‘If you see me, weep’: Hunger stones auguring drought in Europe | Drought

As the climate crisis causes water levels to plummet, riverbeds to dry and glaciers to melt, artefacts like old warships, an ancient city, a mosque that disappeared, and human remains have emerged. This story is part of “Climate artefacts”, a miniseries telling the stories behind the people, places and objects that have been discovered due to drought and warming temperatures.

Franz Meyer, an innkeeper in 1904, had an original idea for selling beer.

A resident of Děčín, a trade hub on the Elbe river in present-day Czech Republic, Meyer hailed from a family of shipbuilders whose livelihoods depended on the water’s current, which had shrunk to a trickle in the summer drought.

Exposed by the low water near the town’s main suspension bridge was a huge lump of sandstone, a so-called “hunger stone”, where for centuries locals had etched markings to record the effects of drought. Thinking it would make a nice tourist attraction, Meyer chiselled the phrase “If you see me, then weep” in German, set up a beer tap, and charged visitors for the view.

Meyer’s idea was apparently enough of a success that another innkeeper in Těchlovice, just upriver, did the same. Later, in the 1930s, another stone was marked with, “Don’t cry girl, don’t whine, spray when the field is dry”, the advertising slogan of Sigma Lutín, a manufacturer of water pumps for farmers.

Since the beginning of the 20th Century, the Elbe’s upper Elbe hunger stones have been popular historical curiosities during dry times. They also have valuable archival data going back more 400 years. Records accumulated over generations about how the people of the region dealt with drought and their dependence upon the river for food and trade are invaluable.

The northern hemisphere experienced a record-breaking dry spell that saw record levels of European rivers drop. Ship traffic was slowed or stopped, and the Elbe and Rhine were once more populated by hunger stones. They told their centuries-old stories of despair. Stones appeared not just in Děčín but also in the Rhenish cities of Leverkusen and Worms, where inscriptions date mostly from the 19th and 20th centuries, and even As recently as 2009.

One of the ‘hunger stones’ revealed by the low level of water in Rheindorf, Germany, August 17, 2022 [Reuters/Andy Kranz]

Although the inscribed phrases the stones are best known for are not quite as ancient as many presume, the older etchings on the stones in and around Děčín date to well before they were repurposed as tourist traps and advertising billboards.

“Usually there are initials of names and the year, sometimes there is also an engraving of the water line,” Vlastimil Pažourek,” director of Děčín’s museum, told Al Jazeera.

“In several cases, we also know who the people who engraved the inscriptions were. They owned ships or made a living by trading along the Elbe.”

The first records in Děčín are probably from the 15th century and the first legible record from 1616.

“Pointing out the dry years also had its practical meaning, drawing attention to risks for the future,” said Pažourek. “The name ‘hunger stone’ highlighted the lack of potential livelihood for the poor day labourers who towed ships and worked on them in times of drought.”

Hunger stone was not always the preferred term — other descriptions include ‘frog stone’, ‘monk stone’ and ‘strange stone’, with the first recorded instance of ‘hunger stone’ appearing in a newspaper in 1842.

From The 11th Century

The Elbe rises in Czech Republic’s Giant Mountains. It winds through Prague and northward across central Germany before passing Hamburg, just before it reaches North Sea. At almost 1,200km (746 miles), it is one of Europe’s longest and most historically important waterways, vital to trade and agriculture since early civilisation.

The region has drought records that date back to the late 11th century.PDFDaily weather reports became available in the latter half of the 15th century. Historical evidence points to devastating social and economic consequences during periods of extreme dryness. This includes poor crops or harvests as well as high food prices and water shortages.

A Hunger Stone In The Elbe River
Dates of low water levels are engraved on a ‘hunger stone’ in the Elbe river bed near Pirna, eastern Germany, in a photo captured on August 24, 2018 [EPA-EFE/Filip Singer]

A church sermon given in Domazlice said the lack of water in 1616 — marked on the Děčín stone — had not been seen in a century. Matthaus Merian in Theater Europaeum noted that the dry weather in 1666 in central Europe had left meadows and rivers dried out, which caused fires in villages, forests, and forced people to travel six to seven miles (10 or eleven km) to obtain water. In order to pray and hold religious assemblies, people would gather to ask for divine help. This was the case when Prague residents had to fast and pray for rain on July 15, 1503.

The Elbe Commission was established by the states of Austria and Saxony, Prussia and Anhalt in 1842 to determine the minimum water level required for navigation. The commission also identified and surveyed the inscriptions of hunger stones, including those at Děčín.

During this time, the hunger stones were still being used. Many recorded the two-decades of water shortages that began in 1857. Some researchers believe it was due to intensive deforestation in the region. This region was the most industrially advanced in Austria.

The 19th century saw the intensification of efforts to regulate the flow in the Elbe, which included the construction dams, dredging, and canals. In Děčín, dams would reduce the flow of water enough that its famous hunger stone remains visible for Around one-third.

Hydrological data

Some hunger stones were permanently submerged by the river, while others were torn to pieces as they blocked the passage of ships.

The Elbe’s hunger stones still have stories to tell, despite their age. Study (PDFCzech hydrological experts in 2020 published this report. It found that the stones have more reliable hydrological information than previously thought.

“Traditionally, water management experts and historians … [believed] that the marks of dry years were merely commemorative records with no deeper meaning and that they were more or less randomly positioned,” the team wrote.

Researchers found that the water levels during drought were not consistent with the marks on hunger stones on other rivers like the Rhine or Mosel.

“The aim of the mark creators was not to make commemorative inscriptions of drought but to register the exact minimum water level,” the paper read.

People Look At Hunger Stones On The Bank Of The Elbe River, Czech Republic.
On August 18, 2022, people read the inscriptions on a ‘hunger stone’ that once again appeared in Decin, Czech Republic [Vit Cerny/Anadolu Agency]

The first European rivers were recorded in Paris in the 17th century. This was before the Elbe hunger stones became available. It is possible to use the Elbe hunger stone data to expand the historical record of hydrology and weather in the region. Ancient hydrological measurements, like those on the Nile in Cairo beginning in 622, allow researchers to study historical drought and examine its correlation with global weather patterns like the North Atlantic Oscillation and El Niño–Southern Oscillations.

Climate change is certain to increase the frequency in Europe of hot and dry periods over the next decades. Drought will become more common, as will reductions in the Elbe’s flow that expose the hunger stones along its banks.

According to local legend in Děčín, there is a solution: the building of a dam downstream would flood the stone forever, and times of hunger and hardship would be gone for good.

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Merry C. Vega is a highly respected and accomplished news author. She began her career as a journalist, covering local news for a small-town newspaper. She quickly gained a reputation for her thorough reporting and ability to uncover the truth.

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