The ancient inhabitants of Negev cities abandoned their homes more than 1,000 years ago. Archaeologists are studying the refuse and food scraps they left behind to try to fathom why they left.
Sifting through dirt at the Shivta dig. Dan Peretz
“Breakfast! Come to breakfast!,” shouts Prof. Guy Bar-Oz, head of the archaeology department at the University of Haifa, as he strolls among the ruins of the ancient city of Shivta. “Half the time I’m like a shepherd gathering his flock,” he growls good-naturedly, as he continues to collect people from the various dig sites under his supervision. He prepares a typical Israeli breakfast – hard-boiled eggs, sliced bread, cheeses, chopped vegetables, ready-made hummus and chocolate spread – in one of the ancient buildings that has been partially reconstructed, with a stone roof atop its archways. Then he sets up the table on the main street of the city, next to the two pools of water at the front of the church. This was once a very rare sight that greeted visitors to the desert city, surrounded by yellow sands.
The people working on the dig, a mix of professors and experts in different fields, doctoral students, undergraduates and teenage volunteers from schools in the area, come in from the 12 dig sites. Having begun the work day at first light, three hours later they’ve worked up a good appetite. For a little while there’s a pleasant, friendly gathering around the table, before everyone scatters to continue rummaging through ancient refuse. These leavings are a time capsule in which clues to the lives of the ancient inhabitants are preserved – including remnants that attest to the type of food that was eaten by the people who lived in this place 1,500 years ago.
Something went wrong
In recent months, the team from Haifa University has been heading south every other week to examine the remnants of the refuse left behind by inhabitants of the ancient cities of Nitzana, Haluza and Shivta. The large-scale project, estimated to last for five years and funded by the European Union, aims to crack the mystery of why these once-thriving commercial and cultural hubs were ultimately abandoned. One day, or perhaps it occurred gradually over a longer period of time, the inhabitants packed their things, carefully sealed up their homes so they could come back to them in the future, and disappeared, never to return again.
Cataloguing the finds. "Genetic analysis of a tiny grape pit can tell us a lot about the way of life of the people who grew it." Dan Peretz
“The people who lived here put tremendous energy into construction and infrastructure. They wanted to stay here forever, but something went wrong,” says Bar-Oz. “The next time you find settlement in the Negev is over a thousand years later, with the Zionist movement. In the scholarly literature, a number of possible theories for the abandonment have been proposed: climate change, a cultural change like the Muslim conquest, or an epidemic like the plague that struck the region in the sixth century. We’re trying to solve the mystery of why they left once and for all, and we’re looking at the collapse of Byzantine society in the Negev as a test case that also has importance for the modern world, from the point of view of sustainability and understanding the attempt to cope with changes.”
The three southern cities are generally thought to be associated with the start of permanent Nabatean (1st-3rd century C.E.) settlement, but no Nabatean artifacts have been found so far. “I don’t want to denigrate classic Israeli archaeology, and we’re far from finishing the excavations and analyzing all the findings in the lab, but so far we’ve been digging and digging, getting down to the foundations of the buildings, and we’re not finding Nabatean artifacts,” says Bar-Oz.
In any case, the current team is interested in exploring the city’s later period, in the seventh century, and the transition from the Byzantine to the early Muslim period. “In its glory days, the city had about 170 houses and a population of about 2,000,” says Dr. Yotam Tepper, Bar-Oz’s colleague, who is managing the excavations at the site. “But toward the end there were only 20-25 houses; abandoned houses were being used as garbage dumps.”
In one of those houses, Racheli Belvis, a graduate student in archaeology, is sifting through big piles of ancient garbage hiding in mounds of dirt and soot. By the end of the day, the arduous effort and systematic sampling yields stones that were used to line the bottoms of ancient ovens, ceramic fragments, coins, 1,500-year-old date pits and bones. The most striking finding are fish bones – since this city is situated in the middle of the desert, very far from the sea. In particular, the ancient inhabitants evidently dined on colorful parrotfish, which were brought from the Red Sea, dried and preserved.
“So far, it’s what we haven’t found in the excavations that’s the most interesting story,” says archaeologist Dr. Nimrod Marom. “In other digs we find and fill crate after crate of mammal and bird bones, the basics of the diet for that period, and here we maybe have a quarter of a crate full of sheep and pig bones. We’re finding a relatively large amount of fish bones, which attests to economic strength, and perhaps was also a food that was a status symbol. People may have enjoyed showing off their wealth by having a diet rich in fish in the middle of the desert. We know there was well-developed viniculture here and a wine industry that was not just for personal consumption.
“The vineyards were irrigated with floodwaters collected by a sophisticated system of dams, and famous wines were produced and then shipped through the port of Gaza – and whoever went to export wine came back with fish. We even found a crocodile vertebra – more evidence of the exotic products consumed by well-off people. And the dates – which don’t grow in the Ramat Hanegev area, are further proof of a thriving economy and the import of raw materials. I hope we’ll continue to find sheep bones and the bones of other animals. In the ancient world, bones were used for fertilizing the fields, so maybe we’ll find them in the garbage mounds outside the city, so they can teach us about the changes is consumption habits – if, for example, they stopped eating pork during the Muslim era, or if they raised more goats than sheep, which in the ancient world attests to a lower level of agricultural skill and a lower economic status.”
Doctoral student Daniel Fox, who oversees the botanical archeology at the site, stands in the city square and operates his pride and joy, “the machine.” It’s made up of three empty dumpsters, a fine mesh fabric, and water hoses, and is used to filter out very small and delicate artifacts, such as plant seeds, which float on the water. “We’ve found wheat, barley, olive and grape pits – the crops you would expect in a seven-species economy,” he says. “These findings will enable us to ask interesting questions such as what was the ratio of wheat to barley, which can attest to a cultural shift, and which varieties of wheat were grown in a hot and dry climate – things that have applications in the modern world.”
If one day we are able to recreate different ancient plants and animals it will be due to the work of people like Merav Meiri, an archeologist whose focus is genetics. “Israel is a frustrating place for people who deal in ancient DNA,” she laughs. “A few latitude lines north of here you can find entire mammoths preserved with their internal organs even, but in this hot and humid climate it’s hard for organic materials to be preserved. I hope that in the dry climate here we’ll find interesting things. Genetic analysis of a tiny grape pit can tell us a lot about the way of life of the people who grew it. If we find rodent bones or human bones we’ll be able to see if the plague or other epidemics, really played a role in the city’s abandonment.”