Researching climate and society in the ancient Near East

Past climate and environmental changes are much discussed topics in archaeology, especially in relation to their potential effects on societies. While topical globally, the issue is very relevant to the Near East, with its semi-arid to arid climate and strong climatic gradients within short distances. Consequently, many past socio-economic changes as observed in the Near Eastern archaeological record have been ascribed to climatic changes, such as the start of agriculture in the Early Holocene, and the ‘collapse’ of empires such as the Akkadian one around 4.2 ka BP and the Hittite empire around 3.2 ka BP. On the other hand, the notion that communities may have been resilient at times of marked climate change has become more accepted recently.

The current debate on the presence or absence of an effect of climate change on past societies in the Near East suffers from a lack of high-resolved and precisely dated climate and environmental records covering the entire region. Furthermore, chronological uncertainties of archaeological records are an additional obstacle to establish firm links between climatic and societal changes. In addition, there is still a contrast in interpretation between ‘scientific’ and ‘social’ researchers, i.e. climate-determinism versus social explanations for socio-economic changes. In order to combine expertise to further the debate, this research group brings together researchers from different disciplines to assess the complex interrelationships between society, climate, and environment in the Near East. We aim to re-assess existing and provide new, high-resolution climate reconstructions, and to re-assess and provide new archaeological records and to compare them with environmental data.

Speleothem2Specifically, members of our group are focusing on re-assessing the impact of rapid climate events on Near Eastern societies, such as in the Neolithic (9.2 ka and 8.2 ka BP events; Dr Pascal Flohr) and in the Bronze Age (4.2 ka BP event and Bronze Age-Iron Age transition; Sarah Jones). At the same time research continues by the Central Zagros Archaeological Project (Prof. Roger Matthews and Dr Wendy Matthews) at Neolithic sites in different environments in the Iraqi and Iranian Zagros, while high-resolution climate data is being derived from speleothem archives from Turkey, Iraq, Yemen and Oman by Prof. Dominik Fleitmann and Dr Stuart Black.