Trash Reveals Ancient Agriculture’s Secrets

Mounds show shifts in Islamic agrarian society in the late Roman Imperial and Early Islamic Periods.

Negev Sites

Trash Mound Sites from Roman Imperial and Early Islamic Periods
Photo: Plos One
This image is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Ancient societies often don’t leave behind complete descriptions of their lives. Every source of information can help modern researchers understand better, even what the members of the society threw away. A study of refuse mounds has found meaningful information about how agriculture was conducted in the Negev of late antiquity.

By looking at trash deposits from the Byzantine Islamic sites Shivta, Elusa, and Nessana, the researchers were able to discover a change in how people handled livestock dung. Early in this period, Dung was a valuable resource, both for fuel and to be spread on fields for large-scale agriculture. The refuse showed little raw dung, but plenty of dung ash.

Later, into the Early Islamic period, more raw dung was found to have been discarded. The authors conclude that taxation, and a shift to rural villages, disincentivized large-scale agriculture, and the fertilization efforts that went with it.

The study, Byzantine—Early Islamic resource management detected through micro-geoarchaeological investigations of trash mounds (Negev, Israel), was conducted by Don H. Butler, Zachary C. Dunseth, Yotam Tepper, Tali Erickson-Gini, Guy Bar-Oz, and Ruth Shahack-Gross. It was published in Plos One on October 14, 2020.

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