For about 700 years, the village of Shivta existed in the heart of the Negev desert, at times sustaining a large population despite the inhospitable environment. Like ancient peoples throughout the arid Middle East, the inhabitants became masters of harvesting water – and rolling with the blows as new masters swept in.
Abrupt change in their overlords didn't mean the people necessarily adapted overnight, instantly bowing before new masters. Archaeological research conducted at the University of Haifa contradicts earlier thinking, and shows that at Shivta, the transition from the Byzantine to the Early Islamic periods was gradual. Also, apparently, theories of coexistence over the years at Shivta were wishful thinking.
Stepping on the Christian symbols
Located about 40 kilometers southwest of Be'er Sheva, Shivta was apparently established by the Nabateans in the first century B.C.E., and reached the height of its power from the fifth to the seventh centuries C.E. It sank into decline during the Early Islamic period following the Byzantine era, and was apparently abandoned in the early ninth century.
What caused the desert settlement's ultimate demise is not clear. It could have been a combination of factors, including intensifying drought, disease, earthquake. Certainly, massive sociocultural change ensued when Christian control ceded to Islamic hegemony. The heavy tax Muslims imposed on non-Muslims could well have led the majority of Christians to leave the site. It could also have depressed Christian pilgramage traffic through the Negev, depressing the economy.
Shivta is mentioned in the famed Nessana papyri, a collection of documents in Greek and Latin dating mainly from the fifth to the seventh centuries, as a large and wealthy community in the Byzantine period. It was first excavated by the American archaeologist Harris Dunscombe Colt in 1933, and is now being studied by the Negev Byzantine Bio-Archaeology Research Program, headed by Prof. Guy Bar-Oz of the University of Haifa.
At the time, Colt (1901-1973) discovered a mosque in Shivta, and assumed, as did some scholars after him, that it had stood alongside a church that continued to operate. Their evidence for religious coexistence was that the mikhrab, the Muslim prayer niche facing Mecca, was built into the church but an adjacent baptistery was found not to have been damaged.
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Tepper feels otherwise. “Praise for coexistence in Shivta seems to have been undeserved," he says. "The mosque, and a dwelling known as the Pool House, were built using spolia [dismantled remnants] from the church." Moreover, the repurposing was not done respectfully, he says: "A step in the main entrance to the Pool House and another in the mosque was carved with Christian symbols. People entering these structures in the Early Islamic period were actually stepping on them. That’s a clear statement, and not one of coexistence."
Harvesting the rain
While they did exist, like other ancient peoples throughout the deserts of the Middle East, the people of Shivta were adept at capturing what little rainwater there was. Excavations from the Byzantine era have found the ruins of channels, terrace agricultures, dams in the wadis, cisterns and water reservoirs.
But for agriculture to flourish, the poor desert soil had to be enriched. The ancient fertilizer of choice was pigeon dung, as we can infer from the discovery in earlier years of four large dovecotes.
Pigeon droppings would have provided the much needed nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus to enrich the poor soil. Also, pigeons (doves) had the added value of being tasty.
Analysis of the dove droppings shows the birds ate weeds (including a flowering annual called fumitory, common in fields and shady places that’s known to take over modern wheat fields). They also dined on fruit and grapes, olives, cereal, peas, wild radishes, and even pistachio, which might indicate that the Negev was greener, and therefore possibly more humid, than today.
"The plants we've identified provide evidence of a more verdant environment in the desert in antiquity,” Prof. Jennifer Ramsay of SUNY Brockport, the anthropologist who led the research on the botanical remains from the Shivta dovecote, told Haaretz.
How much manure are we talking about? Those who calculate things like this estimate that 1,000 doves could generate 10 tons of manure a year, which would suffice to nourish 1,500 fruit trees.
Bird manure was a sought-after commodity as fertilizer, according to the ancient writers Pliny, Varro and Collumella. After one of the dovecotes near Shivta was destroyed in an earthquake, apparently in Byzantine times, it was never rebuilt. This is another sign of the settlement's decline, the archaeologists say: if the people of Shivta could have rebuilt the cotes, they would have.
About 10 kilometers north of Shivta, at a site called Sa'adon, hundreds of bones of rodents were found in one of two ancient dovecotes, but no bird droppings were detected. That means the Byzantine farmers were cleaning out the precious droppings and using them right up until the site was abandoned. Thereafter it was inhabited by owls who dined on the rodents (as we know because the rodent bones show signs of digestion).
In the other dovecote, a layer of manure was found on the floor, above which were dove bones only. This dovecote was apparently destroyed suddenly by an earthquake and never again used, by human or owl.
The presence of rodents in a dovecote in the area of Shivta does more than help scholars trace the reasons and pace of the site’s abandonment. Rodents are considered particularly sensitive to climate. Different species inhabiting different environments. If one site features, say, gerbils during one era and jirds during another, this could be a biomarker for past climatic change. Jirds look somewhat like gerbils but are more finicky and frequent cultivated, well-watered areas. Gerbils survive well in drier areas.
As Prof. Guy Bar-Oz recently told Haaretz, the presence of jirds in the area of Shivta shows that the Byzantines, through their agriculture, actually changed the distribution of species in the desert. When the farming ended some 1,500 years ago, for reasons we do not know, the jirds disappeared too – until modern times, when they have resurged together with agriculture in the Negev.
The clue of the garbage left inside
At some point, something happened at Shivta that we still cannot explain: 21 dwellings along Shivta’s main streets were intentionally sealed off. That shows orderly departure of some of the villagers, though not all.
“Out of a population of around 2,000 people in Shivta at the time, about 200 to 300 got up and left,” Tepper says.
Intriguingly, in the area near the three large churches of Shivta, for example, no sealed entrances have been found.
Tepper for one isn't a fan of the theory that Shivta was abandoned because of seismic activity. "We can see many signs of earthquake everywhere in Shivta, especially collapsed stone walls and structures that fell and left heaps of stones behind," Tepper says. “But that doesn’t mean that Shivta was abandoned because of it. The whole village didn’t collapse. We found that the people of Shivta rebuilt walls to support damaged buildings. Life went on, the way it does in Italy after an earthquake, to give a modern example."
But all things come to an end. For archaeologists, garbage is a treasure, indicating how and what people ate, lived and worshipped. At Shivta, the very location of these heaps was evidence – of decline.
While Shivta flourished, rubbish was carted outside the community and dumped in an orderly fashion. But later, sometime after the mass departure marked by the sealing of some houses, other dwellings were found to have had rubbish dumped right inside them, indicating additional, but less well-organized waves of departure.
The pottery and coins found show both Shivta's changeover from Christian to Muslim and its decline. Pottery vessels and coins, which are indicators of the extent of commerce and wealth, are abundant during the Byzantine period, but peter out in the Early Islamic period.
One structure, dubbed the Pool House, was evidently still in use during the Early Islamic period. But only few Islamic coins were found, and no glazed pottery from 9th-century Islamic material culture was found at all. Archaeologists therefore suspect that by the 9th century C.E., Shivta was no more.
When the climate changed in ancient Shivta, it was the result of normal fluctuation, and the inhabitants adapted to the changes as well as they could, cleverly collecting the scarce water and growing crops. Possibly the change grew too great to cope with any more.
But in any case, the climate change of yore cannot be compared to the scope of changes now, which are being caused by human intervention and which scientists warn could make the Middle East unbearably hot and dry by the century's end. Ancient Shivta may be telling us sometimes, change becomes unsurvivable.