Old piles of garbage recently provided some evidence of how the plague of Justinian, part of a double strike with a volcanic climate, devastated commercial agriculture on the edge of the Byzantine Empire in the 540s. They tell us a lot about the ancient Byzantine world, but they also suggest how archaeologists could one day uncover the history of the COVID-19 pandemic from the layers of things that we will deposit in landfills in 2020.
Gaza wine and Byzantine pilgrims
For thousands of years, people survived in the arid Negev highlands of Israel by growing enough grain to feed their families and enough grapes to make their own wine. But under the Byzantine Empire (which dates back to 330 AD as the successor to the Roman Empire), the Negev flourished. Cities emerged in the desert that were fueled by a new export trade: grapes for the famous Gaza wine, a sweet white wine that old chroniclers raved about and was in demand from Great Britain to Yemen.
The wine from the Gaza Strip connected the remote Negev with the international Mediterranean economy and transformed scattered small subsistence companies into larger trading companies that were supplied with irrigation systems and pigeon manure fertilizers. For a few centuries, the Byzantine Empire's citizens paid well for a steady flow of Gaza wine, and the Empire built monasteries and sent religious pilgrimages to the Levant.
In 11 rubble mounds from the ancient cities of Elusa, Shivta, and Nessana, the archaeologist at Bar-Ilan University, Daniel Fuks, and his colleagues found more than 10,000 grape, wheat, and barley seeds, which they dated with radiocarbon, to support the growth of commercial wine production to pursue – and its collapse after the plague.
Grapes have always been a staple in the Mediterranean, as have cereals and olives. But in the 300s CE, grapes made up a large part of the seeds that were thrown away in garbage piles. In the mid-500th century, grape seeds made up a quarter to almost half of the seeds in garbage piles. This suggests that farmers who had once grown a mixture of cereals and grapes to feed their families had started to expand their vineyards to produce more grapes for wine export.
Shards and spills
Broken ceramic pieces mixed with these layers of garbage mounds tell the same story. Gaza wine came from the wineries to the port of Gaza with camel ridges and then in the holds of ships through the rest of the Mediterranean world (and beyond). The glasses that carried the sweet white wine were distinctive: large, narrow, with tapered bottoms that made it easier to whip them on the back of a camel or stack in the hold of a ship. As grape seeds became more common in Negev garbage piles, fragments of Gaza wine glasses were broken.
"This industry grew in the third century AD from practically nothing to a noteworthy production in the 5th century," wrote Fuks and his colleagues.
And then the floor fell out of the Gaza wine trade. Most of the Negev's cities were deserted, and within a few centuries most people returned to small settlements and subsistence farming. Grape seeds made up only 5 to 14 percent of the seeds in rubbish bumps.
The plague of Justinian
According to radiocarbon data from seeds and other organic material from the old rubbish heaps, the crash of the Negev wine industry coincided with the aftermath of the Justinian plague: the first known visit to bubonic plague in Europe in AD 541. The first plague wave killed 20 percent of the population Population of Constantinople. An infection also devastated the commercial port of Alexandria. Over the next 160 years, wave by wave of the plague may have carried away up to half of the Byzantine Empire's population.
"Religious texts from this period suggest a warm doomsday atmosphere," wrote Fuks and his colleagues. Throughout the Byzantine Empire, many people focused on survival.
Together with a lower percentage of grape seeds, Fuks and his colleagues found less pottery shards from Gaza wine glasses in layers of rubbish from the middle of the 500th century. Taken together, these things point to a sudden drop in wine trade in the Gaza Strip. The evidence for the garbage heap is consistent with other archaeological data from the same period: people stopped building irrigation dams, switched off the dovecotes where pigeons poured fertilizer for the fields, and even gave up organized garbage collection in the cities.
There is no evidence that the plague has traveled to the Negev highlands, although historical sources describe outbreaks that are not far away in southern Palestine. Instead, Fuks and his colleagues suggest that events hundreds of kilometers away actually killed the Negev grape industry. Procuring money for the international market had brought prosperity to the Negev, but also made local farmers vulnerable to events in places like Constantinople and Alexandria.
Millennials have not killed this industry
Driven by economic forces, the Negev farmers had brought irrigation systems and fertilizers to the limits of their sustainability. When the plague wiped out the Gaza wine market, farmers could not afford to maintain the irrigation dams and canals that made the entire commercial agricultural system work with high input and output. The intense focus on a single crop – grapes for winemaking – made local farmers in the Negev even more vulnerable as it was more difficult to adapt to changes in the market or weather.
Although the Justinian plague was undoubtedly the last blow to the Negev grape industry, the story is not that simple. As we saw in 2020, political tensions, climate change and other events don't even stop for a pandemic. And just like today, these events and their effects have influenced each other in a complex way.
"Indirect social factors – whether as a result of the plague and climate change or in addition – may have a significant economic impact on the viability of Negev viticulture," Fuks and colleagues wrote.
From all sides
The Persian Sassanid dynasty began in 540 to cross Justinian's borders and pillage Antioch and other Byzantine cities. These ideas marked the beginning of 20 years of conflict – skirmishes with the Persians in the east and costly wars with the Goths in Italy, in which Justinian tried to recapture Rome. Byzantine historian Procopius writes that Justinian heavily taxed agricultural products to fund his reconquest wars.
And probably the climate also played a role. The plague occurred immediately after two volcanic eruptions at the end of the 530s. The ashes blew up into the earth's atmosphere and triggered a decades-long cold snap, which was known as the Late Antique Little Ice Age. In Europe, the Late Antique Little Ice Age brought cooling and drought, but paleo-ecological evidence in the Negev suggests that the volcanic disturbance caused more rain – possibly causing flash floods that devastated the irrigation systems that were supposed to save and control the river of rainwater.
If Justinian's plague had hit Negev himself, the resulting labor shortage would have made it impossible to repair irrigation systems, spread fertilizer on the fields, or harvest the grapes.
The archeology of the pandemics
Given Justinian's plague, it is interesting to consider how future archaeologists could use today's dumps to study the effects of COVID-19. Archaeologists can examine modern heaps of garbage using the same methods they use to examine old ones, and garbology (the archaeological study of garbage) has been a busy area of research for decades. In shifts from 2020, researchers may see a sharp surge in food delivery containers, hand sanitizers, and disposable masks – but they may also notice trends and lines of evidence that we don't even think about today.
And just like archaeologists studying how the Justinian plague affected the old wine trade, archaeologists studying the early 21st century are likely to conclude that our society is not just COVID-19, but also was affected by global climate change and a complex tangle of social and political events. Unlike the Byzantine winemakers of the Negev, however, we still have the ability to shape what kind of history these future archaeologists will read in our landfills.
"The difference is that the Byzantines didn't see it coming. We can actually prepare for the next outbreak or the impending consequences of climate change," Fuks said. "The question is, will we be smart enough to do this?"
PNAS, 2020 DOI: 10.1073 / pnas.1922200117 (About DOIs).