Shock Findings In Ancient Garbage Mound Indicate Byzantine Empire Was In Major Decline BEFORE the Rise of Islam
Major archaeological discoveries can take place in the most unlikely places. In Israel, experts have made a very important discovery after an investigation of an ancient garbage dump. The abrupt way that it fell into disuse is transforming our understanding of the Byzantine Empire and its decline. Archaeologists believe that they have found evidence that the Eastern Romans were in decline long before the rise of Islam.
The Byzantine Empire was the successor state of Rome which fell in 476 AD. The traditional view was that it flourished until the rise of Islam in the 7 th century AD. One of the richest cities in the Byzantine near eastern provinces was Eluza or Haluza. This was, according to Newsweek a ‘bustling city that featured public spaces such as a gym, theatre, public baths, and churches’ and its wine was famous and exported all over the Ancient World.
A large ruin in Haluza. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )
A garbage mound in the desert
Eluza has been abandoned for over a millennium and today is located in the bleak Negev Desert in southern Israel. Guy Bar-Oz, an archaeologist and his colleagues have been working in the area in recent years. They sought out the highest point of the site believing that it was some sort of platform. They ascended to the highest elevation and according to PBS, they found that the high point ‘was actually a heap studded with charred seeds, pottery, and bones’.
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Location of Elusa (Image: Guy Bar-Oz et al / PNAS)
This would have disappointed others but not Bar-Oz who knew that piles of garbage can offer unique insights into a bygone society. Landfills are usually not touched, after all they are only full of garbage and trash. However, this means that they are often great archaeological records, unlike settlements which are often destroyed or rebuilt.
The team of archaeologists began to dig into the elevation and found a huge amount of domestic rubbish, such as ashes and also a great number of fragments from imported ware that indicates the affluence of the city in the Byzantine era. They conducted a series of multidisciplinary investigations of their finds.
The experts ‘carbon-dated organic material such as seeds and charcoal in layers of trash mounds’ recovered from the mound, reports LiveScience. This allowed them to date the mound and they established that it was used for approximately 150 years and it suddenly stopped around 540-550 AD. This was a major surprise as it seems that waste management in the city ended a full century earlier than expected.
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(Left) View of trash mound M1 of Elusa (Photo by G.B.-O.); ( Right) 1.3-m-deep east section in Trench A, mound M1, with its sequence of alternating layers of dark and light color sediment. (Image: Guy Bar-Oz et al / PNAS)
Climate change and plague
Waste management is very important for any urban society and this was also the case with Elusa. The sudden cessation of garbage and refuse collection provides ‘evidence for societal decline’ according to the PNAS report . The removal of garbage and waste to put it simply is a good indicator of real decline in the Byzantine city. It had been assumed that trash management would have stopped in the 7 th century when the Islamic conquest led to the partial abandonment of the city. Traditionally it was held that Islamic restrictions on wine production and heavy taxation on the mainly Christian population led to the demise of the city.
The end of trash management in the mid-sixth century shows that Elusa was in decline well before the arrival of the Muslims. The end of dumping at the site coincides with the Justinian Plague (541 AD) which killed a large proportion of the Byzantine Empire and gravely weakened it. Moreover, the end of waste management also coincided with what has been called the ‘Late Antique Little Ice Age, which lasted from 536 to about 660’ according to the National Geographic . This is a rapid period of cooling caused by a number of volcanic eruptions, and this led to famine and food shortages throughout much of the Northern Hemisphere.
Distribution of period-sensitive ceramics from survey data (22 quadrants: 5 × 5 m) in the Elusa trash mounds. (Lower right) The P values of period to period differences of sherd occurrence from logistic regression analysis, showing a clear and significant peak in the early–middle Byzantine followed by a decline into the late Byzantine and continuing into the early Islamic period. (* = Hellenistic). (Image: Guy Bar-Oz et al / PNAS)
New theory for the decline of the Byzantine Empire
The abandonment of the mound in the mid-sixth century, if it indeed offers proof of social collapse, could change our understanding of the Byzantine Empire. Bar-Oz excavations could prove that a supposedly wealthy city was actually in decline in a period which is often regarded as a Byzantine Golden Age . In the 6 th century AD, many historians believe that the Byzantine state was powerful and rich. This was after all the period when the Emperor Justinian and his general Belisarius were reconquering large swathes of the Mediterranean (533-554 AD).
The latest research at Elusa indicates that in reality the Christian Empire had possibly been seriously weakened by plague and climatic changes around 550 AD. This challenges the view that the Eastern Roman Empire was a strong society and state until its defeat by the Muslims at the Battle of Yarmouk (636 AD). Instead, it appears that at least in this region the Empire was weakening a full century before the rise of the Islamic Caliphate and it would also help explain why it fell so quickly to the Muslim armies.
Top image: Mosaic of the Byzantine Emperor Isaac I Komnenos Source: Stig Alenas
By Ed Whelan