The broad array of activities and knowledge whereby human communities exploit plants to produce food and other crops (fibers and oils), agriculture, literally means the cultivation of fields. In the Near East, agriculture-based subsistence nearly always included a component of pastoralism. The nature of agricultural systems is determined by the complex interaction of environment, population, and technology. Technology includes tools and techniques as well as cultural traditions—knowledge and social organization—for dealing with the material and social environment. Population size determines the number of hands available for agricultural tasks. The influence of population on the conduct of agriculture is also shaped by its distribution on the landscape, both in terms of density and its location relative to particular environmental conditions and lines of communication. The environmental determinant itself embraces both the physical environment—climate, soil, vegetation, and topography—and the cultural/historical environment, including the configuration of interregional political power. The interrelatedness of these three parameters bears emphasizing. The study of agriculture in the Near East has periodically highlighted either technological innovation, environmental change, or population growth as the key to explain the ebb and flow of farming. Yet none of these determinants can be isolated from the others. Environment is no static dictator, but responds to technological treatment. Technologies generally depend upon economic feasibility, largely a matter of labor supply in the ancient world. Population is not a straightforward measure of available labor because a constellation of cultural traditions and historical circumstances affects the weight of per capita labor burdens.

Origins of Agriculture.

Archaeological data relating to the origins of agriculture have mushroomed since Robert Braidwood's expedition to Jarmo in Iraq began a systematic gathering of botanical evidence for plant domestication (Braidwood, 1960). [See Jarmo.] The transition from the foraging cultures of the late Epipaleolithic (c. 11,000–9000 BCE) to the farming cultures of the Neolithic (c. 9000–5000 BCE) is documented by vegetal and animal remains recovered in excavations, by artifacts—prehistoric tools and facilities—and by human skeletal remains. Village life preceded farming. At sites such as Hayonim, Mureybet, and Abu Hureyra in the southern Levant and Syria, villagers gathered wild cereals and pulses. [See Hayonim; Mureybet.] Centuries of harvesting wild cereals altered their characteristics, selecting for larger heads that did not burst when harvested. So, too, generations of year-round communal life forged new forms of social organization. Early foragers paved the way for the development of agriculture.

Current models of the origins of agriculture diverge significantly from V. Gordon Childe's mid-century portrait of domestication driven by the opportunity and necessity of advancing aridity (Childe, 1969). One key element of current theory is the recognition that dense stands of wild cereals offered an attractive subsistence source for early foragers on a seasonal basis. Explanations of what motivated the shift from gathering bountiful wild harvests to conscious cultivation call upon climatic deterioration, more permanent and populous settlements and the resulting pressure on local resources, as well as the emergence of new social forms and cultural traditions. All explanations still suffer from an insubstantial database. Knowledge of ancient environmental conditions and preagricultural subsistence patterns has not stretched to the point of being able to tie the emergence of village life or the appearance of domesticated crops to local changes in environment and resource use.

Remains of domesticated crops first appear in the southern Levant in about 9000 BCE. Usually preserved through carbonization by fire, domesticated cereal seeds possess plumper kernels than their wild counterparts and less brittle ears that resist shattering when ripe. Such morphological indicators of domestication do not exist for lentils, peas, bitter vetch, and chick-peas. Yet, these pulses routinely join barley, emmer wheat, and einkorn wheat in the archaeobotanical material from this period of incipient farming villages (Pre-Pottery, or Aceramic, Neolithic, c. 9000–6000 BCE). Grains and legumes were complementary crops at an early stage of agricultural development. Botanical finds at Jericho (Jordan Valley), Aswad (near Damascus), Abu Hureyra (western Syria), Çayönü (southeastern Anatolia), Yiftaḥel (Galilee), and ῾Ain Ghazal (near Amman) represent the spread of agricultural life. [See Jericho; Çayönü; Yiftaḥel; ῾Ain Ghazal.] Though hunting mammals such as gazelle and gathering wild fruits and seeds continued alongside farming, settled life in these mud-brick villages was thoroughly committed to crop cultivation. A number of sites attain sizable proportions and show signs of social differentiation (e.g., ῾Ain Ghazal). They witness technological developments as well, including the building of rectilinear houses, some employing lime plaster and timber in their construction. Flax, harvested for its fiber (linen) as well as its oil, also shows up in the plant medleys of Pre-Pottery Neolithic (PPN) villages. Many sites evidence herding sheep and goats as well. Because these animals were domesticated in the region of the Zagros Mountains, their place in the subsistence systems of the Levant manifests interregional exchange. Sheep and goats represent the other side of the exchange network that sent domesticated cereals northward from the Levant. [See Sheep and Goats.]

By about 6000 BCE, the agricultural village was well established in the Near East. Farming cereals and pulses and herding sheep, goats, pigs (sporadically), and cattle formed its economic basis, initiating an enduring pattern of mixed subsistence. [See Pigs; Cattle and Oxen.] Subsistence security was enhanced by the proliferation of free-threshing wheat (where the kernel is freed from its hull during threshing, obviating pounding before use) and six-row barley. Though data from the Pottery Neolithic (PN) period remain sparse, changes in the distribution of settlements reflected the increasing reliability of subsistence systems. A particularly important expansion of the population landscape occurred outside the rainfall agriculture zone in southern Mesopotamia. At the eastern edge of the Mesopotamian plain, Choga Mami has produced traces of an irrigation canal as well as botanical indicators—plump flax seeds—of crop irrigation. Sketchy data awkwardly cramp knowledge of this period subsequent to the origins of agriculture and prior to the third-millennium BCE emergence of irrigation-based Mesopotamian civilization. [See Irrigation.]

In the Levant, the Chalcolithic period (5000–3500 BCE) added a crucial component to the subsistence repertoire: the cultivation of fruit trees. Fruit pips preserved outside the natural range of wild trees and vines offer the first signs of horticulture. The olive and the date palm appeared earliest. [See Olives.] The domestication of the fig, also a native species, probably waited until the Early Bronze Age. The same holds for the imported pomegranate and grape vine (Eurasian natives). Domestication of fruit trees required substituting vegetative for sexual propagation, and these five fruits—olive, date, fig, pomegranate, and grape—shared the capacity to be multiplied by simple cuttings, rootings, or transplanting of offshoots. More technically demanding grafting enabled the taming of apple, pear, and other trees, but only much later. The earliest examples of olives and dates materialized at the large fourth-millennium Jordan Valley site of Teleilat el-Ghassul. [See Teleilat el-Ghassul.] These same two fruits also showed up in the botanical remains excavated from the Cave of the Treasure (Naḥal Mishmar) in the Judean Desert. [See Judean Desert Caves.] While it is possible that the fruits were imported at both sites from zones where they grew wild, Chalcolithic sites in the Golan have produced numerous finds of olive wood, demonstrating the cultivation of the tree. [See Golan.] Spouted craters at the sites make sense as tentative separator vats for the production of olive oil. Fruits have not appeared among the Beersheba culture sites, where evidence points toward a greater commitment to pastoral pursuits. Animal kill-off patterns, multitudinous ceramic churns, and artistic motifs together portray communities devoted to animals not only for their meat, but for their secondary products as well. [See Beersheba.]

Agriculture in Urbanized Mesopotamia.

The emergence of the world's first urban civilization in southern Mesopotamia's Uruk period is linked inextricably to the bounty of irrigated grain fields. Yet scholars of early Mesopotamia have moved away from the commanding hypothesis of Karl Wittfogel in Oriental Despotism (1957) that explained the rise of social complexity by the need to create administrative structures to manage the irrigation works. Because data place control of irrigation at the local rather than regional level, the administration of large-scale irrigation projects was not the prime agent in urbanization. The emergence of stratified society was nonetheless dependent upon the potential surplus in the reliable cereal harvests produced by the irrigation of this otherwise uncultivable alluvial plain. The increased conflict inherent in the landscape's burgeoning population density—clearly manifest in the settlement patterns—set the scene for the birth of a new political order. From multitiered settlement patterns to systems of writing, monumental art and architecture to delicately carved cylinder seals, an urban-based, rivertine civilization took shape.

A “managerial revolution” did overtake agriculture in early Mesopotamia. The interrelated complexities of bringing water to the fields, capturing it, draining away unwanted water, and protecting arable plots from floods called for management. The fact that the flow of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers is not synchronized with the needs of farming (the rivers are low at planting time in the fall and reach flood stage after crops are well grown) exposes the need for careful coordination. Texts mention a local official, the gugallum, the “canal inspector,” who may have served this function as well as seeing to canal maintenance. Construction of irrigation facilities would also require planning and collaboration and might entail the cooperation of one or more villages. Records and inscriptions advertise royal accomplishments in sluice construction, canal digging, and even alterations in river courses. The advantages of scale in irrigation agriculture—from planning to production—were apparently recognized early on and resulted in numerous grandiose state initiatives.

The third-millennium managers of this agrarian society left records outlining the farming system. One Ur III text, the so-called Farmer's Instruction, apparently intended to disseminate practicable information. It detailed fieldwork from initial preparation through harvest. Its outline of agricultural practice fits readily within the boundaries of ethnographically documented traditional irrigated cereal production. Flooding the bone-dry field from the adjacent irrigation ditch launched the agricultural year in the fall. The plot was grazed over and hoed to loosen the ground. Plowing followed. Use of the plow in the Near East dates to the Uruk period, as plow marks in the soil and representations of plows on seals attest; third-millennium cultivators were meticulous in its deployment. The Instructions specifies furrow spacing, signaling close attention to growing conditions and their effect on yield. Other records contained precise calculations of seed rates. The seed was planted, not sown, with the help of a seed drill attached to the plow. A timetable enumerated the ideal delivery of irrigation water to the field. Nearly one-third of the text's lines profile the harvest and crop-handling season. Harvest represented a crunch point in the farming calendar and was a time of economic reckoning. Landlord-tenant farmer contracts and loan documents took crop failure as well as pre- and postharvest price variation into account. [See Ur.]

Wheat and barley were the key crops, occupied the lion's share of the irrigated arable land, and figure most prominently in the documents. [See Cereals.] Contracts and administrative records also mention lentils, pea and bean species, onions and garlic, flax, and sesame. Non-native sesame was likely introduced from the Indus Valley during the third millennium. Grown for its oil, sesame became an extremely important commercial crop in this region outside the range of olive-oil production. Gardens offered cucumbers, some root vegetables, and lettuce as well. Orchards boasted tall date palms, pomegranates, apples, figs, vines, and tamarisk trees cultivated for their timber. Of these, the date palm occupied the position of greatest importance, parallel to the olive in Mediterranean lands. The date produced a storable crop of great nutritional value as well as wood, fiber, and leaves used in roofing.

Sheep and goats dominated the animal holdings detailed by temple offering lists and household property inventories. Contracts between herd owners and shepherds specified flock compositions, terms of employment, and the expected productivity of the herd. [See Animal Husbandry.] The huge volume of texts continues to provide the primary source of information on the animal and crop inventory of early Mesopotamia. The strictly archaeological contribution of recovering botanical and zoological data remains minimal in comparison. Nevertheless, paleobotanists have identified a host of agricultural plants from third-millennium contexts: of the grains einkorn, emmer, and naked wheat and six- and two-row barley; lentil, pea, chick-pea, grass pea, horse bean, bitter vetch, date and grape; as well as tamarisk and willow trees.

Mediterranean Mixed Economy.

Civilization sprinted ahead in Mesopotamia (and Egypt). By the Early Bronze Age (contemporaneous with the Mesopotamian Late Uruk through the Third Dynasty at Ur), Palestinian societies had decisively assembled all the elements of what has come to be known as the Mediterranean mixed economy. The emergence of full-fledged Mediterranean agriculture and pastoralism coincided with Palestine's first urban period. The region experienced fundamentally the same dynamic as in Mesopotamia: urbanization, intensification of agricultural production, and interregional trade. The population landscape showed the first signs of this transformation. Palestine witnessed a dramatic growth in the numbers of settlements and a conspicuous shift toward less arid plains and valleys, encompassing the highland region as well. Minimally two-tiered settlement patterns constellated villages around walled cities in the Levant as they had previously in Mesopotamia.

Botanical remains from Bab edh-Dhra῾ and Numeira on the eastern shore of the Dead Sea illustrate the changed economic regime. [See Bab edh-Dhra῾.] The major crop, barley, included the bounteous six-row variety, which was better represented than the two-row. Figs and grapes joined the olive in the fruit assemblage. Flax was grown, and the large size of the preserved seeds suggests that it was an irrigated crop. Coupled with the large amounts of linen discovered in burials, the flax seeds suggest the appearance of a local textile industry. [See Textiles, article on Textiles of the Neolithic through Iron Ages.] Faunal remains extended beyond the predominate sheep and goats to include the donkey, a crucial pack animal.

Increasingly productive grain fields, expanding investment in horticulture, intensified production of selected crops, local industry, and advancing trade—in sum, intensified agriculture yielding a greatly augmented total economic product—are in evidence throughout the Levant. The ceramic repertoire included transport containers for liquids—notably Abydos ware and metallic comb ware. Metallic comb ware has been associated with olive oil and wine production. Its particular clay and high temperature firing served to seal otherwise porous walls. Moreover, storejars of metallic ware have been found in conjunction with an elaborate oil press at Early Bronze Age Ugarit. [See Ugarit.] Abydos jugs were widely distributed, ranging from southern Egypt to the northern coastland of Syria. [See Abydos.] The vessels likely carried Palestinian oils and ointments for elite consumption. Trade connections were particularly strong between Egypt and the southern Levant. An impressive array of goods was already flowing by the initial phase of the Early Bronze period. To the north, the growth and strength and the exceptional durability of Levantine cities such as Byblos already demonstrate in the Early Bronze Age the central importance of seafaring and especially seaborne trade for the shape and conduct of agricultural subsistence. [See Byblos.] Cyprus and the islands of the Aegean were already participating in a Mediterranean maritime economic system. Cypriot copper ores were exchanged with the Near East and Egypt, as were manufactured goods and agricultural products from the Cyclades and Crete. Farming settlements spread widely on the islands, forming the foundations for the emergence of the palatial periods. [See Cyprus; Aegean Islands.]

The granary at Beth-Yeraḥ (near the Sea of Galilee), with its capacity of approximately one and one-half tons of grain, illustrates the expansion of grain production. [See Beth-Yeraḥ; Granaries and Silos.] Animal bone remains point to a likely contributor to this augmented capacity; the increased incidence of ox bones calls attention to the first widespread appearance of this draft animal in Palestine. The thousand-year old scratch plow (ard) must have cut furrows behind this source of traction. Although textual sources do not exist, the collection and distribution of such quantities of grain demands no less of a managerial revolution than transpired in Mesopotamia. The mechanisms by which this grain was produced for storage may have included elements of elite “stimulation” of increased production, such as was argued years ago by Childe, the “urban revolution's” original theorist (see above). More crucial were the growing abilities of an urban-based elite to “extract” or appropriate the product of subsistence cultivators, including the “normal” surplus produced as a buffer by village agriculturalists. During the Early Bronze Age, interaction between urban and rural spheres constituted the emergent economic context in which subsistence strategies developed over thousands of years bent to new urban-based demands. Typically for the Syro-Palestinian region, this process took place in the context of increasing relations with more highly organized and more powerful neighbors, in this case, a unified Egypt.

The basic structure of the Mediterranean mixed economy rests on the region's sharp climatic biseasonality. The beginning of the agricultural year finds the fields hard baked by five months of rainless summer, during which high insolation rates drain the soil of all its moisture. The winter rains must fall to inaugurate the plowing of the fields. Throughout most of the region precipitation is ample, above the 200 mm level necessary for dry farming. Yet, squeezed into the short rainy season (October–April, with most rain falling in three months), rain falls intensely and much precious water is lost to agriculture through runoff. Moveover, the precipitation is highly erratic both with respect to its annual accumulation and its pattern throughout the season. Because crops depend entirely on the rain that falls during their growth, they are vulnerable both to precipitation deficiencies and to skewed patterns that may delay the opening of the sowing season or strand germinated crops beneath rainless skies. The strictly limited possibilities of assuring water supplies to cereal fields through irrigation offer no relief from rainfall dependency.


AGRICULTURE. Threshing floor with piles of grain. East Delta region, Egypt. (Photograph courtesy J. S. Jorgensen)

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To cope with the frustrating rainfall regime, farmers staggered their field preparation and broadcast sowing so as not to depend too heavily on any particular pattern of rainfall. The plowing and sowing season stretched well into the winter as the Iron Age “Gezer calendar” indicates by devoting four months to the operation. [See Gezer Calendar.] Beginning in early summer, the cereal harvest embodied the period of greatest labor intensity, a peak in the curve of annual labor demand. Arduous tasks and a high degree of attention were required to bring in the wheat and barley. Harvesting per se was accomplished by reaping with a hand sickle or hand picking. The harvested stalks were then transported to the threshing floor, dried, and threshed to disarticulate the spikelets and remove the hulls. Winnowing and sieving separated the chaff from the grain, which was finally measured and stored.


AGRICULTURE. Agricultural terraces. (Courtesy Pictorial Archive)

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Cereals were by no means the sole focus of agricultural energy. A variety of crops diversified the productive base, spreading risk and optimizing labor resources. Pulses (e.g., lentils and chick-peas) were planted predominantly as field crops, while other vegetables (onions, melons, leeks) were likely tended in garden plots near residential zones. Vine and tree crops provided the most significant spreading of risk without competing for the labor needed for field crops. Cultivators opened orchards and vineyards to the rain by hoeing and plowing during breaks in the field sowing season. Likewise, pruning was accomplished at in-between times. Most importantly, the harvest from grape vines, fig trees, and olive trees meshed advantageously with the cereal harvest. The fig ripened incrementally at both ends of summer. Grape harvest and processing were intensive. Grapes were tread or pressed in shallow, rock-cut depressions and the juice decanted through one or more basins, then ladeled off into ceramic jugs. Grapes had to be processed expeditiously, yet wine production occupied vintners after wheat and barley had already been put away. [See Viticulture.] Olive picking and oil manufacture were also concentrated and laborious. Ripe olives were picked or beaten from tree branches, pounded or crushed with some type of stone, and pressed. The resultant oil was decanted from the surface of the aggregate extracts. Though demanding, olive oil manufacture transpired before the onset of the winter rains and the return to grain field preparation.


AGRICULTURE. Room with sixteen grindstones in situ. Ebla. (Courtesy ASOR Archives)

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All told, the annual agricultural calendar was a full one, as the Gezer tablet outlines:

  • * line 1: two months of [olive] harvest;
  • * line 1–2: two months of sowing;
  • * line 2: two months of late sowing;
  • * line 3: a month of hoeing weeds;
  • * line 4: a month of harvesting barley;
  • * line 5: a month of harvesting and [measur]ing;
  • * line 6: two months of cutting [grapes];
  • * line 7: a month of [collecting] summer fruit.

The diversification of the agricultural base accomplished especially by the cultivation of tree and vine crops served indispensably in a geographically fractured region with limited expanses of level land. Plains and valley bottoms—from the Madaba Plains of central Jordan to the basin of the Orontes River in Syria—had long been the focus of profuse agricultural efforts. [See Jordan Valley.] Farming must often manage in the sometimes mountainous highland terrain. This terrain was perfectly suited to horticulture. Heavier rainfall and hilly terrain, however, demanded attempts to preserve the highlands' nutrient-rich but easily eroded terra rossa soils. Terrace construction represents the chief strategy to stabilize hillside soils, and terraces offer the further advantage of controlling runoff and augmenting rainwater infiltration. Archaeological documentation of terrace construction, though still sporadic, stretches back to the Early Bronze Age. Yet, the widespread adoption of terraces was regularly limited by the high labor costs demanded by their construction and maintenance. Short-term challenges alone preoccupied subsistence-oriented agriculturalists, leaving precious time left for investments in long-term stability. “Soil mining” often resulted: the terracing accomplished during the most intensive periods of agricultural development often faced the need to import colluvial soil from valley floors to fill hillside terraces above.

Terraced-based horticultural development held the key to any long-term highland agricultural tenancy. Like pastoralism, it complemented rain-fed grain cultivation. Many of its products were storable (wine and raisins, olive oil, and fig cakes) and made essential dietary contributions (e.g., sugar and fat). Horticulture provided a resource subject to a somewhat different set of environmental hazards than field crops, whose yields were not only erratic, but notably meager. With wheat and barley yields stagnant at ten to fifteen fold, the olives, grapes, figs, and pomegranates of the hillsides were indispensable. Moreover, the transportability of tree and vine products facilitated the creation of regional economies and interregional exchange.

Subsistence-Pattern Oscillations.

The building, dismantling, and rebuilding of the Mediterranean mixed economy has stamped the ebb and flow of Syro-Palestinian civilization since it was achieved by the Early Bronze Age. Thus, after realizing a plateau of urban life and sway over the hinterlands, the collapse of Early Bronze culture opened a period of agricultural abatement. Over the course of several centuries, the relative proportion of agriculturalists decreased, and nomadic pastoralists multiplied on the landscape. [See Pastoral Nomadism.] The Middle Bronze reemergence of more intensive subsistence patterns is well illustrated in the Egyptian tale of Sinuhe (mid-twentieth century BCE), who testifies regarding his allotment of land somewhere in northern Syria-Palestine: “It was a good land, named Yaa. Figs were in it, and grapes. It had more wine than water. Plentiful was its honey, abundant its olives. Every kind of fruit was on its trees. Barley was there, and emmer. There was no limit to any [kind of] cattle” (ANET, p. 19, ll. 81–84). Such subsistence-pattern oscillations represent movements along an increasingly well understood and documented pastoral-agricultural continuum. At one end of this spectrum, periods of high-intensity agriculture manifest relatively higher population densities; settlement patterns with recognizable central places; specialization of production in agricultural, industrial, and pastoral pursuits, including the production of market-oriented goods; integration into interregional and international trading networks; and heightened investments in permanent production facilities, transportation, food storage, and water and soil management. [See Food Storage.] At the spectrum's other end, periods of agricultural abatement produce low-intensity constellations dominated by subsistence-oriented nomadic pastoralists. A relatively lower sedentary population density clings to a decentralized landscape with fewer settled towns and villages, while nonsedentary folk spread out in seasonal encampments. Regional isolation dampens trade, and production for autoconsumption produces few large-scale permanent facilities.

The basic principle underlying movement along this agricultural-pastoral continuum relates to contrast in the elasticity of the two modes of production. Pastoral productivity and its demands for land (pasturage) and labor fluctuate considerably: boom years see tremendous increases but are matched by the precipitous declines of bust years. Farming, on the other hand, is more inelastic: land and labor needs remain relatively constant and do not rise and fall with the success of each crop. These contrary tendencies provide incentives for the security-conscious integration of pastoral and agricultural pursuits. They also associate the florescence of agriculture with periods of well-organized central authority, which provides the stability, institutions, and capital necessary for agricultural growth. The predominance of pastoralism is associated with weak rule and disordered social conditions. Under such risky conditions, the selection of resilient and mobile pastoralism offers an adaptive advantage.

Many factors are associated with movement along this continuum. Agricultural intensification is propelled by population growth, centralization, expanding markets and international trade, bureaucratic direction, and innovation. Abatement is connected to environmental degradation, population decline, loss of trading opportunities, political disintegration, and military defeat.

Empire and Agricultural Intensification.

The Iron Age in Palestine marks a particularly sharp and well-documented spike in the course of Levantine and Near Eastern agricultural history. Regional settlement patterns signal a throughgoing intensification of agricultural subsistence. The crucial context of this agricultural trajectory was the expansion of the Assyrian Empire and the florescence of Mediterranean trade. Galvanized by the maritime expertise and urban-oriented manufacturing advantage of the Phoenicians, trade connections began to weave a web of interregional exchange and regional specialization across the Mediterranean world. By the first two centuries of the first millennium, Tyrian and other Phoenician traders plied the main artery of east–west trade from Cyprus along the southern Anatolian coast to the Aegean, Crete, and the Cyclades, and as far west as Sardinia. The long-distance routes linked up with existing regional exchange networks, stimulating the growth of local centers. In the eighth century BCE, Assyrian expansion westward to the Levant sought to establish and control trade with the lands of the Mediterranean as well as with Egypt and Arabia. Assyria also aimed to enrich itself by gathering spoil and extracting regular tribute. Most of the tributary goods were not indigenous to subjugated regions: according to Assyrian sources, the Judean king Hezekiah's postrevolt tribute (mentioned in 2 Kgs. 18:13–16) included gold, silver, gems, ivory-inlaid couches, elephant hides, African blackwood, boxwood, and human beings (ANET, p. 288).

The luxury goods demanded as tribute payments held more consequences for agricultural economies than short-term impoverishment; they incited the search for high-value materials. These commodities (preciosities) had to be procured on the international trade network. To enter this network demanded intensive investments in exportable agricultural products. Thus, Assyrian power pushed dependent polities to produce more and pulled them toward specific products. These influences were joined by increasing population densities, urbanization, and political centralization in spurring agricultural industrialization and commercialization. In Israel and Judah, the intensification of olive oil and wine production stands out. [See Judah.] Terrace technology advanced, reclaiming denuded hillside slopes. The terraces were accompanied by hundreds of rock-cut presses throughout highland regions where wine production progressed at both industrial sites (Gibeon north of Jerusalem) and dispersed farmsteads (e.g., Khirbet er-Ras). [See Gibeon.] The addition of a beam advanced existing pressing technology, adding leverage to extract grape juice and olive oil more proficiently. In Judah, signs of bureaucratic management of wine production and distribution took the form of royally stamped wine jar handles. The enormous concentration of olive-oil production facilities at seventh-century BCE Tel Miqne/Ekron on the southern Palestinian coast superbly manifested the economic benefits of proximity to the sea and the access it afforded into Mediterranean commerce. More than 100 olive-oil production units have been excavated or surveyed thus far, making the site the largest such constellation of industrial facilities in the ancient Near East (Heltzer and Eitam, 1987). The overall agricultural intensification stretched as far as the arid lands of the Negev desert, where runoff farming created costly wadi terraces, catchments, and even diversion systems to trap a meager rainfall. [See Miqne, Tel; Negev.]

With its emphasis on commodity production, Iron Age agricultural intensification supplies a signal instance of urban manipulation of the economy counter to the subsistence-oriented objectives of villages. Villages cope with the two major constraints of erratic environment (physical as well as political) and demographic fragility by diversifying their productive regimes. Farmers seek to spread the risk inherent in settled agriculture by planting a variety of crops in scattered locations and by a scattered timetable. Herds are maintained as part of the village enterprise, a complementary pursuit that adds greatly to household productivity as well as resilience. Such subsistence-oriented objectives are not sustainable when urban-based direction of the productive activities sets the agricultural agenda for rural life. The governors demanded the most readily exchangeable and exportable commodities—wine and olive oil in the Levant—and encouraged their production through polices of taxation and procurement, judicial regulation, and land development. These forces pushed village agriculture toward specialization. Rural life found itself making investments in long-term improvements (such as water reservoirs and terracing), producing marketable goods, and depending upon regional networks of exchange. Thus, agricultural intensification severed village life from its traditional subsistence moorings as urban rule fashioned a “command” or “mobilization” economy. Dependent upon maladroit administrative structures, tenuous politically secured access to maritime trade, and the erratic nature of the Palestinian natural environment, such a structured economic system was highly fragile.

Agricultural Data.

Charting the dynamic relationship between urban and rural zones is one area that benefits from emergent archaeological strategies pursuing quantitative reconstructions of ancient agricultural economies. [See Paleoenvironmental Reconstruction; Paleobotany.] In the absence of ancient agricultural records, researchers turn to data from preindustrial economies to posit levels of yields, proportions of various crops (especially grains and fruits), and animals (sheep, goats, and cattle), as well as human dietary needs. These data are collected in ethnoarchaeological fieldwork or are mined from the census figures of the late premodern and even the earlier Ottoman periods. [See Ethnoarchaeology.] Admittedly relative and approximate, such data join with site-catchment analysis and other regional studies to offer assessments of field and pasture potential (carrying capacity). Placed next to other archaeological indicators (e.g., settlement patterns, site areas, and processing installations), such calculations fuel assessments of agricultural intensity and reconstructions of the relationship between agricultural production and its larger political and economic environment. Thus, for example, the olive presses at Tel Miqne might have produced 1,000 tons of oil each season. Based on yields from olive groves planted and tended under preindustrial conditions (kilograms per tree and trees per hectare), Miqne's demand for raw olives would have required orchards ranging over 5,000 ha (12,350 acres), encompassing a radius of 10–20 km (6–12 mi.) surrounding the site. The control of such a vast territory raises political questions and points to the role of the Assyrian Empire in creating conditions for or sponsoring the massive industrial center.

Paleoosteological analysis of faunal remains offers crucial assistance to reconstructions of ancient agricultural economies. Analysis of stratified bone refuse permits characterizations of animal production systems and their temporal development. [See Paleozoology.] Because of the interdependence between pastoralism and agriculture in the Near East, these data permit inferences about the nature of the agricultural systems. Thus, an increase in the relative frequencies of cattle and pig bones at the expense of sheep/goat bones may manifest the waxing of agricultural intensity. Land development around a site reduces the amount of small-animal pasturage available, forcing sheep and goat pastoralism more into the periphery. Cattle can be kept more easily in close proximity to agricultural operations, and their traction is crucial for field crops. Pigs find their place as town scavengers. Among sheep and goats, kill-off patterns provide a complementary barometer of the delocalization of pastoral production: greater distances between the loci of consumption and herding spell higher ages at death, as nomadic pastoralists sell older animals to town dwellers. Increasing proportions of sheep/goats and younger ages at death may signal a less intensive economy with a less dichotomized agricultural-pastoral continuum. Thus, faunal remains offer the possibility of charting the ebb and flow of agricultural life.

[See also Farmsteads.]


  • Borowski, Oded. Agriculture in Iron Age Israel. Winona Lake, Ind., 1987. Catalog of the components of Israelite agriculture, with special emphasis on their Hebrew Bible terminology.
  • Braidwood, Robert J., and Bruce Howe, eds. Prehistoric Investigations in Iraqi Kurdistan. Studies in Ancient Oriental Civilization, vol. 31. Chicago, 1960.
  • Bulletin on Sumerian Agriculture. Vols. 1–7. Cambridge, 1984–1993. Indispensable collections of articles by archaeologists, philologists, agronomists, and ethnographers. Individual volumes focus on cereals, field crops, fruits, irrigation, trees, and domestic animals.
  • Childe, V. Gordon. New Light on the Most Ancient East (1952). 2d ed. New York, 1969.
  • Dalman, Gustaf. Arbeit und Sitte in Palästina. 7 vols. in 8. Gütersloh, 1928–1942. Rich compendium of Palestinian village life as Dalman observed it in the early twentieth century.
  • Finkelstein, Israel. The Archaeology of the Israelite Settlement. Jerusalem, 1988. Presentation and analysis of the settlement pattern and material culture of Early Iron Age Palestine, focusing on the central hill country and utilizing 1945 village statistics to portray the demography and economy of premodern settlement.
  • Halstead, Paul, and John O'Shea, eds. Bad Year Economics: Cultural Responses to Risk and Uncertainty. New York, 1989. Collection of essays on culturally and historically diverse contexts regarding how human communities secure their food supplies in the face of environmental variability.
  • Heltzer, Michael, and David Eitam, eds. Olive Oil in Antiquity: Israel and Neighboring Countries from Neolith [sic] to Early Arab Period. Haifa, 1987. Several articles on the olive-oil production facilities at Tel Miqne highlight a wide-ranging collection on this most important fruit of the Mediterranean basin.
  • Hesse, Brian, and Paula Wapnish. Animal Bone Archaeology: From Objectives to Analysis. Washington, D.C., 1985. Exacting, detailed, and superbly illustrated presentation of faunal analysis, covering specimen identification, the nature of bone preservation, sampling strategies, and analysis.
  • Hesse, Brian. “Animal Use at Tel Miqne-Ekron in the Bronze Age and Iron Age.” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, no. 264 (1986): 17–27. Animal bone statistics depict shifts in the animal-husbandry systems that supported Tel Miqne/Ekron.
  • Hopkins, David C. The Highlands of Canaan: Agricultural Life in the Early Iron Age. Sheffield, 1985. A systematic, anthropologically oriented presentation of the nature of agriculture and its particular manifestations in Early Iron Age Palestine.
  • LaBianca, Øystein S. Hesban, vol. 1, Sedentarization and Nomadization: Food System Cycles at Hesban and Vicinity in Transjordan. Berrien Springs, Mich., 1990. Outlines the idea of a “food system,” including relevant concepts of intensification and abatement and sedentarization and nomadization as integrating principles for archaeological investigation. Describes the successive food-system configurations for the Hesban (Heshbon) region of Jordan based on excavated animal-bone refuse and carbonized seeds and survey data.
  • Miller, Naomi F. “The Near East.” In Progress in Old World Palaeoethnobotany, edited by Willem van Zeist et al., pp. 133–160. Rotterdam, 1991. Up-to-date survey of the archaeobotanical record of the Near East.
  • Nissen, Hans J. The Early History of the Ancient Near East, 9000–2000 B.C. Translated by Elizabeth Lutzeier and Kenneth J. Northcott. Chicago, 1988. Readable survey that includes a discussion (based on settlement patterns) of the beginnings of food production, permanent settlement, and the emergence of high civilization through the third millennium. Relies too heavily on an insecure reconstruction of climate change to explain developments.
  • Postgate, J. N. Early Mesopotamia: Society and Economy at the Dawn of History. Rev. ed. London, 1994. Artful integration of literary and archaeological data, creating a lively narrative of the social world of Mesopotamia, 3000–1500 BCE.
  • Renfrew, Jane M. Palaeoethnobotany: The Prehistoric Food Plants of the Near East and Europe. New York, 1973. Classic text with illustrations of each of the major genera and species of domesticated and edible wild plants, their origins, identification, cultivation, and use.
  • Sherratt, Susan, and Andrew G. Sherratt. “The Growth of the Mediterranean Economy in the Early First Millennium BC.” World Archaeology 24.3 (1993): 361–378. Outlines the development of Iron Age trading systems in the Mediterranean against Bronze Age patterns from the perspective of world systems theory. Maps the interaction of Assyrian, eastern, central, and western Mediterranean, and European economic arenas.
  • Stager, Lawrence E. “The First Fruits of Civilization.” In Palestine in the Bronze and Iron Ages: Papers in Honour of Olga Tufnell, edited by Jonathan N. Tubb, pp. 172–187. University of London, Institute of Archaeology, Occasional Publication, no. 11. London, 1985. Lucid chronicle and explanation of EB domestication of the olive, grape, date, fig, and pomegranate.
  • Zohary, Daniel, and Maria Hopf. The Domestication of Plants in the Old World: The Origin and Spread of Cultivated Plants in West Asia, Europe, and the Nile Valley. 2d ed. Oxford, 1993. Synthesis of cropplant evolution combining data from archaeology and the distribution of living plants. Covers cereals, pulses, oil and fiber crops, fruit trees and nuts, vegetables and tubers, condiments and dyes, as well as wild fruits.

David C. Hopkins