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Dung as Construction Material During the Emergence of Animal Domestication: A Multi-Proxy Approach

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - MapDung (Dung as Construction Material During the Emergence of Animal Domestication: A Multi-Proxy Approach)

Reporting period: 2018-11-01 to 2020-10-31

The transition from foragers to farmers c.12k years ago is marked by plant/animal domestication and the exploitation of animal by-products such as milk, wool, and dung. Dung is a valuable material used as fertilizer, fuel and in construction, yet unlike other by-products, dung exploitation is less studied. While there is increasing archaeological evidence for dung used as fuel and manure, its use in construction is less known despite ethnographic accounts for its continued use in construction in contemporary societies. Studying human exploitation of dung and its use as a construction material, in particular, facilitates understanding of human-animal relations, subsistence practices, technology, human impact on the environment, as well as resource management according to environmental conditions (e.g. prioritizing construction over fuel or vice versa), adding an innovative viewpoint on human adaptation strategies. It also offers insights on socio-cultural practices as ethnographic studies show that in many contemporary societies, activities related to dung use are almost exclusively carried out by women, showing a clear gender division of labor. All these aspects are especially important when exploring the early utilization of dung at the dawn of domestication and the emergence of more complex societies during the early Neolithic. It is also important to understand if the absence of dung from the archaeological record is an anthropological preference or a research/preservation bias.
The aim of MapDung was to explore possible early use of dung for construction as a proxy for understanding human-animal-environment relations and ecosystem. The research goals were to 1) develop a multi-proxy methodology to improve the identification of dung, particularly as a construction material; 2) study post-depositional processes that affect archaeological dung used in construction; 3) provide a wide regional understanding of the utilization of animal dung during the early Neolithic Period and the gender division of labor in its use.
The work performed can be divided to 3 (see Table 1 for details):
1. Theoretical work outlining the archaeological evidence for dung use by humans.
Outcome – a review paper summarizing the state-of-the-art on the use of animal dung in the archaeological record and methodological developments on dung identification. Submission is expected shortly.
2. Experimental work aimed at studying pre-and post-depositional formation processes of dung as a construction material under controlled conditions to improve understanding of archaeological findings.
Outcome - the experimental work included 2 sub-projects:
a) A microscopic and µXRF study of the formation processes of dung plastered floors from experimentally produced thin sections: this showed great potential to serve as a reference collection for future studies on preparation methods of ancient floors. Due to the pandemic, the samples from the last floor produced were received in the last week of the project preventing a full analysis. This will be performed shortly and will be published as an output of the project.
b) A study of the visibility of dung tempering in ancient pottery through the analysis of experimentally produced clay briquettes which were tempered with dung and then fired at different temperatures. The results of this work have been presented at 3 different international workshops as posters (Figures 1-3, Amicone et al. 2019a, 2019b, Gur-Arieh et al. 2019), and published in a peer-reviewed Journal (Amicone et al. 2020).
3. Archaeological work aimed at developing a multi-proxy methodology for improved identification of dung, especially as a construction material, and expanding the sites where dung use has been studied.
Outcome – Four sites were sampled and analyzed: Sharara (Jordan), Motza and Tel Tsaf in Israel, and Çatalhöyük (Turkey). Unfortunately, from Çatalhöyük no samples from primary contexts were available in the HI as the site was not sampled specifically for MapDung. Notwithstanding, bulk samples were selected from secondary contexts. Both bulk and block samples were collected from the other sites.
The status of the analysis is presented in Table 2. Initial results point to i) the absence of dung use at Sharara, ii) possible use of dung at Motza, however, poor preservation does not allow a clear determination for the habitual use of dung, iii) a clear presence of dung use at Çatalhöyük, albeit our limited sample availability is not suitable to clearly answer the research questions, and iv) what seems to be good evidence for dung used for construction at the arid Tel Tsaf site.
These results were presented at the EAA (Gur-Arieh et al. 2019) and at other academic meetings (Gur-Arieh 2019a, 2019b). The final results are being prepared for publication (Fig. 4).
1) The review paper produced is the first of its kind and summarizes the topic of dung use by humans in the archaeological record both as a global phenomenon and from a multi-animal species perspective, thus providing a state-of-the-art source on which future research can build. The review offers working protocols for dung identification through rapid screening in the field and more precise methods in post-excavation analysis and hopefully will increase awareness among the archaeological community worldwide to the importance of dung as a secondary product.
2) The experimental work is a major contribution to our understanding of the formation processes of different dung proxies in construction materials and will serve as a reference source for the study of such archaeological features. It provides original information that can be applied to the study of architectonic features and artifacts that were constructed with dung worldwide. High-resolution scans of the thin sections will be available online through an open access repository.
3) The archaeological research conducted provided us with new information on construction technology, activity areas, and human-animal interactions in unique environmental conditions. Furthermore, this work added to a growing list of sites where dung use has been studied and its presence or absence detected. Finally, it contributes to the discussion on dung use in relation to the level of human interaction with animals, and the environment in which they live.
The project had a positive impact on the academic training of the ER and on the transfer of knowledge between the ER and the hosting research group. Besides the publications resulting from this project, the ER has established herself as a leading researcher in the field and has secured a prestigious 3-year position funded by the Bundesministerium für Bildung und Forschung zur Fördermaßnahme (BMBF) as a principal investigator at the LMU, Munich. The ER trained further in phytolith analysis but also trained lab members in dung spherulites analysis. In addition, through her joint work, the ER contributed to creating a network between her hosting institute and researchers in Germany, England, Israel and Jordan.
Finally, through the study of a topic which is always a cause for giggles, the ER managed, through formal and informal dissemination and communication on social media, to create interest and spark conversation on dung, an often underestimated material when studying the transition to agrarian economies, yet indispensable in daily life as fuel, fertilizer and as a construction material.
Poster presented at the International Workshop on Archaeological Soil Micromorphology
Poster presented at the IMAA workshop
Twitter communication on Archaeological work in Motza
Reference list
Poster presented at the annual meeting of the Ceramic Petrology Group (CPG)
Twitter communication on experimental work
Twitter communication on Ethnoarchaeological work in Armenia
Table 2. Sample analysis status
Table 1. Detailed description of the work preformed