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Abstracts - The Agency of Climatic and Environmental Factors in Mediterranean History

Tuesday, 7th of January 2020, 10:00–15:30

Seminar room 232, Younes and Soraya Nazarian Library, New Wing

The University of Haifa

 Picture for seminar abstracts

The Haifa Center of Mediterranean History (HCMH) at the University of Haifa is pleased to host Dr Georg Christ from the University of Manchester. On this occasion, Christ will be chairing a methodological seminar in environmental history.

The aim of the meeting is to adopt broad concepts of environment, climate and nonhuman agency in Mediterranean history. We wish to adjust the record on the cultural, commercial and political impact of the environment. Thus, to rebalance past-present understandings of the choices that might be made now in respect of renewable energy sources and coastal sustainability.

Format: Brief presentations (15 minutes) will be followed by a roundtable discussion. This format seeks to avoid having presentations dominate the conference at the expense of debate. We would like to ensure that there is adequate space to discuss controversial terms.

Following the methodological seminar, 16:00–18:00, in Eshkol Tower, 29th floor, Georg Christ will give a public lecture on the theme: Portuguese ships in India and rotting pepper in Alexandria: A self-fulfilling news crisis? (1503–1505).

With best wishes,

Renard Gluzman and Zur Shalev (organizers).

For more information: Renard Gluzman (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)


Coping with Climate Change in the Bronze Age: Starting the Research

Dr. Shlomit Bechar

Most studies dealing with ancient climate change are focused on reconstructing paleoclimate. This ultimately leads to the exclusion of ‘people’ from the discussion. Only few studies deal with how humans coped with climate changes, and this paper will present a study which aims to be one of them. In my study, I wish to apply an innovative approach by examining the Bronze Age archaeological record, using ceramic assemblages, to identify methods of resilience to climate changes. I propose to test a model that could be examined in relation to existing proxy-based climate change models, to determine whether the material changes are a response to climatic or social factors. This study aims to examine the human-environment relationship and their co-development with historical processes, based on the concept that storage vessels reflect the ability to store agricultural goods and its risk management. Thus, changes in climate and land use would affect the agricultural produce which would lead to changes in the consumption of storage vessels.

My hypothesis is that during times of harsh climate we should expect more storage activities in general and particularly more private storage activities; storage activities will be more abundant in rural contexts than urban ones. Alternatively, in wetter climate, more storage activities in public storage facilities is expected. This hypothesis also holds that in wetter climate, storage vessels will have larger volume.

The longue durée approach will be applied to identify adaptive solutions for climate changes. By examining 3rd and 2nd millennia assemblages, spanning over the Early, Middle and Late Bronze Ages, it will be possible to conclude how people of the ancient civilizations coped with these changes. This longue durée will also allow me to identify not only whether different consumption regimes appear at a time of a climate crisis but also if they reflect certain contexts throughout time (rural/urban, domestic/palatial/ritual).

This period has been chosen based on two known major climatic events at that time. The first is the 4.2KY BP event, which is well attested globally. Approximately at 1900 BCE, climate was favorable again, until approximately 1400 BCE. Between the middle of the 14th century and the end of the 12th century BCE an arid period was identified again. Several dry and moist periods were identified between these two events, testified in the ice cores, marine and lake cores and speleothems.

My paper will present preliminary data, collected for Tel Hazor, spanning the 2nd millennium. I will describe my methodology and hope to get feedback from the participants of the workshop.


Phoenician Ethnogenesis and the Crucial Role of the Phoenician Landscape

in the Early Shaping of Its Culture

Dr. Meir Edrey

Ancient written sources reveal that the Phoenicians were renowned already in antiquity as skilled seafarers, shrewd merchants, and gifted artisans. Attributes that archaeology was able to corroborate on many accounts. They were the first to venture beyond the straights of Gibraltar and circumnavigate Africa. They produced luxury commodities such as silver bowls, ivory ornaments, and purple dyed textiles. And throughout their long history, they remained autonomous city-states with no political unity. But when did this important civilization emerge? Phoenician ethnogenesis is still a debated subject. Some scholars maintain that the Phoenicians could only emerge as a culture during the early Iron Age, after the yoke of Egypt was lifted off of the southern Levant and they gained their political independence. Others maintain that the origins of the Phoenician culture date back to the third millennium BCE. And there is also a middle approach that suggests that while the Phoenicians cannot be detached from their Bronze Age roots, their culture was a combination of both their early Bronze Age origins and the political climate of the early Iron Age in the southern Levant.

These approaches focus mainly on different aspects of the material culture, such as pottery and architecture, and their continuity or discontinuity from the Bronze to the Iron Ages. However, the Phoenician culture and its material culture, are not only a byproduct of religious, political, and technological aspects. It was also highly affected by the unique environmental conditions in which it developed. These conditions can account for many of the key characteristics of the Phoenician culture, which were manifested politically, religiously, and economically during the Bronze, Iron, and later Classical periods.

The land of Phoenicia offered little natural resources. It consisted of a narrow strip of land, bordered from the east by the Lebanon mountains and from the west by the Mediterranean Sea. This coastal strip, which is ca. 6.5km wide at its widest point and only a few hundred meters at its narrowest, was naturally segmented by river gorges and rock promontories. The land was also filled with marshes, sand dunes, and rocky terrain. Perhaps most acute was its lack of arable land for agricultural cultivation. Nevertheless, Phoenicia was not void of any advantages. The Phoenician littoral is dotted with promontories, coves, and natural bays that offer protected anchorages. It is also characterized by a narrow continental rise, which formed small islets opposite of the coast, and also allowed ships with relatively large hulls to anchor close to land, unlike the coastal plains further north and south. To these favorable maritime conditions, one may add the abundance of trees which grew in the forests of the Lebanon that provided timber for the construction of sturdy seagoing ships.

This paper will suggest that these environmental conditions were far more crucial in the shaping of the core characteristics of the Phoenician society than any temporal political conditions, and thus argue in favor of the early emergence of the Phoenician culture in the southern Levant.


“Sweetwater Sea”: The Aquatic Environment of the Medieval Royal Parkland of La Favara outside Palermo

Dr. Dana Katz

Medieval Palermo and its hinterland was made up of water, repeatedly attested to in textual accounts by both Muslim and Christian writers. In our contemporary conception, however, features of the terrain play a greater role in our thinking about landscape. Palermo and its outskirts is most often described as situated on a fan-like alluvial plain surrounded by an arc of mountainous hills, forming a natural amphitheatre. Nonetheless, for our pre-modern and early modern counterparts, water in the city and in its surroundings occupied a central place. Compared with other topographical markers, whether natural, such as mountains or valleys, or man-made, like city walls, water is a significant yet underutilized reference point for the study of medieval cities and their immediate environments. Affecting settlement location, this liquid element creates nodes in the landscape, linking disparate sites and forming a connective tissue without terrestrial equivalents in terms of ease of movement and transport.

This paper’s focus is on a specific, lacustrine site of the Palermo plain: a man-made lake on the grounds of the royal park called La Favara. The name is derived from an earlier Arabic toponym, signifying a great outpouring of water, known in the later medieval period as Maredolce, or “Sweetwater Sea.” One possible interpretation of this appellation is the awe of its creation in close proximity to the coast, situated just over a kilometer from the Tyrrhenian Sea. The first known human manipulation of the aquatic environment at La Favara dates to ca. 1130, when the Norman king Roger II ordered the creation of a lake, building a magnificent palace alongside it. This watery landscape was the crowning feature of the royal Norman parkland. Celebrated in song, the king and his retinue used the lake for boating expeditions, and it also provided fish for him and his household’s table during Lent.

The artificial lake at La Favara was one of the greatest feats of medieval hydraulic engineering, yet it remains nearly unrecognized in the scholarly literature. This royal site implemented water collection and distribution techniques from the Islamic world. A macro approach elucidates cross-cultural exchanges between the Normans and their contemporaries elsewhere in the Mediterranean, which enabled the use of technologies that made possible the formation of the lake. A micro-historical study combined with a consideration of transregional interactions elucidates the complementary benefits of both methodologies to recreate the impact and effect of a waterscape on its environment.

"Venice is drying up": How nature caused the Serenissima’s shipping industry almost to run aground

Dr. Renard Gluzman

Any discussion of Venice cannot overlook its unique ecosystem, one which necessarily affected every aspect of life. This analysis is an exercise in extending environmental consciousness back in time. In the late decades of the fifteenth century, access to Venice via water was becoming increasingly hazardous due to the silting of the channels and basins. Despite consistent efforts to keep the waterway at the “port” of San Nicolò (the principal entrance into the Venetian lagoon) open to vessels with large draught, the shallow waters presented serious obstacles, and even peril in foul weather. The ravages of nature added insult to injury, worsening a situation that already spelled a deep and lasting crisis in Venetian shipping.

I will start with the dramatic events that led to the shifting and silting of the very access to the “port”; and then review the debate between the experts on the line of action to be taken, and the ambitious works on the lidi, which began in the spring of 1521.

The role of sand and silting in the decline of Venice’s shipping industry adds a new facet to the already voluminous groundwork carried out by several scholars, such as Salvatore Ciriacono (Building on Water), Élisabeth Crouzet-Pavan (Sopra le acque salse), and others. These studies conceptualize the longue durée of Venetian urban development and environmental change. Crouzet-Pavan, however, does not cover the eventful first two decades of the sixteenth century, years in which the silting of the lagoon worsened to such an extent that decisive action was required.

I will show how this crisis was manifested in many form: institutional changes, the revision of port administration (guards, pilots, harbour master), development of port infrastructures, the installation of a marvellous piece of engineering on a tower at the entrance to mark the tides (maree), the administration of the salvage boats, the practice of libamento (relieving cargos on the open sea), and the relocation of the private shipyards that were believed to be the cause of silting.


Extreme Climatic Event: The Winter of 1874 and the introduction of the modern Roof tile in Palestine

Dr. Arch. Gil Gordon

Building technologies determine the landscape which surrounds us. In traditional societies the same landscape provides the raw materials for building. The adaption of new imported technologies is connected to demand and supply. Demand may evolve by many reasons: form survival needs to fashionable whims. Supply depends on many factors as well' among them are the consolidation of transferable manufacture knowledge, the existence of means of transportation and safe geographic routes, the accumulation of financial means for purchase, and on working skills and maintenance capabilities which define the degree of its diffusion in the receiving country. Under these conditions the importation of new technologies to foreign countries is usually slow and gradual. Nevertheless, History is not unfamiliar with extreme situations which cause dramatic architectural change. These cases are rare but very clear.

My lecture aims to present a rare climatic event which engulfed the eastern part of the Mediterranean in the year 1874. The inhabitants of the Levant claimed it to be the worst and the most devastating winter of that century, if not more. That event had a direct and immediate effect on the vernacular architecture for it caused the sudden appearance of the modern industrialized western red roof tile in the area.

I will present the sources which enabled me to identify that special climatic phenomenon, mainly missionary, colonial and local writings; I will describe the emergence of the interlocking tile known as the 'Marseille type' and its development during the clay industrial revolution in western Europe; I will connect between this industrial product and the architectural implications of winter 1873; I will present the commercial agents who imported it from France and examine how, and by whom, it was diffused in the country. Finally I shall describe the repercussions the red sloped roof received in a country known for its flat white roofs and gentle traditional cupolas.