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Ancient grape seeds tell a tale of plague and climate change in 6th Century Israel

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According to the researchers, the first historically attested wave of what was to become known as the Black Plague, caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, spread across the Byzantine Empire and beyond, in 541 CE


In a fascinating find, a team of Israeli archaeologists has discovered new evidence suggesting a major economic downturn on the cusp of the Byzantine Empire may be attributed to a serious pandemic and climate change during the mid-6th century CE.

According to the researchers, the first historically attested wave of what was to become known as the Black Plague, caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, spread across the Byzantine Empire and beyond, in 541 CE. 

Looking at ancient seeds from the Negev area, the study led by Daniel Fuks, a PhD student in the Martin (Szusz) Department of Land of Israel Studies and Archaeology at Bar-Ilan University aimed to discover when and why the agricultural settlement of the Negev Highlands was abandoned. 

Fuks has been working on this study in Prof. Ehud Weiss’ Archaeobotany Lab as a team member of the Negev Byzantine Bio-Archaeology Research Program, “Crisis on the Margins of the Byzantine Empire”, headed by Prof. Guy Bar-Oz of the University of Haifa.

Archaeobotany is the study of seeds found in archaeological excavations. 

The Bar-Ilan University Archaeobotany Lab where most of this research was conducted is the only lab in Israel dedicated to the identification of ancient seeds and fruits. 

The archeologists pointed out that in arid desert areas of Israel, there was agricultural farming, which was possible due to rainwater runoff farming. This peaked during the Byzantine period, as seen at sites like Elusa, Shivta and Nessana.

At Negev Highland sites today, the ruins of well-built stone structures attest to their former glory, but Bar-Oz’s team, guided by field archaeologists from the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), Dr. Yotam Tepper and Dr. Tali Erickson-Gini, found further evidence about life during that period in an unexpected place – the trash. 

Bar-Oz explained that a person’s “trash says a lot about you. 

“In the ancient trash mounds of the Negev, there is a record of residents’ daily lives – in the form of plant remains, animal remains, ceramic sherds, and more,” he said. “In the ‘Crisis on the Margins’ project, we excavated these mounds to uncover the human activity behind the trash, what it included, when it flourished, and when it declined.”

According to Weiss, the task that comes with archaeobotany is to “get into the pantry – or, in this case, the trash – of ancient people and study their interactions with plants.  

“Archaeobotany reconstructs ancient economy, environment and culture, but the way there is not easy,” he explained. “Grain by grain must be sorted through endless sediment samples, looking for seeds, identifying them and counting each one.”

For this study, almost 10,000 seeds of grape, wheat and barley were retrieved and counted from 11 trash mounds at three sites. 

“Identifying seed and fruit remains is a unique capability of our lab,” Weiss said. “It relies on the Israel National Reference Collection of Plant Seeds and Fruit held in our lab, and on years of experience in retrieving, processing, and analyzing plant remains from sites of all periods in Israeli archaeology.”

One of the first observations made by the team was “the high numbers of grape seeds in the ancient trash mounds.” 

Featured Image: An ancient Negev village dating back to the Byzantine era – 6th Century CE.
Above Image: Seeds found in several trash piles at several ancient Negev villages from Byzantine Era.
(Credit: Bar-Ilan University.)

This fits well with previous scholars’ suggestions that the Negev was involved in export-bound viticulture. Byzantine texts laud “Gaza wine” as a sweet white wine exported from the port of Gaza throughout the Mediterranean and beyond. This wine was generally transported in a type of amphora known as “Gaza Jars” or “Gaza Wine Jars”, which are also found in sites throughout the Mediterranean. In Byzantine Negev trash mounds, these Gaza Jars appear in high quantities.

Taking this further, Fuks investigated whether there were any interesting trends in the relative frequency of grape pips found in the trash. 

Addressing his research during a talk last year, Fuks explained that although most ancient farmers with a plot of land would plant cereals like wheat and barley to feed their families, on a smaller part, some planted a vineyard and other crops like legumes, vegetables and fruit trees, for your family’s needs. 

“But one day you realize that you could sell the excellent wine you produce, for export, and earn enough cash to buy bread and a bit more,” he said. “Little by little you expand your vineyard and move from subsistence farming to commercial viticulture.”

Today, by looking through what was once their trash and counting the seeds, Fuks explained  that therethey did discover a rise in the proportion of grape pips relative to cereal grains between the 4th century CE and the mid-6th century, but then, suddenly, it declined. 

The question is, what happened?

To investigate the possible causes, Fuks together with Erickson-Gini, an expert in ancient Negev pottery, checked if there were similar trends in the proportion of Gaza Wine Jars to Bag-Shaped Jars, the latter being much less suited to camelback transport from the Negev Highlands to the port at Gaza. Indeed, the rise and initial decline of Gaza Jars tracked the rise and fall of the grape pips. 

The team explained that in the mid-6th century, there were a few catastrophes that could explain the decline. 

One of which was Justinianic plague, named for the emperor Justinian who contracted the disease but survived. It had a high death toll in Byzantium and other parts of the empire and the team’s study points out that this resulted in “contracting market for Gaza products,” which “would have detrimentally impacted the Negev economy, even while trade at nearby Gaza may have continued. 

“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,” the authors wrote.

They pointed out that a volcanic eruption “of global proportions in late 535/early 536 CE, which covered the Northern Hemisphere’s atmosphere with dust and caused decade-long global cooling,” could have played a significant role as well, adding that a similar occurrence happened in 539 CE. 

“This led to drought in Europe, but may have increased precipitation, possibly including high-intensity flash flooding, in the southern Levant, causing detriment to local agriculture,” the archaeologists said.

Bar-Oz emphasized that this “discovery of the rise and fall of commercial viticulture in the Byzantine Negev supports other recent evidence unearthed by the ‘Crisis on the Margins’ project. 

“It appears that agricultural settlement in the Negev Highlands received such a blow that it was not revived until modern times,” he stressed. “Significantly, the decline came nearly a century before the Islamic conquest of the mid-seventh century.”

Fuks pointed out that these two likely triggers led to the mid-6th century collapse occurred and also reveal inherent vulnerabilities in political-economic systems, both then and now. 

“The difference is that the Byzantines didn’t see it coming,” he stressed. “We can actually prepare ourselves for the next outbreak or the imminent consequences of climate change. 

“The question is, will we be wise enough to do so?” he concluded.

The research was published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) and reconstructs the rise and fall of commercial viticulture in the middle of Israel’s arid Negev desert. 

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