Skip to main content

Crisis on the margins of the Byzantine Empire: A bio-archaeological project on resilience and collapse in early Christian development of the Negev Desert

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - NEGEVBYZ (Crisis on the margins of the Byzantine Empire: A bio-archaeological project on resilience and collapse in early Christian development of the Negev Desert)

Reporting period: 2017-03-01 to 2018-08-31

"What is the problem/issue being addressed?

This project aims to understand the parameters for long-term sustainable functioning of complex societies under vulnerable conditions. As part of the research we explore contexts of collapse and resilience in an ancient society with high levels of socio-political complexity and technological ingenuity within a resource-limited environment. We focus on the Byzantine early Christian urban centers of the Negev Desert (4th-7th cent. CE), Israel. This area discloses both the triumph of human ingenuity in conquering the desert through large-scale human settlement and agricultural development as well as a striking and as yet ambiguous case of wholesale systemic collapse. To test hypotheses regarding social disintegration, economic stress and environmental degradation due to climatic or anthropogenic causes, the project is based on intensive retrieval of bio-archaeological data from contexts of everyday life in the ancient towns (e.g. municipal landfills, the floors of sealed houses and agricultural installations and palaeo-fields). We pay special attention to archaeological contexts containing superimposed records of both material culture evidence and paleo-environmental proxies. High-resolution analysis of archaeozoological, archaeobotanical, isotopic and genetic data from multiple contexts enables us to explore the causes for the emergence, long-term persistence and ultimate collapse of Byzantine settlement in the Negev.

The next challenge is to closely scrutinize questions of societal collapse versus resilience in the past and overcome methodological complications, particularly in attempting to link causes and effects across expanded time-scales and in bridging gaps in the often fragmentary historical and archaeological records of such events. This project proposes an innovative, integrative and data-intensive approach to addressing methodological complexities in research on societal vulnerability in the archaeological record. The research design incorporates approaches from ""garbage archaeology"", ""household archaeology"" and ""landscape archaeology"" and integrates a broad suit of advanced techniques from bio-molecular archaeology (aDNA, stable-isotope), archaeobotany and palynology, archaeozoology, geo-archaeology and chronometry for collecting data on background environmental processes and the human-environment interface with conventional material-culture studies, spatial and contextual analyses.

Why is it important for society?

Inherent vulnerabilities of modern societies in the face of mounting social, economic and environmental challenges provide a major incentive for research on historical examples of societal failure. The record of ancient societies which appear to have collapsed provides opportunities to link empirically the causes, dynamics and outcomes of such processes and contributes to our understanding of the parameters for societal failure.

Dealing with societal vulnerability in marginal regions is timely and relevant in a world where accelerating development rapidly expands such problems, previously localized, to global levels. Although informing the present and forecasting the future by projecting lessons learned from the record of past societies are risky endeavors due to the typically under-determined nature of historical and proxy data this project offers substantial gain to theoretical and empirical research on societal vulnerability in two main avenues: (1) providing an opportunity to critically re-evaluate the current state of knowledge in the field based on an extensive corpus of new, high-quality data and (2) drawing more nuanced and informed broad generalizations regarding limiting states for human ingenuity in reconciling social and economic development with sustainable management of the environment and its resources.

A significant impact for this project is also expected from its contribution to ongoing debates in the broad scholarly discourse regardi"
The research project is progressing according to its pre-planned timetable and has nearly completed the stage of data collection. Through excavations at the archaeological sites of Elusa, Shivta and Nessana we retrieved rich assemblages of both material culture and biological remains, from contexts which have furnished greater than expected quantities of such materials. Large volumes of archaeological sediments were collected through systematic and high-resolution excavation and processed through both fine sieving and flotation, followed by micro-sorting of residues at our laboratories.

Combining contextual analysis with sediment mineralogy we verified the nature of excavated loci as: (1) the fills and floor deposits of abandoned residential structures, (2) agricultural installations (e.g. structures used for pigeon-raising and production of fertilizer) and relict field systems, and (3) landfills from both ad hoc trash disposal as well as organized and large-scale removal of activities. Furthermore, analyses combining carbon 14 dating of charred short-lived seeds, ceramic typology and numismatics allowed us to attribute excavated contexts and collected materials to sub-phases of the Byzantine period, as well as to temporal phases both preceding (Late Roman/Nabataean) and succeeding (Early Islamic) the Byzantine period. Controlled and replicable comparative analyses among different temporal phases and across transitions relied on multi-phased contexts which evidenced continuous sequences. These analyses will focus on documenting simultaneously occurring societal and environmental shifts. The analyzed contexts and retrieved materials from three sites thus provide an ideal setup for high-resolution testing of a wide range of pre-determined hypotheses regarding human response to changing environmental and/or societal circumstance.

Excavations at the site of Shivta provide evidence for complex historical trajectories on both sides of the 640 CE temporal divide between the Byzantine and Early Islamic periods. On the one hand, sealed doorways of a handful of Byzantine residential structures testify to organized abandonment of particular sections of the local population (Tepper Weissbrod and Bar-Oz. 2015). On the other, the finding of an important inscription from one of the Byzantine churches in secondary use suggests that the Christian population of the settlement was largely replaced or converted during the Islamic period (Tepper and Bar-Oz, submitted a). Excavations in urban trash mounds at the site of Elusa provide further evidence to the time and process of societal decline. Chronological determinations from surface surveys, ceramics and carbon 14 dating initially suggest that use of the dumps ceased nearly a century before the end of the Byzantine period in the Levant (6th cent. CE) (Bar-Oz, Weissbrod et al, forthcoming).

Abandonment dynamics of Byzantine settlement in the Negev is also evident in the agricultural hinterland adjacent to sites. Pigeon-raising installations were constructed near fields to produce fertilizer, needed to enrich nutrient-poor desert soils (Tepper et al. in press). Evidence retrieved from excavations of a number of such installations situates them in the context of a complex agro-ecosystem and management geared to dealing with the limitations of a dry environment (Ramsay et al. 2016; Marom et al. submitted).

Compositional and mineralogical analyses of trash mound sediments, material finds and biological remains at Shivta, Elusa and Nessana show that the mounds are composed of dense accumulations of both household and industrial trash. Grape seeds recovered in great abundance and ubiquity from Byzantine landfills at the three sites provide the first direct evidence for extensive consumption of grape products and viticulture in the Negev. Similarly, remains of parrot fish suggest the existence of extensive long-distance trade networks extending at least to the Red Sea (Bar-Oz et al. forthcoming).
Our work has been tremendously productive and we have achieved an especially high level of success in implementing the initial phases of the research project. Over 120 days of systematic fieldwork, which were invested during the first year and a half of the project, produced samples of biological remains and material culture of unprecedented proportion from the Negev Byzantine sites. Preliminary results from ongoing analyses of these materials are highly promising and chart the way forward for the next three and a half years and the successful completion of the project.

Based on the initial progress made and the steep curve of amassing data, knowledge and understanding we anticipate that the project stands to make landmark contributions in these three areas of current research:

1. Establishing the first-of-its-kind, high-resolution absolute chronology of the south Levantine mid-1st millennium CE (6th-8th cent.)—a span of time which is increasingly recognized as one of both social and environmental upheavals of global proportions and far-reaching consequences for the course of history.

2. Constructing a unique and comprehensive onsite multi-proxy record of juxtaposed environmental and social information, through which to reconstruct the sequence of crisis-generating events and simultaneous human responses.

3. Providing historical perspectives and substantial time-depth for current attempt to study and understand sustainable development and resilience-building in environmentally marginal regions.

We project that a synthesis of these interlinked strands of research will lead to developing a new and enhanced level of understanding regarding the role of social crisis in guiding the course of cultural history into the future.