Signs Of Ancient Terrace Farming Uncovered In Petra
January 3, 2013

Signs Of Ancient Terrace Farming Uncovered In Petra

April Flowers for - Your Universe Online

A multinational archaeology team is providing new insights into successful and extensive water management and agricultural production in and around the ancient city of Petra, which is located in modern Jordan. Professor Susan Alcock of the Brown University Petra Archaeological Project (BUPAP) leads the dig.

Christian Cloke, doctoral student in the Department of Classics at the University of Cincinnati, used a variety of tools and techniques, including high resolution satellite imagery and optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) dating of soils to suggest that extensive terrace farming and dam construction in the region north of the city began around the first century - approximately 2,000 years ago. Previously, it was thought that terrace farming had begun during the Iron Age (c. 1200-300 BC). Working with Cecelia Feldman of UMass-Amherst, Cloke says this striking development was due to the ingenuity and enterprise of the ancient Nabataeans, whose prosperous kingdom had its capital at Petra until the beginning of the second century.

A vast, green, agricultural "suburb" grew up around Petra in an otherwise inhospitable, arid desert because of the successful terrace farming of wheat, grapes and possibly olives. Extensive and robust terrace farming remained in the area through the third century. The findings of this study, which were presented at the Archaeological Institute of America Annual Meeting in Seattle, show that based on surface finds and comparative data collected by other researchers in the area, it is clear that this type of farming continued to some extent for many centuries. Terrace farming continued until the end of the first millennium (between A.D. 800 and 1000).

According to Cloke, dating the start of extensive terrace farming at Petra to the beginning of the common era has important historical implications because it closely coincides with the Roman annexation of the Nabataean Kingdom in A.D. 106.

In a UC statement, Cloke explained, “No doubt the explosion of agricultural activity in the first century and the increased wealth that resulted from the wine and oil production made Petra an exceptionally attractive prize for Rome. The region around Petra not only grew enough food to meet its own needs, but also would have provided olives, olive oil, grapes and wine for trade. This robust agricultural production would have made the region a valuable asset for supplying Roman forces on the empire´s eastern frontier.”

Successful terrace farming and water management when Petra was at its zenith as a trading center, said Feldman, added to the city's economic importance. Strategic military value was increased as well because there were limited options in the region for supplying troops with essentials.

North of Petra, on large stretches of land, residents built complex and extensive systems to dam wadis, or riverbeds, and redirect winter rainwater to hillside terraces used for farming. The rainy season occurs only between October and March with brief, torrential downpours. This made it important for Petra´s inhabitants to capture and store all available water for later use during the dry season. Of necessity, the Petra inhabitants became experts at water conservation and capture over the centuries. A complex system of pipes and channels brought water from the broad watershed of sandstone hills and directed it to underground cisterns where it was stored for later use.

“Perhaps most significantly,” said Cloke, “it´s clear that they had considerable knowledge of their surrounding topography and climate. The Nabataeans differentiated watersheds and the zones of use for water: water collected and stored in the city itself was not cannibalized for agricultural uses. The city´s administrators clearly distinguished water serving the city´s needs from water to be redirected and accumulated for nurturing crops. Thus, extensive farming activity was almost entirely outside the bounds of the city´s natural catchment area and utilized separate watersheds and systems of runoff.”

The findings are from the first three years of BUPAP fieldwork and they promise more exciting discoveries about how the inhabitants of Petra cultivated the outlying landscape and supported the city´s population. Insights into the geopolitical changes and Roman imperialism can also be gleaned from the presence of highly developed systems of landscape modification and water management at Petra .