When the Fields Were Joyful

December 16, 2014

By Tamar Lewit

“Let the field be joyful…all the trees of the wood rejoice!” (Psalm 96, p. 12, King James Bible)

The year is AD 500. The magnificent and once pre-eminent city of Rome, conqueror of millions, has been sacked by Vandals – the sword-wielding, not the spray-can kind. Germanic tribes have seized territory across Europe and Africa. Throughout the Empire, marble columns, lavish mosaics, and monumental amphitheatres for brutal gladiatorial contests have been transformed. Some have been abandoned and used for burials, some replaced by churches, or cannibalised for defences, some are now crowded with small, roughly-built shops, workshops and apartments which would have horrified the populace’s sedate ancestors. The reasons will fuel conferences a millennium and a half into the future, at which archaeologists will argue cantankerously.

But in AD 500, the fields and orchards of the eastern Mediterranean are singing for joy, the hub of an economic boom based on wine and olive growing, which will last at least three centuries. With trade comes the spread of a technological revolution, perhaps unique in the ancient world, the first major technological transformation in olive and wine processing in a thousand years.

Depiction of an innovative screw press Khirbat al-Mukhayyat (Mount Nebo, Jordan) Franciscan Archaeological Institute

Depiction of an innovative screw press
Khirbat al-Mukhayyat (Mount Nebo, Jordan) Franciscan Archaeological Institute

Archaeologists have, in the last two to three decades, uncovered new evidence in the eastern Mediterranean – the Near East, Cyprus, Turkey and the Aegean – for an unexpected flourishing in the 5th to 6th centuries AD of agriculture, rural settlement, synagogue, church and monastery building, land improvement through irrigation and terracing, and expansion of production into marginal regions. The boom is epitomised in the Negev Desert, where agricultural centres produced oil and wine for export, and elaborate dams, drainage channels and agricultural walls all supported highly intensive land-use in an inhospitable region never exploited for intensive agriculture before or since. Recent climatological studies suggest that at the time the climate of these regions may have been wetter and warmer, a climatic phase particularly favourable to agriculture.

Amphorae typically used to transport wine and oil around the Mediterranean (Photo courtesy of Jemima Hoffman).

Amphorae typically used to transport wine and oil around the Mediterranean (Photo courtesy of Jemima Hoffman).

Amphorae from eastern Mediterranean oil and wine exports, as well as other products, have been found throughout the Mediterranean at urban centres such as Beirut, Marseille and Rome, and were even carried North through the Dardanelles to regions around the Black Sea and Crimea, as well as West as Spain, Portugal, Britain, Southern France and areas of North Africa.

Such a broad trade implies not only a high level of agricultural production, but an effective network of merchants, shipping and even overland transport (mules and camel trains), in an age when transport routes for bulk products were arduous, slow and expensive. Transport to the West is particularly significant, given the collapse of central Roman government and state protection of trade and transport routes after the late 5th century. Yet enterprising post-5th century eastern Mediterranean merchants still travelled in the western Mediterranean, Black Sea and Europe, as attested in textual sources (which often term them collectively ‘Syrians’), as well as archaeological remains.

Photo of the author at an olive farm in southern Italy, with a 19th century direct screw press almost identical to those used in the 5th-7th centuries (although the screw is made of metal instead of the wood used in the ancient world); and (left) traditional stone olive crushing device identical to ancient examples, used to prepare the olives for pressing.

Photo of the author at an olive farm in southern Italy, with a 19th century direct screw press almost identical to those used in the 5th-7th centuries (although the screw is made of metal instead of the wood used in the ancient world); and (left) traditional stone olive crushing device identical to ancient examples, used to prepare the olives for pressing.

With this trade came the diffusion of a technological revolution, the first major technological transformation in olive and wine processing in a thousand years. While small-scale olive oil and wine production for household use requires only the treading of grapes with household feet, or the simple crushing of olives with a heavy stone, commercial production, driving a need to extract more efficiently, requires a more sophisticated (and expensive) press device. For millennia, such commercial production had been carried out in the Mediterranean using lever technology: a giant wooden beam, slung between massive posts (sometimes 3 meters high and weighing 2-3 tonnes each), and lowered by stone weights or a winch over a bundle of grapes or olives. Around the 1st century BC, a more sophisticated – and much smaller – screw was invented to replace such giant levers in the pressing process, the first major innovation to press technology in nearly two thousand years. However, very few actual examples of such presses dated to this early period have been found. It is only around 400-600 years later, in the eastern Mediterranean, that we have clear evidence of the widespread diffusion of the use of a screw mechanism for wine and oil presses. The market-oriented boom in wine and oil production, and spread of agricultural exploitation into new areas, would have provided the perfect breeding ground for the use of technological innovations, and the setting up of new, smaller and efficient presses.

Mas de Tourelles 2008

Photo of the author at The Mas de Tourelles, southern France, with a working reconstruction of the large lever and winch operated wine press.

 

The impact of the 7th century Arab invasion on the eastern Mediterranean economies is a hotly debated topic in archaeological circles. Contrary to the traditional view of the catastrophic effects of ‘barbarian’ invasions of the Greco-Roman world, more recent ‘continuist’ viewpoints argue that the effects of invasions have been exaggerated. There is some evidence that Arab settlement was often accompanied by irrigation work and agricultural development, wide circulation of coins, urban activity and particularly commercial building, and that eastern Mediterranean products continued to be widely traded up to the end of the 7th century. It has also recently been argued that intensive wine production, unfavourably viewed by the teetotal Muslims, was replaced by intensive olive oil production for export eastwards to other areas of the Umayyad Empire. But regardless of its contested sequel, the years AD 400-600 were a golden age for eastern Mediterranean agriculture and commercial wealth, a time when the fields were joyful, olive trees rejoiced, and farmers, merchants and craftspeople rode a wave of success and innovation.

More detailed presentations of this material, with supporting data and references, can be accessed on Tamar’s page on http://www.academia.edu.

———————
Dr. Tamar Lewit is the author of ‘Oil and wine press technology in its economic context: Screw presses, the rural economy and trade in Late Antiquity’ Antiquité tardive 20 (Brepols, 2012), 137-149 and ‘The Second Sea: Exchange between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea in late antiquity’ Postclassical Archaeologies 5 (Mantua 2015). She is currently co-authoring a chapter for the Brill Handbook of Medieval Environmental History 400-1000 with Associate Professor A. Chavarria (University of Padova).

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One Response to “When the Fields Were Joyful”

  1. […] Tamar Lewit, in When the Fields Were Joyful, commemorates the golden age for the eastern Mediterranean during AD 400-600 with agricultural […]

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