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Growth or Decline? Agriculture and Village Life in the Late Antique Near East (Third–Eighth Centuries)

Tomasz Waliszewski, Warsaw University, Fellow 2005–2006, Fall

The present state of research on the rural communities of late antique Syria-Palestine can be described, on the one hand, by the growing number of regional studies focused on settlement history, on architecture of the rural dwellings and the installations used in agricultural production, and, on the other hand, on a paleoenvironmental approach revealing the potential of such disciplines as climatology, pedology, or paleobotany for the comprehension of the natural processes taking place in parallel with and in close relation to the impact of the human activity revealed by archaeology. Scholars look also for the possible and probably multiple reasons for the slow abandonment of the villages in the early Islamic Near East.

Agriculture and village life, a basic expression of economic life at that time, is understandably a vast subject. Due to the limited time of my fellowship, I decided to narrow the scope of my research to a general review of sources covering the territory of modern Jordan and southern Syria which correspond largely to the late antique provinces of Arabia and Palaestina Tertia. The focus on one of the regions gives an opportunity to choose the most promising areas that could serve as reliable case studies. Data from the numerous prospections and excavations conducted in such regions as Hauran or Moab reveal an interesting network of settlements, still active during the early Islamic period, much later than was accepted until recently in the scholarly literature. The detailed examination of the landscape and the soils helps also to determine the agricultural regions inside the mentioned areas, when a careful study of the implements, installations and the buildings sheltering them provides the firm basis for a regional differentiation of the main agricultural activities.

Regionalism in local production is a widely debated element of the discussion. My research reveals that the region between Wadi Mujib and Amman as well as the Hauran in southern Syria share the same predilection for wine production documented by dozens of rock-cut installations. In contrast, the hills and mountains surrounding the Greco-Roman cities like Jerash, Philadelphia, or Abila are well furnished with olive oil presses. Interestingly, closer investigation of the presses reveals also another phenomenon that can be explained by different treatment of the fruits. Installations for pressing the grapes are almost exclusively located near the fields, whereas the olive oil presses are known mainly from the settlements—villages but also, in a few cases, from the cities.

I was also able to trace the technological parallelism between Palestine and Transjordan. Screw and cross presses found in the Ajlun and Jerash area find their closest parallels in Byzantine Judea. Predominance of lever and weights presses in Jordan again links the country technologically to Judea and Galilee.

The project is a contribution to our comprehension of the local trade, village economy, subsistence resources of the peasants and the history of ancient farming techniques. The results of my research, extended over the next year, will be published in the form of a book.