What is it about?

This study provides the first empirical evidence for commercial-scale viticulture in the pre-modern Negev, based on ancient plant and pottery remains from archaeological trash mounds at three Negev Highland sites. Analysis of the changing proportion of grape pips in time demonstrated a significant increase in the intensity of viticulture from the 4th century, peaking in the mid-6th century. The same trend was observed in the relative proportion of pottery sherds belonging to a type of ceramic vessel (‘Gaza Jars’) used to transport wine and other products on camelbacks and in ships throughout the Mediterranean. This suggests that Byzantine Negev viticulture was connected to Mediterranean trade. The significant decline in Negev viticulture observed in the mid-6th century might have been related to the outbreak of Justinianic plague in 541 CE, and/or climate change in the form of the Late Antique Little Ice Age (536-545 CE) which was the coldest decade of the last 2000 years, but not to the Islamic conquest which occurred about a century later.

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Why is it important?

Commercial production of luxury “Gaza wine” was long assumed to be the economic basis of Late Antique settlement in the Negev Desert. We present empirical evidence for local viticulture of scale and its connection to Mediterranean trade. Offering unprecedented testimony to the globalization of an ancient production economy in a marginal environment, our archaeobotanical and ceramic dataset illuminates the rise and fall of local viticulture in the fourth to sixth centuries of the common era (CE). Decline likely resulted from market contraction triggered by plague and climate change rather than Islamic conquest, exposing systemic vulnerabilities of Negev agricultural commercialization. In millennial-scale Negev history, the Late Antique commercial florescence is anomalous, lasting about two centuries before reverting to smaller settlement and survival–subsistence strategies.


This research provides important evidence for a proto-globalized market economy of antiquity and establishes an ancient historical precedent for the vulnerabilities inherent in a market-based international economy. Lessons from the Byzantine Negev economy offer an opportunity to reflect on the development, sustainability, and vulnerability of modern globalized economies. As the late antique Negev became part of a much wider, Mediterranean mercantile market, this created certain vulnerabilities, to the extent that, when that market contracted – probably due to an outbreak of plague and/or climate change – the Negev agricultural economy collapsed. Just like the current COVID-19 crisis, this research provides yet another warning call for the effects of plague and climate change in a globalized world. When such disasters struck, Byzantine Negev residents didn’t see them coming and had no way to prepare. We do. But will we?

Daniel Fuks
Universitat Bar-Ilan

Read the Original

This page is a summary of: The rise and fall of viticulture in the Late Antique Negev Highlands reconstructed from archaeobotanical and ceramic data, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, July 2020, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,
DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1922200117.
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