Europe’s Drought Is Revealing Historic Artifacts

World War II-era warships, the ‘Spanish Stonehenge’ and other remnants of the past are emerging from the continent’s waterways

Dolmen of Guadalperal
The Dolmen of Guadalperal, nicknamed the “Spanish Stonehenge,” is now visible because of Europe’s ongoing drought. Photo by Pablo Blazquez Dominguez / Getty Images

The ongoing drought and heat waves plaguing Europe this summer are drying up many of the continent’s rivers—and, in the process, revealing historic artifacts and infrastructure.

In Serbia, the receding waters of the Danube River near the town of Prahovo last week uncovered an array of World War II-era German warships, full of ammunition and explosive devices. The Nazis sank the ships while trying to dodge Soviet troops in 1944, per Reuters’ Fedja Grulovic.

Some 20 vessels are now exposed as the Danube shrinks to record lows. The ships, as well as an estimated 10,000 explosive devices in the water, make it more dangerous for shipping vessels and other boats to pass through this stretch of the river.

Though most of the German warships are buried under sand banks, some of their turrets, masts, hulls and command bridges are exposed. They’ve narrowed parts of the waterway from 590 feet to just 330 feet.

“The German flotilla has left behind a big ecological disaster that threatens us, [the] people of Prahovo,” says Velimir Trajilovic, a 74-year-old local resident who wrote a book about the vessels, to Reuters.

In central Spain, the drought has exposed the Dolmen of Guadalperal, a prehistoric stone circle that dates back to 5000 B.C.E. Nicknamed the “Spanish Stonehenge,” the megalithic display has been mostly covered by water since 1963, when crews flooded the area to build a dam and reservoir. German archaeologist Hugo Obermaier excavated the stones in the mid-1920s.

The stones are located in the Valdecañas reservoir, which is now at just 28 percent capacity because of the drought, report Reuters’ Silvio Castellanos and Marco Trujillo. A potential silver lining is that archaeologists now have a chance to study the relics, which have only been exposed a handful of times over the last six decades.

“It’s a surprise, it’s a rare opportunity to be able to access it,” Enrique Cedillo, an archaeologist at Complutense University of Madrid, tells Reuters.

But these are just a few of the latest examples of relics emerging from receding waters because of the drought; similar instances have been happening across Europe all summer. In late June, the drought exposed a sunken World War II barge resting on the bottom of the Po River in Italy. In July, the waters of the Tiber River, also in Italy, dipped so low that a normally submerged, first-century B.C.E. Roman bridge appeared. And earlier this month, the submerged village of Old Portomarín re-emerged from beneath the shrinking waters of Spain’s Belesar reservoir.

Barge 2
In June, a World War II barge became visible in the Po River Photo by Piero Cruciatti / AFP via Getty Images

Approximately two-thirds of Europe is under drought warnings and alerts of varying severity, according to a new report from the Global Drought Observatory, an arm of the European Commission’s Joint Research Center. The European Commission described the situation as “the worst since at least 500 years,” per the BBC.

Some communities no longer have running water, so officials have to truck in fresh supplies. Because of the continent’s parched landscape, farmers and ranchers are struggling to grow anything—which also means they have less food to feed their livestock. Amid surging inflation, that will likely drive up prices for cheese, milk and meat, reports Bloomberg’s Megan Durisin. Drought is also hampering Europe’s tourism industry, especially popular river cruises, as it also grapples with labor shortages and a post-Covid surge of travelers.

But as bad as this year’s drought is, scientists warn that conditions could get even worse as a result of climate change.

“I don’t know what we need to do anymore to make the climate crisis a political theme,” Luca Mercalli, president of the Italian Meteorological Society, tells the Guardian’s Jon Henley. “These episodes are growing in frequency and intensity, exactly as forecasted by climate reports over the last 30 years. Why do we continue to wait to make this a priority?”