ArchaeologyFarmers fighting desertification may recycle lost technique

Over 1,000 years ago, Caesarea’s coast was likely the birthplace of sand farming

Around 900 CE, a complicated plot-and-berm system used industrial waste to build agricultural fields on sand – launching a completely novel way of raising vegetables

A rendering of what archaeologists believe the sand farm looked like during production some 1,000 years ago. (courtesy Yaakov Shmidov/Israel Antiquities Authority)
A rendering of what archaeologists believe the sand farm looked like during production some 1,000 years ago. (courtesy Yaakov Shmidov/Israel Antiquities Authority)

Today, the shores of Caesarea are known for exclusive verdant golf courses and luxury hotels. But more than 1,000 years ago, Caesarea’s coast was the birthplace of a complicated system of vegetable farms on sandy beaches, archaeologists believe.

A 1.5-square-kilometer (0.6-square-mile) farm just south of Caesarea was likely the first time people used large-scale sand farming anywhere in the world and took over 1 million workdays to build, researchers from Bar Ilan University and the Israel Antiquities Authority announced last week.

The “Caesarea Gardens” was a massive system creating a checkerboard of berms made from sand and ancient industrial waste. According to Prof. Joel Roskin, a geomorphologist and landscape archaeologist at Bar Ilan University, the Caesarea farm could provide useful information about growing in hot, sandy climates for modern farmers dealing with desertification. Roskin excavated the Caesarea site with Dr. Itamar Taxel, the head of the Pottery Specializations Branch at the Israel Antiquities Authority.

The farm started sometime in the 10th century CE and was abandoned in 1140 CE, when the Crusaders swept through the area, Roskin said. Roskin and Taxel excavated the checkerboard system of berms that averaged 4 meters (13 feet) high and 20 meters (65 feet) long, creating around 370 separate farm plots. Each of the farm plots had enriched soil rather than just sand. The berms were made with construction waste of the era, including broken marble, random coins and detritus, cracked stones, and pieces of pottery and glass from Caesarea.

The “plot-and-berm” outline is still visible today, nearly 1,000 years later.

“It’s a pretty remarkable feat to think of someone building something on the beach that lasted for 1,000 years,” said Roskin.

“This was an ingenious method that incorporates and reuses the refuse from nearby town dumps, enriches the soil, develops the engineering of soil and berms, and takes advantage of underground water,” said Roskin.

A million workdays to build the farm

The Caesarea Gardens were first discovered in the 1940s and partially excavated in 1973 and 1974 by Yosef Porat of the Israel Antiquities Authority. There are similar plot-and-berm farms near Palmachim Beach, but they were mostly destroyed due to military activity in the area from the nearby Palmachim Base. An additional plot-and-berm site near Zikim beach near Ashkelon has not been studied extensively.

The base of what archaeologists believe was a guard tower at the Caesarea Gardens archaeological site. (courtesy Itamar Taxel/IAA)

Between 2020 and 2023, Roskin and Taxel’s team excavated the Caesarea Gardens, including a number of structures on the site, which were likely a guard tower, a storage facility, and residences for the seasonal farm workers. The excavation included researchers from the University of Haifan and the Geological Survey of Israel, and was funded by the Gerda Henkel Foundation and the Israel Science Foundation.

The plot-and-berm system required completely reengineering the low dunes over a large area, and the sheer amount of sand moved during the construction of the farm plot required thousands of workers. Roskin and Taxel estimate that it took around a million workdays to create the Caesarea Gardens.

A close-up rendering of what archaeologists believe the sand farm looked like during production some 1,000 years ago. (courtesy Yaakov Shmidov/Israel Antiquities Authority)

“Since we haven’t found evidence of significant sand farming anywhere in the world, prior to this system, we suggest that this is the first significant development of sand farming in the history of humanity,” Roskin said.

An infrastructure project this large most likely came at the government’s initiative, though archaeologists are still trying to determine why the leaders chose to start farming in sand and what was grown on the site.

“One idea is that there was a unique type of crop that could be grown in this type of environment, but we are looking in Islamic and Arabic texts, and so far we have found nothing,” said Roskin.

Other communities in ancient Israel, including the Bedouin, grew some crops such as grapevines and fruit trees in sandy environments, but did not enrich the soil nor build berms.

Roskin and Taxel have not uncovered any archaeobotanical residues or preserved remains of the crops, so they’re not sure what was grown on the farm. Botanical remains are unlikely to have been preserved due to the sandy environment, Roskin explained. However, they have not found any tree roots or vines, which would have been more likely to have been preserved, so they believe that the farm was likely used for vegetable production rather than as an orchard or vineyard.

Why would anyone farm here?

In February, Roskin and Taxel hosted dozens of archaeologists who study early agriculture across the Levant at Bar Ilan University to brainstorm why the Caesarea Gardens were built and what could have grown there.

A rendering of what archaeologists believe the sand farm looked like during production some 1,000 years ago. (courtesy Yaakov Shmidov/Israel Antiquities Authority)

Although constructing the plot-and-berm agrosystem took a herculean effort, there are some reasons that farming on the beach could have been beneficial. The freshwater table is only about a meter below the surface and stays fairly stable throughout the year. This constant access to water would have allowed for a longer growing season.

Most other large-scale agriculture at the time relied on surface water from winter streams or trapped rain, making agriculture difficult in the hotter months. Farming in areas such as the Jerusalem Hills, which have more surface water options, required generations of effort to clear the soil of rocks and create terraces, and the topography did not allow large-scale farms.

Ground water close to the surface, in a pit mixed with refuse. courtesy Bar Ilan University)

The crisscross design of the sand berms cut down on wind erosion and may have even raised the temperature of the plots slightly by creating a greenhouse effect, which would have been beneficial in the winter, said Roskin.

Roskin said Caesarea in the 10th and 11th centuries was not struggling, nor desperately looking for other revenue sources. There was no single event that historians can pinpoint that would force the government to search for a completely new method of farming and undertake a massive infrastructure project.

Instead, they believe the farmers at the time must have found benefits to farming in sand, such as preventing plant fungi or other pests by promoting better drainage than in regular soil.

Farmers at the Caesarea Gardens enriched the sand with materials such as manure, lime, and organic waste to create “anthrosol,” or soil that has been heavily modified due to human activity.

Caesarea National Park, located four kilometers (2.5 miles) north of the Caesarea Gardens, is Israel’s most visited national park, according to the Nature and Parks Authority. More than 670,000 people visited the site in 2022, an increase of 76% from 2021. The site hosted 200,000 international visitors and nearly half a million Israelis last year.

Making the sand bloom

The practice of plot-and-berm agriculture in the sand started in Israel but spread with the Islamic expansion through the Gaza Strip, the Sinai Peninsula along the Mediterranean coast, the Sahara, and later the Atlantic Coast of the Iberian Peninsula. The plot-and-berm agroecosystem, which dates to the 15th-18th century in Spain and Portugal, is still used today in northwestern Portugal on a small scale. The practice of masseira or gamela sand farms in Portugal is mostly declining; however, these farms, which grow things like watermelon and squash, can help archaeologists understand which vegetables grow well and how much a sand farm like this can produce, Roskin said.

Professor Joel Roskin, a geomorphologist and landscape archaeologist at Bar Ilan University. (courtesy Bar Ilan University)

He hopes that one day, people might actually return to farm the Caesarea Gardens, to learn more about ancient farming techniques and different ways of raising food in harsh desert environments.

“Next year, we will work with agronomists because we want to see if there’s potential profitability for ecological-based agriculture on this site,” he said.

The researchers are interested in whether the farm was profitable back in the 10th century, and if it could still produce significant crops today. Roskin envisions that the Caesarea beach could one day host a community garden, similar to the educational farm at the Sataf site in the Jerusalem Hills, which recreates ancient mountain agriculture practices.

“We should keep up the awareness of these traditional systems, and we need to think how they can adapt to the current or future situation [of climate change],” he said.

Dr. Itamar Taxel of the Israel Antiquities Authority at the Caesara Gardens archaeological site. (courtesy Bar Ilan University)

Anyone can visit the Caesarea Gardens, which are located directly behind the Yellow Paz gas station in Caesarea. The major structures excavated over the past few years have been recovered with sand for preservation and protection, but the berms are still visible to visitors.

He hopes those who see the thousand-year-old farm carved out of sand dunes take some inspiration from farming in an unlikely place and the ways that humans have been transforming the places they live and work for thousands of years.

Although the Caesarea Gardens was one of the earliest examples of waterfront development, Roskin aims to inspire people to “preserve their local landscapes, keep them green, and protect them from development,” he said. “This shows what can potentially be done, with what was seen as a barren landscape.”

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