Geoarchaeology Meets Philosophy in Miletos: The Possible Impact of Nature and Environment on Thales and Anaximander – Alexander Herda and Helmut Brückner

Greek natural philosophy and science were founded in the 6th century BCE by Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes of Miletos. Until recently, our only source of information on these giants of thought were very few direct and some indirect quotations, preserved in texts of much later authors. New geoarchaeological research in Miletos during the last three decades has changed the situation dramatically. The urban fabric of the Archaic city with its walls, houses, street-grid, temples and other public buildings has progressively come to light. New most efficient methods like geophysics, sedimentology, and palynology helped to complete our image of the city of Thales and Anaximander, embedded in its natural environment of the lower Maeander valley and the coastal region of southern Ionia.

In the first part of the presentation we will look at the dynamic landscape changes and their causes, like sea level fluctuations, shoreline migration, human induced erosion, artificial drainage, and the accumulation of the alluvia of the Maeander river. Miletos turned from an archipelago in Late Neolithic times to a peninsula in Archaic times, while today it is fully integrated into the Maeander plain, and 7 km afar from the coastline. The talk will decipher the diachronic life cycles of the former islands and harbours, and how the Milesians adjusted their settlement to the constantly changing environment. This development led to the installment of the incredible number of six harbours in the Archaic period, which were subsequently filled up by sediments until Ottoman times. The number of harbours added to the exceptional geographic position of Miletos at the crossroad of important north-south and east-west traffic routes. Forming a central nod of interregional and intercultural communication, and developing into the most active Greek colonial mothercity, Miletos became the birth place of Greek philosophy and science. This is why Herodotus (5.28) labelled the city “the ornament of Ionia”.

In the second part of the presentation, we will develop on the possible impact of environmental changes and their observation on the philosophy of the Milesian School. Is it by accident that Thales chose water as primeval substance, when his hometown was literally built in the water and depending on sea trade? What part did ancient Indo-European, Greek and Oriental cosmogonies and cosmologies play in the formation of Thales’ world model? Which role did astronomy fulfil in Thales’ understanding of the kosmos? To what extend are Thales’, Anaximander’s and Anaximenes’ cosmologies attempts to adjust human thought to the structure and processes of nature? How did fossil finds contribute to the evolutionary model of Anaximander? Why did Anaximenes choose air as fundamental principle?

Finally, we will elaborate on the interdependencies between the urban planning, social conditions, and philosophy in Miletos: Are Thales and Anaximander the inventors of a new type of Greek urbanism, preceding that of Hippodamus? What are the characteristics of this urbanism? What about the impact of Near Eastern cultures like Mesopotamia, Phoenicia, and Egypt on their ideas? Which role did the new insights into natural sciences and the enforced changes of political developments like isonomia and democratisation play? And finally: to what extend are Thales and Anaximander the forerunners for Plato’s design of Atlantis?