About 12 000 years ago, humans began the transition to farming. They did this by domesticating both plants and animals and, perhaps more importantly, by learning to use such by-products as milk, wool, and even manure. “Dung is a valuable material used as fertiliser, fuel, and for construction,” says Shira Gur-Arieh, a Marie Skłodowska-Curie postdoctoral fellow working in the Culture and Socio-Ecological Dynamics group at Pompeu Fabra University (UPF). “But unlike other by-products, the use of dung, especially in construction, has been largely ignored by the archaeological community.” According to Gur-Arieh, knowing how humans used dung is key to understanding humans’ relationship with animals, subsistence practices, use of technology and impact on the environment. “It provides insight on sociocultural practices, resource management and adaptation strategies,” she explains. “All this is especially important when it comes to exploring the use of dung at the dawn of domestication and the subsequent emergence of more complex societies.” With the support of the EU-funded MapDung project, Gur-Arieh is exploring the early use of dung in construction as a proxy for understanding human-animal-environmental relations.
Unearthing invaluable data
Gur-Arieh’s research had both an experimental and an archaeological aspect. As to the former, she used controlled conditions to study the pre- and post-depositional formation process of dung when used as plaster for floors and as a temper in pottery. “By putting the material under the microscope, we were able to identify and differentiate some of the various preparation processes,” notes Gur-Arieh. “The benefit of this type of experimental work is that it can be used to help researchers identify the technological aspects of construction in the archaeological record.” In terms of the archaeological aspect, researchers used a multi-proxy method for improving the identification of dung, especially when used as a construction material in floors and walls. This work required researchers to head into the field, where they sampled and analysed dung from four sites: Sharara in Jordan, Motza and Tel Tsaf in Israel, and Çatalhöyük in Turkey. What they found was an absence of dung use in Sharara, possible evidence of its use at the Motza site, and clear evidence of its use in Çatalhöyük and Tel Tsaf. “We believe that the dung used for construction in Çatalhöyük and Tel Tsaf is well preserved because of the areas’ arid environment,” says Marco Madella, a researcher at UPF who was also involved in the study. “By adding to the corpus of archaeological sites where dung use has been studied and considered, these findings bring invaluable data to what was, until recently, an almost unexplored topic,” adds Gur-Arieh.
The key to building farming-based societies
The project succeeded in highlighting the essential role that dung played – and often still plays – in the ability of humans to adapt to their environment. “When humans permanently settle, they will eventually exhaust the supply of wood for fuel and their land will become unproductive without the right fertiliser,” concludes Gur-Arieh. “Without dung, which can be used as fuel, fertiliser and building material, humans would never have been able to establish a farming-based civilisation.”
MapDung, dung, archaeological research, sociocultural practices, domestication