library, Darwin does not make the cut.) It is a very impressive place to be a scholar, although every cough and sneeze echoes mightily through here.

The Main Reading Room in the Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress. Photography is not allowed in here, so this image comes from the Library of Congress webpage (

The Library of Congress was established in 1800 when the capitol of the United States moved from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C. The British burned it in 1814 during that regrettable little War of 1812, but Thomas Jefferson stepped up and presented his personal library to the nation as a replacement. It is now the largest library in the world counting books and shelf space.

I am here to get some writing done. My main mission in Washington this week is to see Lisa Park in the National Science Foundation headquarters (more on that later), but I’m spending a good two days of the visit writing a draft of a manuscript. I need a place to write with an internet connection, few distractions, and a sense of formality. No place is more formal, scholarly or serious than this!

The collections here are primarily for the humanities and social sciences. This is not a problem for me because all the resources I need are electronic and only a few clicks away. Plus I don’t feel lonely here as a scientist because this good man is  looking down on me:


Wooster Geologists at the Siege of Lachish (2700 years later)

May 30th, 2011

MITZPE RAMON, ISRAEL–Every time I visit the British Museum in London, I examine the fascinating relief from Nineveh showing The Siege of Lachish. The detail is extraordinary as the story is told in sequence through dozens of panels. It is a brutal tale of conquest and pillage, giving insights into the heart of an empire long since extinct. Today Will and I visited the archaeological site of Lachish on the way back from Jerusalem. Our friend Yoav gave us an excellent tour — and we were the only people there. The main gate and approach road is shown in the image above.

Lachish was a walled city at the boundary between the hill country and the coastal plain. It is mentioned several times in the Bible, most notably when captured by Joshua from the Canaanites (see Joshua 10: 1-32). The famous Siege of Lachish was in 701 BCE when the Assyrian king Sennacherib sought to conquer the tiny nation of Judea (see II Kings 18). Lachish watched over the coastal plain and the main approaches to Jerusalem.

The city wall on the approach to the main gate. Soldiers marching up the road would have their right sides exposed to this wall. Since they typically carried their shields on their left arms, they are here vulnerable to defending archers at the top of the wall.

The Assyrians did not attack Lachish directly by the main gate. They instead built a siege ramp of stones and wood on the weakest corner of the walled city. They wheeled battering rams and towers up this ramp, eventually breaching the wall despite a counter-ramp attempted by the Judean defenders. This is one of the best preserved siege ramps in the ancient Near East.

A view of the inside of the city showing remnants of the commander’s palace at the highest point.

The view from Lachish into the Judean Hills. Hebron is visible at the top of the distant ridge.

An archaeological controversy (or at least it should be one) is this well in or near the city walls of Lachish. Geologists have shown conclusively that it was a failed well — it did not reach the aquifer (Weinberger et al., 2008). The builders of the well may have thought that all they had to do was penetrate down as far as the wells outside the city to hit water, but those wells were in a perched aquifer of alluvium. The Lachish well is in Eocene chalk. The city may have been running out of water when it was besieged.

It was a privilege to visit such an historic site and have the luxury of a personal guided tour by Yoav.


Weinberger, R., Sneh, A. and Shalev, E. 2008. Hydrogeological insights in antiquity as indicated by Canaanite and Israelite water systems. Journal of Archaeological Science 35: 035-3042.


Wooster Geologists at the Center of the World

May 30th, 2011

Our visit to Jerusalem was to meet geologists at the Geological Survey of Israel main complex in the western part of the city. Those discussions went very well and we met new people and learned much. Will and I also took the opportunity to spend a few hours in the Old City. Here are some of the sites. The view above is of the Old City from Mount Scopus.

When we say that Jerusalem is the “Center of the World“, we are following a medieval tradition illustrated by this European manuscript page reproduced as a tiled image at the City Hall.

The Geological Survey of Israel headquarters have a very unassuming (and secure) entrance. This is an old World War II British military base that was on the outskirts of the city but is now surrounded by an Ultra-Orthodox Jewish community. It is a wise move not to advertise the very secular activities going on in there!

Our main walking route from the Survey to the Old City was Jaffa Street, which leads directly to Jaffa Gate. This is looking northwest. There is a new tram system being tested, thus the tracks in the road and lack of cars.

Will in the Old City market on our way to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Outer courtyard of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. All those people going in and out of that one doorway. Jerusalem now receives a record three million visitors a year.

Turns out the Center of the World is actually within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre … and its exact spot has been marked!

There are very few places in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre where you can see the original bedrock of the area. This is a famous crack in the rock below what is supposed to be the crucifixion site and above what is known as Adam’s Grave. Note the strain gauge across the joint. There are geological concerns about the stability of the bedrock and monumental structures built on top of it. I can’t imagine how the Israeli authorities got religious sanction to install that instrument!

Crepuscular rays descending from the dome of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The top of the Holy Sepulchre structure is at the bottom of the image.

Finally, we visited the Western Wall revered in Judaism. Above it (and not visible in this image) are the Islamic holy sites in Jerusalem: the Al Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock. We thus visited in the space of a few hours sacred spaces of the three Abrahamic religions. Center of the World indeed.


Our base of geological operations: Mitzpe Ramon, Israel

May 22nd, 2011

We have written many times about the geology of southern Israel in our blog posts over the past two years, and there is plenty more to come this week. We haven’t discussed the little town we stay in during our expeditions. So I’m starting with an image of Will Cary overlooking the Makhtesh Ramon for the geological context, but it is the community behind him that interests us today.

Mitzpe Ramon was established on the northern edge of the makhtesh in 1951 as a way station and workers’ village on the road to the southern city of Eilat. It has a magnificent perspective on the makhtesh, and thus the Hebrew name means “Ramon view”. The first permanent residents came in the 1960s as refugees from northern Africa and central Europe. Later immigrants came primarily from the United States and Russia.

Map of southern Israel and its neighbors (from Google) with Mitzpe Ramon pinned in the center.

This mix of heritages gives this little town a unique community unlike any other in Israel. Large numbers of Black Hebrew Israelites left the United States in the 1960s and 1970s to settle in Israel. This group believes, essentially, that they are a “lost tribe” of Israel, some maintaining they are the only true Israelites remaining. You can imagine the controversies they stirred in Israel with such claims, so many began to settle in the more distant Negev development towns where they would be out of the mainstream of Israeli national life. Now a generation later they are full Israeli citizens and integrated enough into Israeli society to serve in the military and hold political offices. The Black Hebrew Israelites in Mitzpe Ramon wear knitted kippot (head coverings) and a colorful style of dress that looks to me right out of 1970 Harlem. They speak English among themselves (and to us), and they’ve established American jazz clubs in this little desert town.

An elevated view of Mitzpe Ramon I took in September 2009.

Walking through the neighborhoods of Mitzpe Ramon you see a complex mix of cultures, from old Russian men sitting on benches with suit jackets and tightly buttoned shirts (regardless of the temperature) through fresh-faced (and always well-armed) soldiers the age of my students to African-American-Israeli children singing in the playgrounds in Hebrew while their parents converse in English. Above it all a bright blue desert sky, and below some of the most fascinating rocks in the world.

A neighborhood block in Mitzpe Ramon.

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