Universität Bonn

Islamic Archaeology Research Unit of the University of Bonn

TERRSOC, “Reading” Ancient Landscapes: Peasant Decision-Making and Terraced Agriculture in Central Palestine over la Longue Durée

Terraces are arguably the most readily recognizable human intervention in the landscape. The construction of agricultural terraces permanently transforms the environment; in the most familiar form of terracing the process of converting slopes to cultivable fields changes vegetation cover and soil properties (Bevan et al 2013: 261). Because of their capacity to impact both landscapes and local livelihoods, scholarly debate continues over their ultimate function and value. In the ancient Near East, the Roman worlds, and the medieval Mediterranean their construction has either been associated with settlement expansion, intensification of agricultural production, and the need to supply food to a large nearby urban community (Spencer and Hale 1961; Marcus and Stanish 2006; Avni 2020), or with centralized or collective landownership and economic growth (Gadot et al 2018). The abandonment of terraced fields, and the subsequent collapse of terrace walls, on the other hand, have been blamed for soil erosion, environmental decline, and food shortages (Vogel 1988; Tarolli et al 2014; Chapagain and Raizada 2017). Regardless of one’s perspective, agricultural terraces sit at the center of debates about agricultural sustainability and food scarcity, in the past and in modern times.

Recent studies of agricultural terraces suggest that the construction (and maintenance) of terraces is a choice made by peasants and landowners, based on a range of considerations. However, the decision-making process and the mechanisms of intensification and abatement of agricultural fields in general, and terraces in particular, have not been systematically addressed to date. Scholarship on terrace-building has addressed very specific disciplinary priorities, addressing questions directly related to the natural environment and the development of ancient communities. Geological studies of terraces have focused on their role in containing soil erosion, controlling water flow, and as a soil moisture conservation practice (Abu Hammad et al 2006; al-Qudah et al 2016; Lucke et al 2019). Here, however, it is runoff terraces that are the focus, though agricultural terraces (whose primary function is for expanding cultivation) also serve the purpose of controlling water flow. Recent research by geomorphologists has turned to terraces as environmental archives (Lucke et al 2019a). Anthropological approaches and ethnographic accounts have emphasized the symbolic function of agricultural terraces in forging connections to the land, refining communal identity, and, because their construction and maintenance require collaborative labor, reinforcing social cohesion (Dalman 2013). Described by some as a form of “landesque investment”, their role in maximizing profit for agricultural markets has attracted the attention of both economic historians and archaeologists (Trombold and Israde-Alcantara 2005; Abu Hammad and Børresen 2006; Bevan et al 2013).

Archaeological study of terracing, however, has been more concerned with using fields as proxies of urban growth and long-term changes in land use. The archaeological literature on terracing is extensive and has increased exponentially the last decade within the field of landscape studies. Archaeological work on terraces in the Mediterranean has been driven in recent years by the efforts to date them. The inability to confidently date these built structures through traditional archaeological methods has stymied attempts to understand their social function: one needs to confirm contemporaneity in order to say how agricultural systems (terraces, field walls, cisterns, olive and wine presses, and guard towers) functioned as a unit and what their relationship was with the supporting settlements. A further challenge has been the long-held assumption that population pressure (demographic growth) led to terrace-building (for recent critiques, see Bevan et al 2012 and Gadot et al 2018). This belief has long closed the door to asking meaningful questions about peasant decision-making and fully appreciating the complexity of peasant behavior.

What has been largely missing from all of these approaches has been a focus on the social context of building, using and repairing, and abandoning these terraces (Bevan et al 2012). While ethnographic work on terrace-building is much richer for the Americas and the Pacific islands (Erickson 1992 and 2006; Kirch 1994; Acabado et al 2019), it has been quite limited for the Middle East (Russell 1995). As a result, with few exceptions, we know little about the organization of labor behind their construction in the Mediterranean and Middle East, the legal regulations and traditional practices concerning their maintenance, their relationship to changes in land tenure (Palmer 1998; Given and Hadjianastasis 2010), and the social value attached to them in a historical perspective (Abu Hammad and Børresen 2006).

To address these lacunas, the present project focuses on the social backdrop of peasant decision-making in a deep-time perspective in historical Palestine by adopting a "bottom – up" approach, examining this process in rural societies in their immediate context, and evaluating the processes of intensification and abatement of local fields. We proceed with the assumption that agricultural terraces, when dated with confidence, can serve as windows on the social, economic, and political systems of the past. The methods required to reconstruct the decision-making process – and to distinguish local practices from state-imposed policies – necessitate a tightly integrated, multi-disciplinary approach. We will investigate the rationale for terrace-building and use at different scales of analysis by combining the methods appropriate to field archaeology, geology, botany, food systems studies, history and historiography, and ethnography. It is innovative, going beyond the existing body of terrace scholarship, in its:

  • focus on the socio-economic context of terrace construction and maintenance;

  • a non-orthodox combination of data which derive from three disciplines: (i) paleoenvironmental studies, (ii) agro-archaeology, and (iii) Islamic Studies;

  • integration of these uniquely high-resolution data sets within an agent-based model (ABM) framework, to test hypotheses regarding human behavior and decision-making;

  • collaboration with other research networks in both terrace studies and agricultural history, bringing together historians, archaeologists, and environmental scientists; and

  • long-term excavation of settlements as anchors for the terrace study

  • use of terrace research as a bridge between Islamic and Biblical archaeologies

This project grows out of the convergence of two previously independent, long-term initiatives by the Universities of Bonn and Tel Aviv. The first, led by the PI, has been the fruition DFG-Vordruck 53.01 – 11/20 Seite 3 von 21 of two decades of archaeological fieldwork in Jordan and Israel, combined with textual analysis in archives in Amman, Jerusalem, Damascus, and Cairo. This work has focused on the development on land use and land tenure over the medieval Islamic period. The results suggest that privatization of certain kinds of land from the 14th century (Mamluk era) transformed both agricultural production and communal life. Excavation of rural sites in the highlands of Jerusalem in the last decade and OSL-dating of agricultural terraces by Yuval Gadot (University of Tel Aviv) suggests that most terraces in the highlands closest to Jerusalem were built only in the last 700 years and that their construction cannot be attributed primarily to environmental or demographic pressures. The collaboration of the PI and Gadot in 2017-2019 in the “Medieval Jerusalem Hinterland Project” (GIF grant no. G.1354-108.4/20176) combined excavation of the medieval farmstead of Khirbet Beit Mazmil and textual analysis with the excavation and optically-stimulated luminescence (OSL)-dating of the terraces that were historically part of its agricultural hinterland. The preliminary results of this multidisciplinary project: 1. suggested that terraced landscapes developed in tandem with the farmstead; and 2. identified a possible correlation between terrace-building, privatization of land, and a shift to market production suggesting an economic motivation, in this case, behind terrace-building. The state of research on ancient agricultural terraces, including work by the PI and collaborators, can be summarized as follows:

  • Terrace research is growing but remains very limited in the field of Islamic archaeology.

  • The building of ancient agricultural terraces in Jerusalem’s hinterland does not appear to have been primarily driven by population growth. It does seem to have been a response by economic pressures or opportunities in the later historical periods, the mechanisms of which we still do not understand.

  • OSL-dating of terrace soils has been demonstrated as the most reliable technique to date the construction, phases of maintenance and abandonment of terraces and field walls. It requires, now, further testing on case studies beyond the Jerusalem highlands.

  • Terrace-building in the central Palestinian highlands is a phenomenon of the last 700 years (the Islamic periods), with a dramatic increase in the Ottoman period. It is relatedto particular bedrock formations. It is not clear whether this is true of other regions.

  • On the basis of patterns observed in the highlands of Palestine and Transjordan and Anatolia by project staff, agricultural terrace-building coincided with the privatization of small plots of land and created the conditions there for the development of urban gardening and market agriculture in the late Mamluk and Ottoman eras. Whether such economic factors played a role in terrace-building earlier in the region is a primary objective of the project proposed here.

  • While there appears to be a correlation between terrace-building and changes in land tenure, we do not know what other factors may have also come to play, and with what relative weight to each other Moreover, we do not know how terracing ultimately impacted local societies on the long-term.

  • In conclusion: We are learning much about the ideal environmental conditions of terrace-building, and the role of terraces in larger agricultural systems, and have better tools for more confident dating. What continues to be missing from scholarship on ancient terraces, however, is the social dimension: understanding what role agricultural terraces played in society, and how social and economic systems together stood behind the decision to build, maintain, and restore terraces, on the one hand, and abandon them, on the other. These factors need to be prioritized.

Eine Wissenschaftlerin und ein Wissenschaftler arbeiten hinter einer Glasfassade und mischen Chemikalien mit Großgeräten.
© Islamic Archaeology

Khirbet Beit Loya, Excavation Season 2023

The first season of the excavation in Khirbet Beit Loya in Shephelah and its agricultural terraces started in 2023.
The research is carried out in partnership between the Islamic Archaeology Research Unit of the University of Bonn and the Institutes of Archaeology at Tel Aviv and Hebrew Universities.

Week One (29 March–06 April 2023)

Blog post from the Field

Week Two (08-16 April 2023)

Blog post from the Field


Blog post from the Field


Avatar Walker

Prof. Dr. Bethany J. Walker

Office 2.024

Research Unit of Islamic Archaeology

Brühler Str. 7

53119 Bonn

Avatar Schmitz, M.A.

Volker Schmitz, M.A.

Office 2.051

Research Unit of Islamic Archaeology

Brühler Str. 7

53119 Bonn

Wird geladen