Seismic hazard assessment relies on the knowledge of the source characteristics of past earthquakes. Unfortunately, seismic waveform analysis, representing the most powerful tool for the investigation of earthquake source parameters, is only possible for events occurred in the last 100–120 years, i.e., since seismographs with known response function were developed. Nevertheless, during this time significant earthquakes have been recorded by such instruments and today, also thanks to technological progress, these data can be recovered and analysed by means of modern techniques.
In this paper, aiming at giving a general sketch of possible analyses and attainable results in historical seismogram studies, I briefly describe the major difficulties in processing the original waveforms and present a review of the results that I obtained from previous seismogram analysis of selected significant historical earthquakes occurred during the first decades of the XXth century, including (A) the December 28, 1908, Messina straits (southern Italy), (B) the June 11, 1909, Lambesc (southern France) – both of which are the strongest ever recorded instrumentally in their respective countries –and (C) the July 13, 1930, Irpinia (southern Italy) events. For these earthquakes, the major achievements are represented by the assessment of the seismic moment (A, B, C), the geometry and kinematics of faulting (B, C), the fault length and an approximate slip distribution (A, C). The source characteristics of the studied events have also been interpreted in the frame of the tectonic environment active in the respective region of interest. In spite of the difficulties inherent to the investigation of old seismic data, these results demonstrate the invaluable and irreplaceable role of historical seismogram analysis in defining the local seismogenic potential and, ultimately, for assessing the seismic hazard. The retrieved information is crucial in areas where important civil engineering works are planned, as in the case of the single-span bridge to be built across the Messina straits and the ITER nuclear fusion power plant to be built in Cadarache, close to the location of the Lambesc event, and in regions characterized by high seismic risk, such as southern Apennines.