Thursday, October 15, 2020

Poop analysis and community organization in the late-antique Negev

ARCHAEO-COPROLOGY: Byzantine—Early Islamic resource management detected through micro-geoarchaeological investigations of trash mounds (Negev, Israel) (Plos One).
Don H. Butler , Zachary C. Dunseth, Yotam Tepper, Tali Erickson-Gini, Guy Bar-Oz , Ruth Shahack-Gross Published: October 14, 2020


Sustainable resource management is of central importance among agrarian societies in marginal drylands. In the Negev Desert, Israel, research on agropastoral resource management during Late Antiquity emphasizes intramural settlement contexts and landscape features. The importance of hinterland trash deposits as diachronic archives of resource use and disposal has been overlooked until recently. Without these data, assessments of community-scale responses to societal, economic, and environmental disruption and reconfiguration remain incomplete. In this study, micro-geoarchaeological investigations were conducted on trash mound features at the Byzantine—Early Islamic sites of Shivta, Elusa, and Nesanna to track spatiotemporal trends in the use and disposal of critical agropastoral resources. Refuse derived sediment deposits were characterized using stratigraphy, micro-remains (i.e., livestock dung spherulites, wood ash pseudomorphs, and plant phytoliths), and mineralogy by Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy. Our investigations detected a turning point in the management of herbivore livestock dung, a vital resource in the Negev. We propose that the scarcity of raw dung proxies in the studied deposits relates to the use of this resource as fuel and agricultural fertilizer. Refuse deposits contained dung ash, indicating the widespread use of dung as a sustainable fuel. Sharply contrasting this, raw dung was dumped and incinerated outside the village of Nessana. We discuss how this local shift in dung management corresponds with a growing emphasis on sedentised herding spurred by newly pressed taxation and declining market-oriented agriculture. Our work is among the first to deal with the role of waste management and its significance to economic strategies and urban development during the late Roman Imperial Period and Late Antiquity. The findings contribute to highlighting top-down societal and economic pressures, rather than environmental degradation, as key factors involved in the ruralisation of the Negev agricultural heartland toward the close of Late Antiquity.

I know, the abstract is pretty impenetrable.

I think the point of the article is as follows.

The researchers analyzed organic remains from late antiquity in a number of sites in the Negev. They found that early on the residents of the sites burned a lot of animal dung for fuel. Later on the residents of at least one site just dumped and burned the dung without putting it to any practical use. The researchers infer that the change implies that agriculture because less centrally organized in the Negev over time. The result was that smaller agricultural units had less community organization and thus used their resources less sustainably.

HT UPI News.

The late-antique Negev has received a lot of archaeological attention recently. Another story on the archaeo-coprology of the region is here. And for more on the archaeology of the late-antique Negev, see here and links, plus here and here.

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