Hunger Stones: Europe’s Time Capsule Cries To The Cloudless Sky

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As a scorching European summer begins to slide into a winter that inflation and fuel shortages could make deadly unforgiving, European thoughts may worry about the future. If so, it wouldn’t be the first time, as the continent’s “hunger stones” attest.

Hungerstein are hydrologically hidden surprises: messages etched on low rocks, usually hidden by the river’s flow, but exposed in times of drought – an ancient harbinger of hunger via restricted navigation, failed harvests and poor harvests.

Usually designated by the year of the drought and often by the sculptor’s name or initials, these river finds are warnings of history. There are dozens of them, concentrated in Germany but also in certain parts of the Czech Republic, Hungary and Switzerland.

The Hunger Stones are found in the Danube, Weber, Rhine and its tributaries the Mosel and Aare – but there is a particular concentration of them in the Elbe, that 1,000 kilometer border that runs from Bohemia in Hamburg, the river at which the American and Russian troops met at the end of World War II and later served as the border between West Germany and East Germany.

Indeed, it is near the current German border that the Elbe is home to one of the most famous hunger stones, in the Czech town of Decin. Here, carved upside down from above on a huge rock usually submerged by the river, is the chilling legend “When you see me, cry”.

The stone from Decin, in the Czech Republic, bears the marks of many hands. /AFP

The stone from Decin, in the Czech Republic, bears the marks of many hands. /AFP

Such a downcast tone is typical of Hunger Stones, melancholy emblems of ominous times. When rivers dry up, it hampers navigation and trade – a difficulty currently faced on some of Europe’s main waterways – but drought is traditionally followed by crop failure, hunger and sometimes starvation.

Stonecutters hardly enjoyed themselves in the sun. Their messages were warnings for future generations. At the start of the 20th century, a Hunger Stone emerged from the Spree (a tributary of the Elbe) near Trebatsch, 70 kilometers southeast of Berlin; he said “When you see this stone again, you will weep, the water was so shallow in the year 1417.”

The Trebatsch Stone is the oldest locatable Hunger Stone – records from the German town of Pirna mention one being inscribed in 1115, but no one knows exactly where it is. This is not the only example lost to history: some have also been removed for easier navigation.

An example was spotted and described by the writer Victor Hugo in his 1842 travel diary The Rhine. The Altarstein, as it was called, was near Bacharach, 60 kilometers west of Frankfurt; considered an ancient shrine to the god of wine Bacchus, its occasional emergence was seen as a sign of a good year for winemakers. Unfortunately for them, in 1850 it was blown up to speed up shipping.

Low water levels have always affected shipping – and the ships we rely on are not shrinking. /Tilman Blasshofer/Reuters

Low water levels have always affected shipping – and the ships we rely on are not shrinking. /Tilman Blasshofer/Reuters

The 19th century, however, was a boom time for hunger stones. A somewhat morbid popular enthusiasm for the self-elevating of humanity from past suffering, combined with burgeoning mass media such as newspapers and travelogues like Hugo’s, brought the idea to a wide audience.

In 1904, Decin’s stone “When You See Me, Weep” had been fenced off for its own preservation. The local entrepreneur Franz Mayer had made it a tourist attraction: “He sold postcards with the stone and had a beer stand right next to it”, explains Vlastimil Pazourek, manager of the regional museum of the city.

As witnesses to human emotion, stones can also take on a harsher tone. In the 1930s, someone added an abrupt inscription in Czech, saying: “Lady, don’t cry and moan when it’s dry, water the fields instead.”

The oldest date still legible on the Decin stone is 1616, with earlier engravings from 1417 and 1473 having been erased by the anchoring of ships over the centuries. But despite occasional losses from erosion and blast, the Hunger Stones function as a historical record.

Often predating careful climate documentation, they can give scientists clues to unusually dry summers. The Decin stone alone marks the droughts of 1616, 1707, 1746, 1790, 1800, 1811, 1830, 1842, 1868, 1892 and 1893.

In Worms, Germany, a Hungerstein was engraved over several summers. /Max Schwarz/Reuters

In Worms, Germany, a Hungerstein was engraved over several summers. /Max Schwarz/Reuters

It is also a record of the common people – unlike many written records, the Hunger Stones were available to anyone with a sharp tool and a spare hour. In a 2013 study, Czech researchers described the Hunger Stones as “chiseled with the years of hardship and the authors’ initials lost to history”, saying they “expressed that the drought had led to a poor harvest , lack of food, high prices and hunger of the poor”. people.”

The head of the Decin Museum, Pazourek, says: “We know that the Hunger Stones are places marking dry years on the Elbe – times when there was little water in the river and the rafters had struggling to make a living.” Through the stones, the sick cross the centuries; one in the Rhine near Worms-Rheindurkheim was first listed in 1857, and more recently in “Hunger Year 1947”; below, another hand added “1959”.

Although the majority of Hunger Stones date from the 15th to 19th centuries, many have been regularly updated – and there has been something of a revival over the dry summers of the last 20 years. The severe European droughts of 2003, 2015 and 2018 brought stones up.

While modern drought does not necessarily lead to famine, thanks to the globalization of agriculture and supply chains, the climate situation is certainly worsening.

The European Commission’s Global Drought Observatory has called this summer Europe’s worst in 500 years, with 47% of the continent under drought warning – meaning a lack of rainfall is drying out the ground – while 17 % more are under an even more severe drought alert, in which vegetation is showing signs of stress.

Hunger stones in Worms have proliferated in recent years. /Max Schwarz/Reuters

Hunger stones in Worms have proliferated in recent years. /Max Schwarz/Reuters

The increasingly frequent visibility of the stones is then considered to be a manifestation of climate change in central Europe. It’s no wonder, then, that environmental groups are marking hunger stones to raise awareness.

In 2018 Greenpeace placed a stone in the Elbe near Magdeburg saying “When you see me the climate is in crisis”, and again this year Extinction Rebellion placed one in the Rhine in the Dutch town of Wageningen , with the caption “Climate Justice 2022.”

This stone, in Rheindorf, Germany, is one of the most recent. /Andy Kranz/Reuters

This stone, in Rheindorf, Germany, is one of the most recent. /Andy Kranz/Reuters

While no one should be immune to worries about climate change, not all locals see the Hunger Stones as unwanted visitors. Indeed, the good folks of Meissen, on the Elbe near Dresden in Germany, added a new one in 2018.

Perhaps, like the bare trees of the darkest winter, the Hunger Stones are part of the cycle of life, to be marked and commemorated. On another in the Elbe near Bleckede in Germany, there is the message: “When this collapses, life will become more colorful again.”

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