Along Europe’s rivers, drought is revealing centuries  old ‘hunger stones’

Along Europe’s rivers, drought is revealing centuries old ‘hunger stones’

Ancient stones reappear on the banks of the Elbe and Rhine. They bear witness to the intense drought in Europe.

While an extraordinary drought is raging in Europe this summer, traces of the past have reappeared in Czech and German rivers in recent days. Due to the low water level, inscriptions engraved in ancestral stones are once again visible to the naked eye.

These so-called “hunger stones” bear witness to droughts over the centuries and recall the suffering of the population in the 15th century. The drying up of the rivers then heralded poor harvests and famines. On a stone that reappeared in mid-August in the more than 1000 km long Elbe in Decin (Czech Republic) one can read: “If you see me, then cry”.

This famous “Hunger Stone” in the Czech Republic, not far from the German border, reappeared in 2018 during an intense drought. It is one of the oldest hydrological monuments in Europe. According to a 2013 study by a team of Czech archaeologists, several dates of water shortage are listed on the same rock: 1417, 1616, 1707, 1746, 1790, 1800, 1811, 1830, 1842, 1868, 1892 and 1893.

This is also indicated by another “hunger stone” that emerged from the bed of this river: “When this stone is submerged, life takes on color again.”

The “Hunger Stone” in Decin, Czech Republic, on August 29, 2018 during low water of the Elbe. Michal CIZEK / AFP

“A Remembrance of Our Ancestors”

According to the German weekly Der Spiegel, the rivers of Central Europe “have always been important trade routes”. From then on, as European rivers dried up, “food ships can no longer navigate”. The oldest inscription dates from 1417, the end of the Middle Ages, the magazine emphasizes and calls this trace a “memory of our ancestors”.

Some of the “hunger stones” are revealed by the low water level in Worms, Germany, on August 17, 2022. TILMAN BLASSHOFER / Portal

In Germany, too, the Rhine reached a historic low this summer. In Emmerich, just before the Dutch border, the longest river in Europe reached an all-time low of zero centimeters on August 17, according to the German press. This low level has since caused the appearance of “hunger stones” that have been forgotten.

In Worms, on the left bank of the Rhine, other “Hungerfelsen” bear witness to the suffering of the German people after the war. On one of them we can read the inscription “Ano 1857”, but also “Year of Hunger 1947” and other years like 1959 or 1963. The inscription “Year of Hunger 1947” commemorates a period of great famine after the Second World War. The Rhine was no longer navigable, 60 kilometers were frozen that winter.

One of the ‘Hunger Stones’ engraved with the date 1947, in Worms, Germany August 17, 2022. MAXIMILIAN SCHWARZ/ Portal

“Hunger stones” were also discovered this summer in the Weser, a German river in northern Europe, the German-language press reports. For researchers, these remnants represent “documentation” for past heat wave episodes.

For the German magazine Stern, her reappearance is also “a warning of difficult times”. Recent estimates indeed predict a worrying future. According to the European Drought Observatory, 47% of European territory is already affected by water shortages.

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