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Old waste dumps show fading Byzantine Empire was plagued by disease and climate change

The climate change in the bin folder of the Byzantine Empire, the ancient rubbish mounds revealed.
(Shutterstock)

About a century before the fall of the Byzantine Empire, the eastern part of the vast Roman Empire — the signs of impending doom were written in the garbage.

Archaeologists recently investigated the accumulated refuse in the trash mounds at a Byzantine settlement called Elusa in Israel in the Negev Desert . They found that the age of the recycle bin of the introduction of an intriguing new timeline for the Byzantine decline, scientists reported in a new study. [The Holy Land: 7 Amazing Archaeological Finds]

The researchers found that trash removal — once a well-organized and reliable service in outstation towns such as Elusa ceased around the middle of the sixth century, about 100 years prior to the empire’s collapse. At that moment, a climate event known as the Late Antique Little ice age was taking hold in the Northern Hemisphere, and an epidemic known as the Justinian plague raged through the Roman Empire, ultimately killing more than 100 million people .

Together, disease and climate change took a devastating economic toll, and separated from Rome, his grip on his country to the east a century earlier than once thought, according to the study.

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Finding treasures in the trash

Elusa was already partly excavated, but the new research was the first to explore the site’s long-ignored trash hope, lead study author Guy Bar-Oz, a professor of archaeology at the University of Haifa in Israel, told Science in an e-mail.

In contrast to the architecture of an old city, which is repeatedly destroyed and rebuilt, landfills steadily accumulated over time, creating continuous administration of human activity. To find the clues in the preserved garbage dumps therefore can reveal if a thriving city or in the problems.

“For me, it was clear that the real gold mine of information about daily life and what urban existence in the past really seemed like it was in the bin,” Bar-Oz said.

In the dump sites, the scientists found a variety of objects: ceramic pot sherds, seeds, olive seeds, charcoal from burned wood, and even evidence of waste “delicacies” imported from the Red Sea and the Nile, the study authors reported.

The scientists carbon dated organic material such as seeds and charcoal in the layers of the trash mounds located in the vicinity of the city. They found that the trash had built up in that location over a period of about 150 years and that the accumulation is terminated in the middle of the sixth century. This was a failure of infrastructure, what happens when a city is on the verge of collapse, the researchers noted.

On the basis of the new facts, researchers concluded that Elusa, the decline began at least a century before the Islamic rule, wrested control of the region of the Romans. In fact, Elusa struggled during a period which is relatively calm and stable; it was during this time that the Roman Emperor Justinian was the expansion of the empire of the borders in Europe, Africa and Asia, Bar-Oz said.

With the empire enjoy “a glorious period of success,” it would be logical to expect that the outposts would be financially secure, Bar-Oz said. But the data that the researchers collected suggested the opposite.

“Instead, we see a signal for what was really going on at that time and that long time is almost invisible for most of the archaeologists that the empire was plagued by climatic disasters and disease,” Bar-Oz explained.

The findings are published online today (25 March) in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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Originally published on Live Science.

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