Seeds from 1,500-year-old Negev trash pits show a world on the brink of collapse
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ArchaeologyAs Negev wine trade dried up, Byzantine era was rotting too

Seeds from 1,500-year-old Negev trash pits show a world on the brink of collapse

Study of 10,000 seeds from Negev viticulture settlements illustrates how plague, climate change and socioeconomic depression in booming empire’s periphery point to its decline

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

  • Trash mounds on the outskirts of Elusa (Guy Bar-Oz/University of Haifa)
    Trash mounds on the outskirts of Elusa (Guy Bar-Oz/University of Haifa)
  • Trash mounds on the outskirts of Nessana (Guy Bar-Oz/University of Haifa)
    Trash mounds on the outskirts of Nessana (Guy Bar-Oz/University of Haifa)
  • The central part of the town of Shivta with its southern church in the center.
(Guy Bar-Oz/University of Haifa)
    The central part of the town of Shivta with its southern church in the center. (Guy Bar-Oz/University of Haifa)
  • Nearly 10,000 seeds of grape (a), barley grains (b), and wheat grains (c) were retrieved and counted from 11 trash mounds at three Negev sites, Elusa, Shivta, and Nessana. (Daniel Fuks)
    Nearly 10,000 seeds of grape (a), barley grains (b), and wheat grains (c) were retrieved and counted from 11 trash mounds at three Negev sites, Elusa, Shivta, and Nessana. (Daniel Fuks)
  • The central part of the town of Shivta with its southern church in the center.
(Guy Bar-Oz/University of Haifa)
    The central part of the town of Shivta with its southern church in the center. (Guy Bar-Oz/University of Haifa)

Pandemic, climate change, and international socioeconomic depression are all leading factors in the crash and burn of Negev viticulture — a millennium and a half ago.

A new archaeological study of Byzantine-era trash dumps in the Negev Highlands offers an eerily relevant analysis of how the strong Byzantine empire of the mid-6th century began to crumble while international markets were tanked by a butterfly-effect list of causes. Contributing factors to the doomsday atmosphere included the Late Antique Little Ice Age (LALIA), a bizarre widespread climate anomaly that began with a series of massive volcanic eruptions in the 530s and 540s CE, and the Justinian Plague of 541-549 CE.

The study was published Monday in the prestigious peer-reviewed Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS).

“It is compelling and crazy that you have these double disasters — on one hand the Little Ice Age and on the other hand the plague — while during the age of Justinian, the Byzantine empire reached its greatest expansion. It was all downhill from there, from the mid-6th century onwards,” said lead author of the study Daniel Fuks, a PhD student in the Martin (Szusz) Department of Land of Israel Studies and Archaeology at Bar-Ilan University.

Trash mounds on the outskirts of Elusa (Guy Bar-Oz/University of Haifa)

Using organic evidence collected at three Negev sites — Elusa, Shivta and Nessana — and 11 midden pits, an interdisciplinary team of Israeli archaeologists charted the rise and fall of commercial viticulture in the Negev Highlands, and how international disasters may have played a role in its demise and the domino effect of global markets.

The study is part of the ongoing Negev Byzantine Bio-Archaeology Research Program’s “Crisis on the Margins of the Byzantine Empire” project, headed by Prof. Guy Bar-Oz of the University of Haifa. Fuks, who spoke to The Times of Israel from Cambridge where he will shortly begin a postdoc, completed the study out of Bar-Ilan University Prof. Ehud Weiss’s archaeobotany lab.

The greening of the Byzantine-era desert was made possible by rainwater runoff farming and fertilizing the vineyards through bird droppings from local dovecotes. Fuks took the evidence of this agriculture — some 10,000 seeds of grape, wheat and barley from the trash pits — to Bar-Ilan Prof. Weiss’s archaeobotany lab.

The central part of the town of Shivta with its southern church in the center. (Guy Bar-Oz/University of Haifa)

The beginning of the end

The fall of Negev viticulture came at the peak of the Byzantine empire.

“You would expect that during a period of glorious success for the empire that it would be able to support financially its outlying posts such as the Negev which were the lifeline for central regions such as Constantinople in terms of some of its most basic resources including grain and wine,” Bar-Oz told The Times of Israel by email.

Trash mounds inside Shivta. (Ari Levy/University of Haifa)

“Instead we are seeing a signal for what was really going on at that time and which has long been nearly invisible to most archaeologists — that the empire was being plagued by climatic disaster and disease,” wrote Bar-Oz.

Other members of the Negev Byzantine Bio-Archaeology Research Program  team include Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) archaeologists Dr. Lior Weisbrod, Dr. Yotam Tepper and Dr. Tali Erickson-Gini, who aided in excavating in the field and analyzing results. Tel Aviv University archaeobotonist Dr. Dafna Langut is a co-author on the paper.

According to the Bar-Ilan press release, Byzantine-era texts laud the vinum Gazetum or “Gaza wine.” The sweet white wine was exported from the port of Gaza throughout the Mediterranean and beyond, usually in amphora known as Gaza jars. The Gaza jars were found in large quantities in the Negev trash pits.

The Negev settlements’ expanded use  of grapes versus more consumable grain  shows a 200-year commercial viticulture industry in the arid Negev desert locations that steeply dropped off in the mid-6th century. The key to deciphering the tens of thousands of seeds and grains found in the pits is discerning within the trash that there is a clear and gradually changing ratio of grape seeds versus cereal grains.

IAA archaeologist Dr. Tali Erickson-Gini (right) examines a marble tray from the altar area of the Byzantine church near Ashkelon. (Anat Rasiuk, Israel Antiquities Authority)

Likewise, Fuks and Erickson-Gini analyzed the proportion of Gaza wine jars to bag-shaped jars. Whereas the tall and slim Gaza jars were strapped to camels’ backs for overland transportation, the bulkier bag-shaped jars would have been much less useful for camelback transport from the Negev Highlands to the port at Gaza, a distance of some 100 kilometers, according to the press release.

“Significantly, the rise and initial decline of Gaza jars tracked the rise and fall of the grape pips, suggesting that the rise and fall of Byzantine Negev viticulture was connected to regional and Mediterranean trade,” said Fuks.

The mosaic of Kissufim near Gaza, depicting Orbikon the camel driver, captures the overland transport of the products of viticulture in the region during Late Antiquity. Artifactual remnants of the two main components of Orbikon’s load – grapes and Gaza jars – further illuminate this phenomenon. (Mosaic: The Israel Museum/Elie Posner; Gaza jar image: Davida Eisenberg-Degen/Israel Antiquities Authority; Charred grape image: Daniel Fuks/Bar-Ilan University)

Fuks said, “We’re finding the evidence for viticulture on a commercial scale in the Negev.” He explained that for years historians have known of documentation of wine production in the Negev, including visits to bless the enterprise by the aptly named monk Hilarion, the Nessana Papyri and the presence of local winepresses, but it was still unknown whether the wine produced in the Negev Highlands was the famed sweet white Gaza wine that was transported to major Byzantine hubs, including Alexandria and Constantinople.

“The problem is connecting the dots, and connecting to Negev viticulture,” said Fuks. “We knew grapes were grown in the Negev, and we knew there was Gaza wine, but never had the evidence for viticulture in the Negev,” he said — until now.

Nearly 10,000 seeds of grape (a), barley grains (b), and wheat grains (c) were retrieved and counted from 11 trash mounds at three Negev sites, Elusa, Shivta, and Nessana. (Daniel Fuks)

“The significant rise in the frequency of grape seeds relative to cereal grains can only be interpreted as the growth of commercial viticulture,” he said. “We can’t actually prove that the Negev was ‘the’ or ‘a’ source of Gaza wine per se, but I think the combination of evidence allows for that inference.”

Gambling with your future

The basic rationale in the rise of viticulture, said Fuks, is based on a gamble. A farmer is faced with the decision of what to plant. He knows that cereal grains can feed him and that he can only drink so much wine. But what if he could sell the wine for such a good price that it is advantageous to cultivate less grain and purchase the shortfall from an outside source?

Fuks said that especially during the Roman and Byzantine eras in Palestine, grapes were much more valuable than grains. However, when you don’t produce enough grain to feed yourself and your family, you “open yourself up to the vulnerabilities of the market,” he said. It’s a bet that the Negev farmers, after two centuries of apparent success, eventually lost.

Prof. Guy Bar-Oz (right) excavates a trash mound at the Byzantine-era Negev city of Elusa. (Guy Bar-Oz, University of Haifa)

Just what turned the apparently booming viticulture industry into a bust is still not known. Contrary to the assumptions of past scholars, the Negev Byzantine Bio-Archaeology Research Program has already proved that the settlements were in decline a century prior to the Muslim conquest.

In previous correspondence with Negev project head Bar-Oz about the Halutza site, what he said agreed with Fuks. “As populations were declining in the imperial centers and as the purchasing power of those centers decline so did the economic vitality of outlying supply regions on the margins of the empire.

“We’re now seeing that a thriving Byzantine settlement within the Negev desert began its trajectory of societal decline as much as a century earlier than the military events of the Islamic takeover of the region from Byzantine rule in the mid-7th century. This climate change-and-economy scenario may seem more complicated and less sexy to some than the later military conflict between Christians and Muslims, but now it also better grounded in actual on-the-ground archaeological data.”

A graphical summary of the rise and fall of viticulture in the Negev Highlands during Late Antiquity (Daniel Fuks/Bar-Ilan University)

The somewhat tenuous-sounding linkage of outside forces — Ice Age/plague/economic depression/social turmoil — is a bit hard for this reporter to wrap her head around. Fuks laughed and said that his former teacher, Bar-Ilan University Prof. Ze’ev Safrai, always said that when the researchers offer too many explanations, the answer is that none of them are right. But Fuks insists that’s not the case here.

“We are pretty explicit about it in the article — we don’t know what the precise mechanism is [that triggered the settlements’ downfall],” he said, and we don’t know how to disentangle the plague, the social pressures and climate change. “The very fact that I’m open to these three possibilities shows I’m not trying to favor one over the other or put my finger on a single ultimate cause for the decline. But I am quite sure that these different factors had economic repercussions that affected Negev farmers.”

Follow the money

Fuks believes that the one of the main forces causing the decline of the three studied Negev sites is the increasing lack of demand for imported wine in a world beset by plague — conservative estimates figure some 20 percent of population centers were killed off — and resultant economic depression even while allegedly still being heavily taxed by emperor Justinian.

Trash mounds inside Shivta (Yotam Tepper/Israel Antiquities Authority)

“My explanation is there’s a contracting market,” said Fuks.

The Negev settlements had reoriented to an export-based industry and became more and more reliant on markets, he said. When the demand dried up, even if it was a 20% shift in demand with a resultant decline in price, these farther-flung locations would have been the first to be affected. Even if trade continued in Gaza, the Negev settlements are farther away from the port and would require a higher price for their products to make the journey worth the traders’ while.

Likewise, the authors write in the article, “If the plague reached the Negev, it could also have harmed the local production capacity and supply of agricultural products in general by inducing a shortage of agricultural laborers.” (There are indications but no firm, unequivocal evidence that the plague did reach the Negev.)

The central part of the town of Shivta with its southern church in the center. (Guy Bar-Oz/University of Haifa)

The study, Fuks said, speaks to today and warns against the inherent vulnerabilities of complex societies and modern market economies. “Ultimately, the increasingly market-oriented Byzantine Negev economy and society was hard-hit by events of the mid-6th century. That these included climate change, plague and socio-political conflict offers and uncanny historical precedent worth reflecting on.”

Real life is complex, he said, pointing to today’s slippery COVID-19 crisis. “Even today, we’re not always able to unravel the causes of things.”

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