The 4th to 6th centuries CE were a time of natural disasters including plague, earthquakes, and climatic instability, as well as warfare and invasions. Yet archaeological evidence demonstrates that in this period rural village communities in the eastern Mediterranean flourished, with new building, settlement of marginal land, high levels of agricultural production, and wide export of their products. In seeking to explain the vitality of the Eastern Mediterranean countryside in spite of manifold shocks, this article applies Community Resilience Theory, a body of research on the internal socio-economic capacities that have enabled communities in the contemporary world to successfully bounce back from crisis. By examining the archaeological remains of late antique eastern Mediterranean rural communities, we can see beyond the constraints of elite textual accounts to the lives of ordinary people in these flourishing villages. Material remains which attest a high volume and diversity of economic activities, a degree of equitable distribution of income, effective routes of communication, the existence of social capital, and capacity for cooperation and technological innovation reveal how the people of these communities might have acted as historical agents in determining their own fate.
In his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Gibbon famously wrote “The decline of Rome was the natural and inevitable effect of immoderate greatness.” While this view has been substantially challenged and revised in recent historiography, the actual people of the Empire often still appear as somewhat shadowy, helpless folk, overwhelmed by the inescapable forces of their circumstances. In 2009, Goldsworthy, focusing on the machinery of government and the role of the elite, concluded “the empire's institutions rotted. … Long decline was the fate of the Roman Empire.” More recently, Harper has written of “the grand drama of environmental change in which the Romans were unwitting actors.”1 While he has shifted the focus from internal failure to the ecological forces of plague and climate change, as have other scholars,2 the very title of Harper's book, The Fate of Rome, carries the same implication of an inescapable process of doom.
However, archaeological investigation of rural sites in recent decades indicates that the “fate” of the Roman countryside in the 4th–6th centuries was far from uniformly dark. In the eastern Mediterranean, particularly in the Levant, Egypt, western and southern Anatolia, the Aegean, and Cyprus, the 4th–6th centuries saw a peak period of occupation and production. Rural villages grew in size and increased in density. There was an expansion of rural production, including intensive use of marginal land, which is well attested archaeologically.3 A dramatic example is the expansion of agriculture in the semi-arid Negev, where more than 30,000 ha was brought into cultivation by using sophisticated terracing, dams, and irrigation channels around large village settlements such as Shivta (see figure 1 for a map of sites mentioned). Construction of the terraces began in the 4th century, and later systems were established in the 6th century.4 A similar pattern of peak settlement and expansion of cultivation into semi-arid land through terracing and complex water channels and storage is evident in southern Hauran, Jordan.5 The hundreds of villages in the limestone massif region of northern Syria, although also in a marginal region lacking abundant water or soil resources, experienced their peak period of building and prosperity in the 5th–6th centuries.6 The large village of Serğilla, for example, doubled in size in the 5th century, while the houses within it also doubled in size and elements of comfort and decoration increased.7 At Kafr ‘Aqab, better-constructed and more decorated houses began to be built in the mid-4th century, and their number doubled during the 5th century.8 There is also evidence of a corresponding flourishing of settlement in nearby river valleys.9
A similar pattern of expansion in cultivation and settlement can be seen through survey projects elsewhere. In southern Anatolia, the Konya Plain saw a large increase in the number and size of village settlements in the 5th–7th centuries as well as expansion into marginal zones, and intensive cultivation with the building of drainage and irrigation structures.10 On the Methana Peninsula in Greece, intensive cultivation is indicated by the construction of a dense network of oil presses (one per 3.2 km2) as well as new farms.11 In Cyprus, surveys demonstrate an increase in the number of rural sites during the 5th to 6th centuries and flourishing of village life.12 Excavation at the agricultural village of Kopetra, a settlement of about 500 people situated inland and about 15 km from the nearest town, shows that it expanded in the 6th century, with wide trade contacts, attested by African and Phocaean fineware and amphorae from the Levant and Egypt, and three churches—one of which may be part of a small monastic complex—which were built in the 6th to early 7th centuries.13 An impressive process of church and monastery building in the 5th to 6th centuries can be seen throughout the eastern Mediterranean region.14
Eastern Mediterranean amphora types carrying wine, oil, and other products from Rhodes, Chios and Kos, western and south-eastern Anatolia, northern Syria and the southern Levant, and Cyprus flooded the Mediterranean, reaching as far as coastal Spain, France, Italy, North Africa, the lower Danube and Black Sea, and even Britain.15 This wide distribution is particularly notable for Palestinian wine amphorae (see figure 2), which make up as much as 45% of all amphorae at 5th-century deposits in Carthage.16 At the western ports of Arles, Marseille, Tarragona, and Rome, around 25–47% of imported amphorae found are from the eastern Mediterranean in the 5th to 6th centuries, and the proportion reaches around 80% at Butrint (Albania) in the first half of the 6th.17 Amphorae from the Levant, Egypt, the Aegean, western Asia Minor, and Cyprus also appear at Chersonesos and Kerch on the northern Black Sea coast from the 4th up to the 7th century.18 While a number of eastern cities experienced radical change from the mid-6th century19 (although the interpretation of this as economic decline is contested20), this process of urban change do not seem to be reflected in the eastern countryside. Rural settlement and production does not seem to have experienced serious discontinuity before the 7th century, or even, it has been argued, the 8th, well after the end of Roman rule.21
It has been suggested that the eastern Mediterranean region enjoyed a favorable climatic period in Late Antiquity,22 but this cannot be accepted as a complete or monocausal explanation for the marked flourishing of the late antique Mediterranean. Current evidence suggests that climatic change in the 4th–7th century followed a complex pattern, with significant variation in different sub-regions,23 and it cannot be asserted that a uniformly favorable climatic regime existed throughout the 4th–6th century East. It has also been observed that we cannot trace a straightforward correlation between particular environmental conditions and specific changes in settlement or production patterns: in the Levant, there is evidence of drought conditions from the mid-4th century until the 3rd quarter of the 5th century, exactly the period of expansion of settlement into semi-arid regions such as the Negev, Hauran, and northern Syrian massif.24 During a subsequent wetter period in the 6th century, there seem to have been destructive floods in the southern Levant.25 In Anatolia also, climate shows strong micro-regional patterns and cannot be directly correlated with patterns of agricultural exploitation, since, for example, a dry period in some regions in the 5th century again coincided with the peak of settlement rather than with agricultural contraction.26
Further, the eastern Mediterranean experienced many natural disasters during this period, most notably an unusual clustering of earthquakes, termed the “Early Byzantine Tectonic Paroxysm,” which affected the region from the mid-4th to mid-6th century CE,27 possibly causing tsunamis such as that recorded by Ammianus in Alexandria in 365 CE.28 The pandemic of bubonic plague spread in the region from the 540s onwards.29 Persian and Arab military incursions were also destructive. A recent study has documented 36 crises and disasters which affected Antioch throughout the 6th century, including numerous earthquakes (beginning in 500 or 513 CE), plague (from 542 CE), Persian and Arab raids (523 and 531 CE), and a sack (540 CE).30
We cannot simply conclude that the survival of imperial rule in the East until the 7th century was the sole driver of the success of the eastern Mediterranean in the face of so many challenges. The Roman government is unlikely to have been directly involved in supporting rural areas affected by such disasters, since the intervention of the state even in cities affected by crises was patchy and sometimes negative in effect.31 Studies which have examined the outcomes of natural disasters in the modern world suggest that a strong government framework does not always ensure greater success, as demonstrated by the impact of Hurricane Katrina in the 21st century USA. Indeed, a number of scholars propose that a degree of self-determination for local communities can form a better basis for adaptation and rebuilding than centralized governance.32 This is not to say that the continuation of the imperial administration up to the mid-7th century was irrelevant, but rather that we must examine critically exactly how and in what ways this may have played a part, in conjunction with other factors, in the late antique flourishing of the eastern Mediterranean in spite of so many shocks, as will be discussed below.
RESILIENCE THEORY OR COMMUNITY RESILIENCE THEORY?
In examining the late antique East, a number of archaeologists have recently initiated a new approach based on the concept of an Adaptive Cycle, drawn from Resilience Theory.33 Resilience studies which examine the contemporary world have emerged since the early 2000s in various disciplines such as mental health and the study of natural disasters.34 The theory of the Adaptive Cycle, derived from ecology and the biophysical sciences, focuses on the interaction between human and natural systems and proposes a continuous cycle of change and adaptation. The theory propounds that four phases can be identified in socio-ecological systems: exploitation (r); conservation (K); release (omega); and reorganization (alpha).35 In applying this theory to the ancient eastern Mediterranean, particularly Anatolia, researchers have identified the intensification of settlement and agriculture in the 5th–6th centuries with the “K phase” of this Cycle. According to the theory, this is to be followed by a phase of release or, in historical terms, a “period of rupture,” identified as the changes occurring in the 7th century, due to “a combination of social, political, economic, environmental and climatic stimuli.”36 This application of a theory of the Adaptive Cycle, while rejecting monocausal climatic theories and emphasizing human agency and resilience in the face of external stressors, is very much focused on the big historical picture: “generalized trends in human activity” and “broader structures and longer-term social … processes.”37 But what of the individuals who make up such “human activity?” How can we develop a better understanding of the actions, interactions, choices, and initiatives of ordinary people living in the 5th–6th centuries and their role within these processes?
A more recent set of studies on resilience, developed especially in the past decade, is that of Community Resilience Theory, which draws not on the physical sciences but instead on psychology and social sciences. This framework seeks to identify the internal social, economic, and network capacities that enable a community to successfully take action and reorganize after crisis.38 Community resilience theorists thus focus on the roles which ordinary people themselves can play at the local level in the face of external shocks. This contests the view of people as passive and “powerless spectators” of environmental or systemic processes39 and explores the power of their internal resources and actions.
Resilience theorists studying modern communities are able to observe and interview their subjects in order to arrive at conclusions. In contrast, we are trying to discern such capacities across the gulf in time which separates us from the ancient world. The textual sources are overwhelmingly urban in nature, and reflect the viewpoint of the church and aristocratic elite, but archaeology provides evidence of the life of rural people at different levels of society. Archaeological surveys and excavations of rural village sites carried out in recent decades allow us to observe overall patterns of settlement and enable the analysis of lifestyle, contact with other regions, farming and production practices, technological innovation, and religious building. Such sites make visible to us the agency of local individuals such as Athanasia, whose donations built a church at Ḥorvat Zikhrin; or Gaios, Seleucos, and Dometianos, the carpenters who constructed a winepress at Kafr Nabo.40 These material remains reflect the immaterial characteristics of rural communities and allow us to apply the lens of Community Resilience Theory to Late Antiquity, and to search for those factors identified as important to community resilience within the modern world.
On the basis of empirical studies of contemporary communities which have bounced back from crisis, Norris et al. have proposed a model of dynamic interactions between economic, social, and communication capacities within a community, which in combination enable resilience.41 They identify four key capacities: Economic Development, Information and Communication, Social Capital, and Community Competence (see figure 3). Thus, they argue, no one factor or cause can be identified, nor are the effects of external threats always identical and inevitable. It is a dynamic cluster of internal characteristics of communities that determines the effects of external shocks. Is it possible that late antique eastern Mediterranean communities had such a cluster of interacting capacities and were for this reason able to flourish exceptionally in the 5th to 6th centuries, in spite of natural disasters and crises?
The capacity of economic development includes volume of economic resources and also their diversity,42 since the more dependent a community is on one source of income, the more vulnerable it is to environmental and other shocks.43 A key strategy for increasing the resilience of coffee-growers in Malawi in the face of unreliable rainfall, for example, has been diversification of businesses to include tea, honey processing, and internet cafes.44 Another important element is the degree to which the assets or income of a community are equitably distributed across the population. Inequality was one factor identified in studies of the disastrous impact of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005, for example.45
In addition to the wide distribution and quantity of eastern export amphorae carrying agricultural products discussed above, we can also see from their settlement remains that late antique eastern Mediterranean villages had a high volume of economic resources, as well as some diversity in economic activities. For example, at the village of Déhès, northern Syria (see figure 1 for map of sites mentioned), comprising around 50 houses, there were 29 presses, mostly constructed in the 4th–6th centuries. Most were wine presses, although olive oil was also produced on a smaller scale.46 Each press was capable of producing many thousands of liters of wine annually, which was most likely directed to the urban markets of Apamea and Antioch on the Orontes.47 The very large number of animal troughs as well as abundant cattle, sheep, and goat bones indicate that viticulture was combined with animal husbandry, and inscriptions as well as tools attest artisan production such as stone-working and silk manufacture alongside oil and wine production in such northern Syrian villages.48 A similarly diverse mix of activities appears at Kopetra, Cyprus, which flourished in the 5th to early 7th centuries. Here there is evidence of pottery manufacture, metalworking connected to the extraction of copper nearby, and access to stone quarries, as well as olive oil processing.49 Both papyri and archeobotanical and archeozoological evidence attest that in the 4th- to late 6th-century Negev villages there was not only largescale cultivation of olives and grapes, but also different kinds of grains and legumes, dates, figs, and goats raised for meat.50
Perhaps more importantly, many such villages throughout the East seem to display a lack of extreme hierarchy. The absence of public buildings, apart from religious buildings, or of a formal street plan, reflects the organic and self-organized nature of these communities.51 While houses of different sizes indicate some distinctions of wealth or status, these are not differentiated by very marked contrasts of building materials and decoration. The ubiquity in the north Syrian villages of well-built two-story limestone houses decorated with carving prompted the comment from Foss that “everyone seems to have lived in the same way.”52 The houses at Déhès (ĝebel Bariŝa) were all decorated with columns and carved lintels and architraves (even in the case of smaller houses), and their inhabitants used imported Phocaean fineware; those of Serğilla and nearby villages in the ğebel Zawiyé further south are even more uniform and well-decorated (see figure 4).53
The same phenomenon can also be observed elsewhere: at the large village of Shivta, in the Negev, the houses are well-built of local limestone and quite uniform in style and layout, with decoratively carved doorways. Of the 170 housing units, nearly all fall within a standard size-range, with an average area of 364 m2 and seven rooms, and only 18 are significantly smaller (10) or larger (8). There is some degree of socio-economic stratification—particularly suggested by the presence of towers in a few houses—but the overall impression is of “a homogenous society, its families sharing a similar socio-economic position.”54 The houses in the 1st to 8th century village of Chhîm, Lebanon, although smaller, are described by the excavators as giving “the impression of having been quite egalitarian”: built of cut limestone blocks, there are no great differences in size (apart from a single larger example on the outskirts of the village), or in the artefacts found in the houses, such as African and Phocaean imported pottery and even imported marble trays.55 At the village of Karakabaklı, southern Anatolia, also, the 4th- to 6th-century two-story houses, ashlar-built with columns at their entrances, are similar to those of the north Syrian villages.56
While we do not know whether the inhabitants of such houses were small independent landowners, whose presence in the late antique East is attested in literature, papyri, and by inscriptions, or tenants, perhaps within the institution of emphyteusis, or on the domains of large land-owners,57 this is insignificant to the question of how equitably income was distributed across the population of the village. Whether the inhabitants were tenants or land-owners, the level of material culture found within their homes was similar, and their houses were comfortable and very alike in construction, arrangement, and decoration, in a way which seems to reflect shared prosperity and a degree of equitable distribution of income within the community.
INFORMATION AND COMMUNICATION
Another key community capacity is information and communication, including infrastructure and access to accurate information on which to base action or change.58 In a modern context, this includes access to reliable mass media and sophisticated communication technology: for example, the impetus to increase resilience in the wake of the disastrous Boxing Day tsunami of 2004 triggered the establishment of an international Indian Ocean region tsunami warning system based on seismographic, sea level, and deep sea pressure data.59 In the ancient context, access to information about distant markets, transport routes, and important military or political events and changes would have been vital to communities.
Until the 7th century, the Roman government played a significant role in the communication capacity of this region, particularly through the maintenance of a substantial infrastructure intended for military and state supplies, including state-controlled shipping, maintenance of roads, bridges, canals, way-stations, and sea and river ports, and the cursus publicus. This infrastructure linked places within the eastern Mediterranean and also connected them with important markets in the Black Sea and lower Danube. A number of late 3rd- to 4th-century inscriptions at the legionary forts on the lower Danube indicate the presence of soldiers from Syria, Phocaea, the Cyclades, and the Hellespont region who were in charge of ensuring lines of communication for the provisioning of troops, and communication between the Danube and the eastern Mediterranean was reinforced by the establishment of the quaestura exercitus by Justinian in 536 CE.60 Material evidence for this communication route is offered by substantial finds at lower Danube military sites of 5th- to 7th-century Levantine and Aegean amphora types.61 This infrastructure, as is well-recognized, formed a platform for commercial enterprise which spread beyond purely military markets. Private traders took advantage of channels of communication: the presence of an Alexandrian wine merchant is attested at the western Black Sea port of Tomis, for example, and products from the Aegean, Anatolia, Cyprus, the Levant, and Egypt appear equally strongly at civilian sites as far west as Butrint and on the northern coast of the Black Sea up to the 7th century.62 In this respect, we can see a dynamic interaction between individual and local agency and the framework provided by government, and between the two capacities so far outlined—economic development and information and communication.
An important addition to the communication channels of Late Antiquity was the Church and monastic networks. The late 4th to 6th centuries were a peak period of monastery building in the East,63 and the wide trade networks of some monasteries are well-attested archaeologically: for example, the monastery of Baramus, founded in the 4th century in the Wadi Natrun (ancient Sketis), an important monastic center in Egypt, was located more than 100 km from the nearest sea port of Alexandria, but from the 4th to 7th centuries it received imports from Cyprus, Tunisia, Anatolia, the Aegean, and the Levant, as well as the coastal Mareotis region.64 The extensive communications between monastic leaders, monks, and lay population are exemplified by the nearly 850 surviving letters of 6th century monastic leaders Barsanuphius and John, in Gaza.65 Lines of communication were strengthened through travel due to the “stream of visitors” brought by pilgrimage,66 the migration of the devout from other regions of the Empire to monasteries in the Levant, and the movements of monks from region to region within the monastic network.67 Pilgrim stations could be located within villages en route to sacred places. For example, in the village of Kafr ‘Aqab (northern Syria), a very large (728 m2) habitation annex to a church—the second in a village of around 70 houses—has been interpreted as housing for pilgrims, possibly built in the early 6th century when pilgrimage inspired by stylitism flourished in this area.68 A probable monastery building and xenodocheion for pilgrims was situated 70 m from the small Christian village of Ḥorvat Zikhrin (Israel), close to the Roman road from Antipatris to Jerusalem, which flourished, possibly due to its role as a stopping point on the pilgrimage route to Jerusalem, in the 6th-7th centuries.69 Monasteries were often located on the fringes of villages, and both archaeological evidence and texts suggest close economic and social relationships between monks and villagers.70 Such monastic foundations and pilgrim stations for travelers would have functioned as additional links in a communication network.
A third community capacity identified as a key to resilience is social capital, which is defined as networks of relationships between people which form actual or potential resources, analogous to the resources provided by financial or material capital.71 Norris et al. identify a number of features of social capital which are of relevance to resilience: these can include engagement in formal organizations such as religious congregations, local organizations which can coordinate or collaborate, social relations with neighbors, and community bonds or networks.72 It was observed, for example, that residents of a low-income but close-knit Vietnamese community in New Orleans returned and rebuilt more quickly than those in richer suburbs after destruction by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 because their close community, centered on their Catholic church and club house, provided shared goods and coordinated their efforts.73
In Late Antiquity, a mass of church building in eastern villages, beginning in the 4th century and peaking in the 5th, indicates engagement with a religious congregation which would have been a source of community cohesion and social capital (figure 5).74 Many dedicatory inscriptions indicate that rural churches were almost always set up by villagers themselves, and the same is true of synagogues in Jewish settlements: some name the villagers as collective donors or even builders, others name individuals.75 For example, the church built at Ḥorvat Zikhrin (Israel), probably in the mid-5th century, contains the dedication inscription by a woman named Athanasia; the largest of the 6th-century churches at Kopetra (Cyprus) contains a marble table with the monogram of a local patron, Menalaos.76 At Shivta (Israel), several dwelling units directly abut each of the three churches, and it has been suggested that these may have housed clans who had constructed that church.77 The flourishing of such church building at the heart of villages reflects not only Christianization and prosperity, but also the effective coordination of activities and direct engagement of such community members in religious congregations. While the role of the urban Church in charity and crisis management is far better recorded and studied,78 inscriptions, papyri, and mentions in hagiography of rural villagers seeking the miraculous intervention of a monastic leader in times of harvest damage or human and cattle plague79 also reflect the centrality of monastic and Church leadership within rural communities both for regular administration and in times of difficulty.
Further, the growth of the large village as the characteristic pattern of land exploitation and rural community in the late antique East80 could in itself have been a source of social capital. Villages grew in size, as discussed above, and many single farmsteads or small hamlets evolved into large villages during this period, as seen for example at Karakabaklı (southern Anatolia), where a farmstead evolved in the 4th to 6th centuries into a large 3 ha village;81 and in the ğebel Zawiyé of northern Syria, where smaller farmsteads or hamlets of only a few houses grew into true villages.82 In these farming communities, one to a few hundred people processed agricultural products and families lived cheek by jowl. The networks within these villages would have provided close kinship and community bonds and enabled effective cooperative endeavors. A vivid insight into such endeavors is provided by four ostraca found at Shivta, which attest a system of communal labor. Each villager contributed a period of work to the maintenance and cleaning of rainwater cisterns essential to the water supply and to the functioning of the large decorative pools which front the South Church, surrounded by stone benches and promenades, a layout which suggests community interaction and relaxation.83
We can see an example of how social bonds may have enhanced economic resources by looking at some significant technological innovations in late antique eastern Mediterranean oil and wine press construction. Multiple heavy stone weights hung on a long, thick lever had been used since Hellenistic times to press wine and oil throughout this region. In 4th- to 6th-century eastern villages, such old presses were frequently converted or new presses built using the technological innovation of a carved wooden screw raising a single large weight (figure 6). At Déhès (northern Syria), almost all the earlier presses were converted for use with a screw in the 4th to 6th centuries, and new late antique presses are all of the lever-and-screw type.84 At the village of Chhîm (Lebanon), about one third of the older lever and weights presses were rebuilt to accommodate a screw in Late Antiquity.85
Direct-screw presses without levers (figure 7) also became common in the late antique eastern Mediterranean: for example, a survey of oil presses in the central Golan Heights indicates that in Late Antiquity direct-screw presses were used at around two-thirds of sites, including in combination with lever and screw presses at around half of these.86 Such use of a screw within presses was known in various parts of the Empire, including Italy, Gaul, and the southern Iberian peninsula, from the 1st century onwards,87 but was not as widely applied. Notably, it was never used in the massive oil and wine production of Tunisia and Tripolitania.88 Rather, traditional press types, using tried-and-tested techniques and regional building methods, remained common in most regions up to Late Antiquity, particularly because presses were extremely long-lasting and were not transported.89 Roman technological and agricultural writers describe the design of presses and associated technology as “dictated by custom.”90 The widespread change in agricultural technology in late antique eastern Mediterranean villages presents an unusual flowering of innovation.
The setting up of a new press or conversion of an old one to new technology was an important financial investment, demanding valuable materials. The spatial distribution and sizes of presses in many late antique villages probably reflects shared ownership and shared neighborhood or kinship use of these installations.91 This is supported by evidence for communal use of press facilities in rabbinic texts of the period,92 and by ethnographic evidence from traditional villages of the region up to the 20th century, where shared presses were built by families or clan groups, or by a particular neighborhood within village communities.93 Shared use is also suggested by the arrangement of some press installations: for example, the scale of the treading floors and the simultaneous use of two, side-by-side, at the late antique (possibly 6th- to 7th-century) wine-making complex at Khirbet Yajuz (Jordan) suggests its use by different production teams or vine growers.94 The excavators of Serğilla (northern Syria) suggest from the location of the wine-making installation to the north of a group of houses in section 13 that it was probably shared and operated by them collectively.95 The layout of the Area G winepress (possibly 5th to 7th or 8th century) at Ḥorvat Zikhrin (Israel) suggests that it was shared by different village families (figure 8).96
The use of a screw did not make pressing quicker or productive of more oil or wine (contrary to the common misconception among historians) but made the work of pressing less tiring and safer, since it was easier to turn the wooden screw than to lift many heavy stone weights with ropes. The Alexandrian writer Hero describes a screw as making the press “easier and more secure” so that it can be worked “without much effort.”97 On the other hand, screw-operated presses required greater coordination of manpower: the old-style eastern presses with weights could be operated by a single person, lifting each weight in turn with a winch. Once lifted, the weights would exert continuous pressure on the fruit until they were lowered again. But a large screw press required at least two and up to six workers to turn the screw. Callot estimated that 2 to 4 workers would be needed to operate the north Syrian lever and screw mechanisms, an estimate supported by the images of two men working a screw in 6th-century mosaics from Jordan and Lebanon and ethnographic evidence of the working of similar presses in later periods (figure 9).98 In addition, the pressure exerted by direct-screw press types (operated without a lever) was not continuous, but had to be constantly renewed by fresh turns of the screw, as described by Hero.99 The use of a screw press therefore indicates access to a reliable source of cooperative labor within the village, and the choice to pool their efforts for the sake of a safer and less arduous system.
Thus both the methods of working the press and the ability to invest in their construction seem to have relied on the existence of close networks within villages: The spread of such screw presses in late antique eastern Mediterranean villages reflects their ability to draw on this social capital, as well as its dynamic interaction with the capacities for largescale economic activity and for effective communication with distant military and civilian markets.
The fourth capacity which has been identified as a key to resilience is that of community competence. This includes effective collaborations and constructive action based on consensus and shared goals as well as flexibility, creativity, and problem-solving skills. Bouncing back from crisis is not a passive process: it includes active envisioning and creation of a new norm by communities themselves.100 A contemporary example is the development of new agricultural technologies for water conservation and long-term restoration of soil fertility by the Mzuzu Coffee Planters Co-operative Union in Malawi, through both the introduction of new ideas from an international source and the organized sharing of expertise by local farmers at the village level.101 In the late antique eastern Mediterranean, the development of new forms of agricultural technologies—on which the long-term success of the important annual harvests depended—reveals community competence in the form of a shared goal of constructing a new press, consensus on what type of press should be used, and collaborative action to achieve its design and construction.
These innovations also indicate flexibility in the adoption of technical ideas communicated from outside, and creativity in developing new ones within the community. We see the adoption of ideas from elsewhere in, for example, the appearance of northern Syrian or Anatolian screw weight types used in presses at some southern Levantine monasteries, possibly because foreign monks brought technological innovations.102 A multiplicity of regional variants of particular screw weight forms, some with a very narrow range of distribution, indicates that imported concepts in press weight forms were not only directly adopted, but also creatively adapted.103 Further, some quite unique types of presses which are not paralleled elsewhere were developed in the 4th- to 5th-century East. In different regions of southern Israel, direct-screw types were built with grooved stone side piers (figure 10),104 and “cross presses” were carved into the rock walls of caves,105 while in Egypt some direct-screw presses were stabilized in niches, a type of arrangement not otherwise known until the 18th century.106 Double direct-screw presses (also known in later periods) were developed in the eastern Galilee and the Golan Heights.107 In the Mount Carmel region and northern Syrian villages, special roller crushers were used in the production of sweet raisin wine.108 A unique type of wine press with the screw fixed in a large stone mortise at the center of the treading-floor developed in certain areas of the Levant: such presses have been identified, for example, in villages of Northern Jordan and Israel (figure 8),109 and are depicted in church mosaics from Jordan and Lebanon.110 Where village presses have been closely studied, a myriad of distinctive variants have been found in individual elements such as the shape of mortises or weight-stones, apparently developed by local people who invented their own refinements. For example, a unique mortise arrangement on one pier of the direct-screw oil press at the village of Tel Safsafot (Israel) seems to have been designed for the addition of a capstan which would have provided a mechanical advantage, as in early modern presses in the region and elsewhere (figure 10);111 one of 13 wine presses at Ḥorvat Hermeshit (Israel) was most unusual in using two screws with attached weights, rather than one, an arrangement which would have exerted greater pressure and is paralleled at only two other known sites in the Roman world, both in the same area.112
These press innovations were not invented and built by state or military engineers, but were envisaged, developed, and crafted by ordinary carpenters, stone-masons, and farmers in the countryside, out of local materials and to local designs. An insight into the process is provided by the 3rd-century inscription at the village of Kafr Nabo in northern Syria, which states that the oil press was constructed by two stone masons (leukurgoi) named Antonios and Sopatros and three carpenters (tektones) named Gaios, Seleucos, and Dometianos, all of whom are honored in the inscription alongside the four sanctuary officials.113 The development of a new type or variant of press required of such local artisans both creativity and the ability to solve problems. The component parts of a press employing a screw were more complex, and needed to function more precisely, than those of a press using weights hung from the lever. The screw and a nut themselves had to be constructed with adequate skill, or the press would not function. They also required new types of mortises and stone counterweights with adequate anchorage for the screw, and adaptations to other parts such as the supporting elements, and this constellation of related wooden, metal, and masonry parts needed to be invented or developed in coordination with each other. Competence was needed in developing an abstract conception of how the final products would work together as a whole before they were built.114
The concept of communities of practice, inspired in part by anthropological study of traditional apprenticeships, offers a framework for understanding the link between social relationships in such village communities and both learning and creativity. This framework establishes the importance of social relationships and engagement in a communal purpose to the harnessing of creative innovation for coordinated action. Ancient villages can be conceived as such communities of practice, sharing joint enterprises, repertoires of tools and actions, and sustained relationships, in which the collective imagination and individual creativity could be nurtured by social interactions and aligned with the communal purpose.115
We can see the dynamic interaction between the four capacities of information and communication, social capital, community competence, and economic development in the adoption of new ideas from outside, the application of creative and problem-solving skills to the design and construction of new agricultural technology within villages (also requiring consensus and organization of manpower within production of a large volume of economic goods), and the harnessing of creative practices to communal economic goals.
The 4th to 6th centuries CE were a time of warfare, invasions, and natural disasters including widespread plague, earthquakes, and climatic instability. Yet archaeological evidence demonstrates that in this period rural village communities in the eastern Mediterranean flourished, with building and expansion, settlement of marginal land, high levels of agricultural production, foundation of churches and monasteries, and export of their products as far as the Iberian Peninsula and the Black Sea. By using the lens of Community Resilience Theory, we can shift our focus beyond large-scale government, environmental, and military processes to the people living in these villages. Drawing on psychological and social research, Community Resilience Theory identifies the human components of resilience in order to explain why some groups are resilient. This invites us to consider some of the specific ways in which the ordinary people of late antique communities successfully dealt with the circumstances in which they found themselves. Archaeological investigation of eastern Mediterranean rural village sites gives us the opportunity to assess evidence for the key, interacting capacities which Community Resilience theorists working on the modern world identify as important: economic development, information and communication, community competence, and social capital (figure 11).
In terms of the capacity of economic development, these villages seem to display a high volume and also a diversity of economic resources: while many engaged in intensive oil or wine production, growing and processing far more than their own needs, they also display diversity of economic activities, mixing this with animal raising, artisan activities, and other agricultural production such as growing figs. Further, the style of their houses and domestic objects suggest a relatively equitable distribution of income from these economic activities within the village. In terms of information and communication, it is clear that the continuation of state (including military) infrastructure and systems of communication to the 7th century contributed to the resilience of the eastern Mediterranean. Stable connections between even small villages and distant places is attested by the presence of exchanged goods, demonstrating the interaction between the two capacities of economic development and information and communication. Further access to information was provided in Late Antiquity by the development of channels of communication within the Church, together with travel due to pilgrimage and within the new network of monasteries, many of which were located close to agricultural villages. Both monasteries and churches also provided social capital, which must already have been present within the close-knit communities of villages which are so characteristic of the late antique eastern Mediterranean. The coordination of manpower and shared use of olive oil and wine-presses suggests that these communities could draw on such social capital for economic development. Local innovations in press technology demonstrate the capacity of community competence, revealing collaborative action based on consensus, flexibility in adopting external ideas and creativity and problem-solving skills in adapting them to local situations or inventing new arrangements, shared within a community of practice. In this respect, the archaeological evidence demonstrates interaction between all four capacities, as observed by Community Resilience scholars who have investigated communities in the modern world.
By considering this archaeological data we can examine the precise roles which people of the eastern Mediterranean countryside may have played at a local level in the face of external forces. We can thus throw more light on how ordinary villagers—by drawing on their internal resources—may have acted as historical agents in determining their own fate. Perhaps it can also help us to reflect on the characteristics we hold in common with people of the past, and our unchanging and shared humanity.