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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 3 - 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: 2018-09-01 to 2020-02-29

"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 regarding societal collapse and resilience among complex societies worldwide at a time when more sophisticated syntheses on the subject involving multi-causal, data rich explanatory frameworks are heralded. This project with its focus on an intensive bioarchaeological agenda and richly contextualized and preserved contexts will bring the case study of the Negev Byzantine society to bear on current theoretical and methodological debates with broader implications for social anthropologists and policy makers striving to develop better-informed programs and decision-making protocols in sustainable development for the future.

What are the overall objectives?

For over 150 years explorers, archaeologists, historians and paleo-climate researchers have debated the causes for the initial emergence (324 CE), long-term fluorescence and eventual disintegration of the Negev Byzantine phenomenon (638 CE). The project focuses on three Byzantine towns, which formed part of a group of seven known urban centers from this period in the Negev Desert and include the settlement of Shivta with its multiple public buildings including several churches and basilica, Elusa, which served as the center of Byzantine administration in the region and Nessana. In spite of decades of field work and theorization regarding the Negev Byzantine town phenomenon, only fairly limited sections of the towns were excavated systematically and published in detail and almost no applications of bio-archaeological approaches can be cited.

This research puts forward a set of formal hypotheses, to test the record for the presence and/or intensity of a range of stress effects, including, social, economic and environmental factors, among the populations of three towns between the early (4th-mid 5th centuries CE) and late (mid-5th –early-7th centuries CE) Byzantine, a period interfacing the fluorescence and supposed disintegration of Byzantine societies in the Negev. Additional deposits from late Roman (2nd-3rd centuries AD) and early Islamic (late 7th-mid 9th centuries CE) contexts are included in order to provide a well-controlled chronological sequence of developments. The project assesses such effects as: (1) the existence and degree of manifestation of complex urban-based socio-political structures marked by the presence of ruling elites with more elaborate and exclusive material culture and dietary practices, (2) existence and degree of manifestation of a complex economy based on long-distance import-export trade relations, (3) level of efficiency of local subsistence economies based on the pattern and intensity of processing of food resources, (4) presence of paleo-environmental and paleo-pathological indicators of drought and disease, and (5) temporal synchronicity in abandonment of houses, agricultural fields and installations and in the use of large-scale garbage dumps organized by central municipal authorities. Because the research design incorporates a data-intensive approach by applying multiple techniques to probing the same archaeological deposits it provides a well-controlled analytical framework including synchronicity and cross-validation options among the stress effects. At a higher analytical level these effects and their interactions can be interpreted in the framework of both collapse (i.e. fairly synchronous, multi-level breakdown across social, political and economic systems potentially coupled with environmental stress as drought or disease) or resilience (i.e. fairly low-level manifestation of some stress effects, wide temporal separation in timing of abandonment events, and associated with environmental stress).

"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). Ongoing archaeobotanical studies of both Late Byzantine and Early Islamic contexts indicate a level of agricultural sophistication and commercial production of the Byzantine economy that declined during the transition to the early Islamic period (Fuks et al. 2016; Ramsay et al. 2016).

A further approach which we have applied looks at artworks uncovered along the walls of one of the ancient churches of Shivta, where canonized pieces are overlain by ad hoc scribblings from different periods. We use new approaches to analyze paint (Linn, Tepper and Bar-Oz, in press) and study graffiti typology made post-abandonment by Christian pilgrims (Tchekhanovets, Tepper and Bar-Oz, submitted) and nomad Bedouin tribes (Khameisi, Tepper and Bar-Oz, forthcoming), to put together the complex history of use of this central structure.

Publication of key findings from the site of Elusa is presently in progress (Bar-Oz, Weissbrod et al. forthecoming). In addition, an extensive summary of excavations at Shivta was recently submitted (Tepper and Bar-Oz, submitted b), followed by that of the Nessana excavation.

Much of the collected material have been sorted and distributed to laboratories at the University of Haifa and our collaborators in the project. Studies of faunal and botanical remains are well underway. Isotopic and aDNA (grape, olive and date seeds) analyses of these materials are scheduled to begin as originally planned within the coming months (beginning of third year of the project). Integrating these disparate sources of information will be aided by simultaneous analysis of isotopic composition and chronometric determinations from the botanical remains to retrieve detailed information on precipitation, temperature and temporal sequencing within the data-set.

Use of resources:
- Additional fieldwork was needed resulting in an increase in the expenses foreseen for this section.
- During the second stage of the project, it became apparent that a project symposium is required to bring together the project members together with the participation of scholars in the relevant field from outside of the project. This need resulted from the richness and complexity of the findings stemming from very different types of analyses and as part of the highly interdisciplinary nature of the project. We took the opportunity of the International Congress of Classical Archaeology in Bonn this year to conduct the symposium so that we can bring together team members from Israel and Europe and reach also numerous scholars in Classical Archaeology which participate in the congress and would have an interest in hearing about the findings of our project and providing crucial input. The expenses included in this symposium covered the flights of participants from Israel to Germany and their accommodation and meals. Those expenses were foreseen in Annex 1 under international travel.
- HP ZBOOK 15 Laptop"" + binocular camera + Microscope parts: Justification -During the 2nd phase of the project is became apparent that the workload dealing with small archaeological finds or finds requiring microscopic examination exceeded the planned extent, and that the number of research students working in the project labs with such small material also exceeded to planned number. Hence, an additional workstation was required, including a camera for documentation. This covers such materials as fish remains, molluscs, cut marks on large faunal remains etc.
- Laptop & Notebook LENOVO THINKPAD X1 CARBON justification: The personal project computer of the PI broke down and had to be replaced.
- As originally scheduled, in May of 2018 we conducted our first workshop where all project participants presented their findings, carry out group discussions towards data integration, and submit these outcomes to critical consideration by outside discussants. This event took part at the AIAC conference in Cologne, Germany and included the following 13 presentations: (1) Bar-Oz, G., Weissbrod, L. Introduction to Crisis on the margins of the Byzantine Empire: Bio-archaeological approaches to resilience and collapse in the Negev Desert; (2) Tepper, Y., Bar-Oz, G. Towards solving the puzzle of Byzantine settlement archaeology in the Negev Desert; (3) Xin, Y., Boaretto, E. Sub-century resolution for dating the end of the Byzantine period in the Southern Levant: the radiocarbon approach; (4) Erickson-Gini, T. New Horizons in the Study of Ceramic Evidence of the Byzantine Period from Recent Excavations in the Central Negev Sites of Shivta, Halutza and Avdat; (5) Marom, N., Tepper, Y., Bar-Oz, G. Archaeozoological Aspects of the Byzantine-Islamic Transition in the Negev; (6) Lehnig, S. Animal Husbandry and Trade in the Negev Town Elusa; (7) Blevis, R., Zohar, I., Bar-Oz, G. From Sea to Desert platter- the Role of Fish in the Byzantine Negev; (7) Fuks, D., Weiss, E. Seeds of collapse: Archaeobotanical investigations of Byzantine and Islamic contexts; (8) Benzaquen, M., Langgut, D. Dendroarchaelogical Investigations of the Byzantine Negev; (9) Meiri, M., Wales, N., Marom, N., Boaretto, E., Tepper, Y., Gilbert, T., Bar-Oz, G. The Negev wine industry as reflected from ancient DNA of grape seeds during the Byzantine and early Islamic periods; (10) Butler, D., Dunseth, Z., Shahack-Gross, R. Microarchaeological Investigations of Waste Management at Byzantine-Early Islamic Settlements in the Negev; (11) Vaiglova, P., Hartman, G. Isotopic proxies for disentangling environmental and societal change at Halutza and Nitzana, urban settlements in the Negev Desert; (12) Lantos, S., Gambash, G. Imported Fish, Exported Wine: An Economy of Production and Trade. The travel expanses and participation fees for the conference was paid for those students and researchers that presented their results but had no other travel expanses. This included: Tepper, Y., Erickson-Gini, T., Marom, N., Zohar, I., Benzaquen, M., Meiri, M., Butler, D. and Vaiglova, P.

Published/submitted papers:

Bar-Oz, G., Weissbrod, L., Erickson-Gini, T., Malkinson, D., Benzaquen, M., Langgut, D., Marom, N., Dunseth, Z. C., Shahack-Gross, R., Fuks, D., Weiss, E., Blevis, R., Zohar, I., Ktalav, I., Farhi, Y., Tepper, Y. and Boaretto, E. Social response to crisis documented in urban trash mounds of the Byzantine period of the Negev Desert, southern Levant. Forthcoming.

Fuks, D., Weiss, E., Tepper, Y. and Bar-Oz, G. 2016. Seeds of collapse? Reconstructing the ancient Negev agricultural economy at Shivta. Antiquity (Project Gallery), 353: 1-5.

Khameisi, R., Tepper, Y. and Bar-Oz, G. Beduin bulletin board at the southern church of Shivta in the Negev desert, Israel. Forthcoming.

Linn, R, Tepper, Y. and Bar-Oz, G. Visible Induced Luminescence reveals rays shining from Christ in the Early Christian wall painting of the Transfiguration in Shivta. Submitted to PLoS One.

Marom, N., Rosen, B., Tepper, Y. and Bar-Oz, G. Pigeons at the edge of the empire: Bioarchaeological evidences for extensive management of pigeons in a Byzantine desert town in the southern Levant. Submitted to PLoS One.

Ramsay, J., Tepper, Y., Weinstein-Evron, M., Bratenkov, S., Marom, N. and Bar-Oz, G. 2016. For the birds: An environmental archaeological analysis of byzantine pigeon towers at Shivta (Negev Desert, Israel). Journal of Archaeological Science Reports, 9: 718-727.

Tchekhanovets , Y., Tepper, Y. and Bar-Oz, G. The Armenian Graffito from the Southern Church of Shivta. Submitted to Revue Biblique.

Tepper, Y., Rosen, B., Haber, A. and Bar-Oz, G. Signs of soil fertigation in the desert: A pigeon tower structure near Byzantine Shivta, Israel. Journal of Arid environment, in press.

Tepper, Y., Di Segni, L. and Bar-Oz, G. From an entrance step to the “Holy Church”: New Greek inscription from Shivta. Submitted to Bulletin of American Schools of Oriental Research.

Tepper, Y. and Bar-Oz, G. Shivta, in light of the Renewed Excavations: Preliminary report of the 2015-2017 seasons. Submitted to Tel Aviv.

Tepper, Y., Weissbrod, L. and Bar-Oz, G. 2015. Behind sealed doors: Unraveling abandonment dynamics at the Byzantine site of Shivta in the Negev Desert. Antiquity (Project Gallery): 348: 1-4.

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.