University of Leicester eBulletin

Tale of Two Deserts

October 2002
No 238

There is a popular misconception that Middle Eastern deserts were once fertile because the climate was wetter in Roman times and that they lost their fertility because of mismanagement by man.

In fact, research by University of Leicester archaeologists, with colleagues from the Universities of Bournemouth and Exeter, shows that the situation was more complex than that – given that the climate was actually much the same in those days as it is now.

Two studies, one on the Libyan and one on the Jordanian desert, show that they were green and fertile because local communities managed the landscape imaginatively and efficiently by floodwater farming - trapping seasonal rainfall and diverting it into fields.

Professor Graeme Barker, who leads the research, explained: “Small-scale erosion did occur in Libya because of intensive farming methods, but this was limited by farmers’ management of the landscape. In these areas farming therefore continued for centuries without any serious environmental impact.

“In Jordan, on the other hand, local farmers stripped the landscape and caused enormous erosion. So in two rather similar desert landscapes, both facing similar cultural situations and agricultural intensification to meet the demands of the Roman market, communities behaved differently and had very different impacts on the landscape.”

In the case study of Jordan’s Wadi Faynan area the situation was also made worse by mining and metal processing on such a scale that it was probably a key factor in the collapse of the Roman settlement there.

More sobering still is the thought that this pollution of the land from 2,000 years ago continues to create problems for the Bedouin people today. Pollutants still get into the food chain through the crops they grow and the animals they graze.

Professor Barker concluded: “It is interesting that the Libyan example of good landscape management involved local people, managing their own land – ‘bottom-up’ decision-making – whereas the Wadi Faynan example of bad management and environmental pollution was a ‘top-down’ system of decision-making by Roman administrators backed by military force.  

“That has a certain resonance with the politics of development today!

“While archaeology can certainly be enjoyable – as the popularity of “Time Team” and “Meet the Ancestors” shows – it also has serious things to say about human societies: past, present and future.”

NOTE TO EDITORS:   Further information is available from Professor Graeme Barker, School of Archaeology and Ancient History, telephone +44 (0)116 252 2612, facsimile +44 (0)116 252 5005, email

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