Negev trash mounds reveal secrets of ancient agriculture

The study explores how the detailed study of trash can lead to wide-ranging conclusions about the economic and agricultural life of a community.

Lone wolf in the Negev (photo credit: COURTESY HAIM BERGER)
Lone wolf in the Negev
(photo credit: COURTESY HAIM BERGER)
They say one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, and that is certainly true with ancient trash mounds found in the Negev.
A new paper published last week in the PLOS ONE journal explains how trash mounds found in villages and agricultural settlements in the Negev from the Byzantine and Early Islamic periods show that there was a turning point in the management of herbivore livestock dung, a vital resource in the Negev. It also explores how the detailed study of trash can lead to wide-ranging conclusions about the economic and agricultural life of a community.

Negev trash mounds reveal secrets of ancient agriculture (PLOS ONE)Negev trash mounds reveal secrets of ancient agriculture (PLOS ONE)
According to the article, “Byzantine—Early Islamic resource management detected through micro-geoarchaeological investigations of trash mounds (Negev, Israel),” ancient hinterland trash mound features can be important sources of evidence for community-scale resource management, economics, social and ecological trends.
The study focuses on trash mound sediments from three of the six major Negev settlements from this period: the UNESCO World Heritage Sites of Shivta and Elusa, as well as the village of Nessana. The researchers note that these sites were selected for study because their histories are well known, and because stratified trash mounds spanning the Byzantine-Early Islamic periods (c. 4th-10th century CE) were found in them.

The research characterizes the sediment deposits comprising hinterland trash mounds and classifies the types of trash and tracks changes in the use and disposal of agricultural resources through time and between villages. It also puts these findings into context within newly developing understandings of the rise and fall of Negev agropastoral systems during Late Antiquity.
“We show how changes in the management of critical dryland resources, specifically livestock dung, are registered in the sedimentary archives comprising the studied trash mounds. The work underscores the value of micro-sedimentary archives in classical studies aiming to track long-term societal change and human-environment interactions in urban settings. Our findings provide much-needed new insight into community-specific responses to social and economic transformations in the Negev during a pivotal time in its history–during the collapse of market-oriented agriculture and naturalization of the urban heartland near the end of the first millennium CE,” write the authors.
The article was written by Don H. Butler, Zachary C. Dunseth, Yotam Tepper, Tali Erickson-Gini, Guy Bar-Oz and Ruth Shahack-Gross. The research and excavations were overseen by the Israel Antiquities Authority.
   
The researchers discovered that dung was used as a sustainable fuel resource during both the Byzantine and Early Islamic periods and that significant amounts of raw dung were dumped and then managed by incineration outside Early Islamic Nessana. These results support the hypothesis that agropastoral change and development are reflected in the management of livestock dung.
   
“They highlight a previously unrecognized community-scale response to disruption within the long-standing agropastoral socio-ecological niche,” the study concludes.
   
Beyond this specific finding, the study further “demonstrates the high potential of archaeological trash proxies in studies aiming to detail and explain wide-ranging diversity in the processes conditioning socio-ecological transformations, as well as how communities contribute and respond to such transformations.”