Tale of Two Deserts
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
has a certain resonance with the politics of development today!
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
This document has been approved by the head of department or section.