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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2019 Apr 23;116(17):8239-8248. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1900233116. Epub 2019 Mar 25.

Ancient trash mounds unravel urban collapse a century before the end of Byzantine hegemony in the southern Levant.

Author information

Zinman Institute of Archaeology, University of Haifa, 3498838 Haifa, Israel;
Zinman Institute of Archaeology, University of Haifa, 3498838 Haifa, Israel.
Archaeological Division, Israel Antiquities Authority, 84965 Omer, Israel.
Department of Geography and Environmental Studies, University of Haifa, 3498838 Haifa, Israel.
Sonia and Marco Nadler Institute of Archaeology, Tel Aviv University, 6997801 Tel Aviv, Israel.
Department of Maritime Civilizations, Leon H. Charney School of Marine Sciences and the Leon Recanati Institute for Maritime Studies, University of Haifa, 3498838 Haifa, Israel.
Martin (Szusz) Department of Land of Israel Studies and Archaeology, Bar-Ilan University, 52900 Ramat Gan, Israel.
Department of History, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, 8410501 Beer-Sheva, Israel.
Glass Department, Israel Antiquities Authority, 91004 Jerusalem, Israel.
Dangoor Research Accelerator Mass Spectrometer Radiocarbon Laboratory, Weizmann Institute of Science, 76100 Rehovot, Israel.


The historic event of the Late Antique Little Ice Age (LALIA) was recently identified in dozens of natural and geological climate proxies of the northern hemisphere. Although this climatic downturn was proposed as a major cause for pandemic and extensive societal upheavals in the sixth-seventh centuries CE, archaeological evidence for the magnitude of societal response to this event is sparse. This study uses ancient trash mounds as a type of proxy for identifying societal crisis in the urban domain, and employs multidisciplinary investigations to establish the terminal date of organized trash collection and high-level municipal functioning on a city-wide scale. Survey, excavation, sediment analysis, and geographic information system assessment of mound volume were conducted on a series of mounds surrounding the Byzantine urban settlement of Elusa in the Negev Desert. These reveal the massive collection and dumping of domestic and construction waste over time on the city edges. Carbon dating of charred seeds and charcoal fragments combined with ceramic analysis establish the end date of orchestrated trash removal near the mid-sixth century, coinciding closely with the beginning of the LALIA event and outbreak of the Justinian Plague in the year 541. This evidence for societal decline during the sixth century ties with other arguments for urban dysfunction across the Byzantine Levant at this time. We demonstrate the utility of trash mounds as sensitive proxies of social response and unravel the time-space dynamics of urban collapse, suggesting diminished resilience to rapid climate change in the frontier Negev region of the empire.


Byzantine period; Late Antique Little Ice Age; ancient urban trash mounds; societal collapse; southern Levant

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