Jun 17, 2019 | Updated: 11:54 AM EDT

Trash Reveals the Truth Behind an Empire’s Collapse

Mar 26, 2019 10:14 AM EDT

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Archaeologists thought Elusa, a popular Roman wine center, collapsed with Islam's arrival. Its trash reveals a very different-and alarming-reason. A group of archaeologists recently investigated trash mounds at a Byzantine settlement in Israel's Negev Desert. They found that the age of the trash introduced an intriguing new timeline for the Byzantine decline, scientists reported in a new study. The researchers discovered that trash disposal, once a well-organized and reliable service in outpost cities like Elusa, ceased around the middle of the sixth century, about 100 years prior to the empire's collapse. At that time, 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, eventually killing over 100 million people. Together, disease and climate change took a devastating economic toll and loosened Rome's grip on its lands to the east a century earlier than once thought, according to the study.

The dig was spurred by Guy Bar-Oz, a professor of archaeology at the University of Haifa in Israel, who was curious about the downfall of Byzantine society in the Negev. For clues, the researchers turned to Elusa's dumps, reasoning that the end of trash collection could mark the end of high-level societal functioning in an urban environment. After digging through layers of refuse like ash from fireplaces, bones from meat and fish, seeds from grapes and olives, discarded construction material, and broken wine jugs, the researchers found that the main dumps stopped receiving trash around 550.

"For me, it was clear that the true gold mine of data about daily life and what urban existence in the past really looked like was in the garbage," Bar-Oz said "We were very surprised because we expected that the date of the abandonment of the dumps would be much later,"

Based on the new evidence, researchers concluded that Elusa's decline began at least a century before Islamic rule wrested control of the region from the Romans. However, with the empire enjoying "a period of glorious success" it would seem logical to expect that its outposts would be financially secure, Bar-Oz said. Yet the data the researchers collected suggested the opposite. Bar-Oz continues, "Instead, we are seeing a signal for what was really going on at that time and which has long been nearly invisible to most archaeologists-that the empire was being plagued by climatic disaster and disease,"

With science revealing more and more about human history, Earth's history and the history of our Solar System, it truly makes every day more exciting than the last. And one can only say, the Roman's trash is the archeologist's gold mine of information.

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