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Chapter 20

Shimon Gibson

The archaeology of agricultural terraces in the Mediterranean

zone of the southern Levant and the use of the optically
stimulated luminescence (OSL) dating method


A general summary is given on archaeological work made on agricultural terraces in the Mediterranean
zone of the southern Levant during the last decades, while also taking into consideration recent research
made on the same subject in different parts of the world. The construction and dating of terraces is the main
focus of this paper. It also addresses the use of optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) as a dating proce-
dure for the study of terraces and assesses how useful it has become in archaeological endeavours. While
the importance of using this added tool for the dating of terraces cannot be under-estimated, it is suggested
that this procedure might seriously falter unless undertaken in combination with the overall methodology of
landscape archaeology.

20.1 Introduction

A cardinal problem in the archaeological investigation

of ancient agricultural terracing in the Mediterranean
zone of the southern Levant has been one of dating.
Various solutions have been proposed for the direct
dating of individual terraces, based on the identifica-
tion of styles of wall-construction, and on pottery
finds and radiocarbon determinations of carbonized
materials derived from their retained fills. None of
these dating tools was seen to be wholly satisfactory.
In recent decades, field archaeologists have been using
the method of landscape archaeology to help overcome
this problem by studying terracing as a component of
a myriad of interlinking agricultural features appearing
on the slopes of hills and in valleys. This method, which
examines the overall morphological and chronological
patterning of ancient features in historic landscapes,
has been shown to be highly useful when dating dis-
crete terrace systems which are lacking in associated
dateable materials, particularly in the case of terraces
that have seen much modification and rebuilding over
thousands of years. Recently, optically stimulated lu-
minescence (OSL) has been championed as a primary Figure 20.1: Aerial view of terracing in the Judean
tool for establishing the date of individual terraces in a highlands (photo: Duby Tal).
number of archaeological projects undertaken in the
southern Levant. We argue that while this method may
be helpful in dating terraces, it is fraught with many 20.2  History of terrace research
problems when disassociated from other available dat- 20.2.1  Worldwide research
ing methods. Hence, in order to achieve overall success
in the dating of terraces, the use of OSL should be In his seminal study on ancient landscapes from 1957,
encouraged in projects with strong and well-structured Bradford complained that because terracing is so
research designs connected to landscape archaeology ubiquitous in the Mediterranean area, its archaeo­logy
(figure 20.1). is often overlooked (1957: 30). The year 1961 saw the

The archaeology of agricultural terraces and OSL dating. Erlanger Geographische Arbeiten Band 42 (2015): 295–314
296 Shimon Gibson

publication of the important geographical study on thought to be of Mycenaean or Classical age. An im-
agricultural terraces made by Spencer and his student portant study of ancient terraces around Tenta in the
Hale (1961). In this study they proposed to contra- Vasilikos Valley in southern Cyprus was undertaken
dict the notion that terraces reflect the influence of by Wagstaff (1992: 155–161). An additional study
environment over man and suggested, instead, that of terraces was made in Crete (Moody and Grove
terraces reflect man’s cultural technological ability 1990). Terraces were also investigated in the area
to improve upon the natural landscape. According of the hillfort Nadin in Dalmatia (Yugoslavia) and
to Spencer and Hale (1961: 2), “the distribution of dated to the late pre-Roman Iron Age (first century
terracing does not agree at all with the distribution BCE) (Chapman and Shiel 1991: 72). Additional
of agriculture in the rough lands of the earth so that terraces linked to a centuriated Roman field system
it is a matter of culture rather than one of environ- were examined on the Dalmatian island of Hvar, off
mental influence. Agricultural terracing has a very the coast of Yugoslavia (Gaffney et al. 1991: 63f.).
old history in the hand of man, and today is very The massive scale of the walls of these terraces were
widespread over the world. As such an important apparently seen to be not just a response to land
imprint, it deserves far more attention than it has gradient but were connected to the process of stone
received from all disciplines concerned with human clearance from the fields.
occupation of the earth.” In recent decades there has been a plethora of stud-
Spencer and Hale suggested that terracing origi- ies on terracing in New World (Williams 1990; Dun-
nated in a number of different parts of the world and ning and Beach 1994; Pérez-Pérez et al. 2012), Far
from these geographical centres was then diffused Eastern (Acabado 2009) and Mediterranean contexts
and spread further afield. They postulated that the (French and Whitelaw 1999; Bevan and Conolly
oldest dry-field terracing originated in the Near East 2002-2004; Bevan and Conolly 2011; Bevan et al.
(c. 2000 BCE) and was then diffused to other parts of 2013; Rackham et al. 2010). Studies of terraces have
the Old World (Spencer and Hale 1961: 33: map). also been conducted in Yemen (Vogel 1988; Gibson
As a result of this work, research on terraces was and Wilkinson 1995; Harrower 2008). In the north
later conducted in different parts of the world (for Caucasus mountains of southern Russia, terraces were
example, Wright 1962; Wheatley 1965). Many of the recently studied and dated back to the first half of the
ensuing studies of terraces tended to lend support to first millennium BCE (Korobov and Borisov 2013:
Boserup’s model of population pressure as a primary 1100). These research projects continued to deal with
cause of agricultural intensification (Boserup 1965). key aspects of terrace construction and technology
In 1979 Donkin published an important mono- (Hard et al. 1999), the reasons behind the expansion
graph on New World agricultural terracing. Donkin of terrace systems (Smith and Price 1994), the social
first turned to the subject when he found that agri- context of terracing in different environments taking
cultural terracing had been “strangely neglected” by into account textual sources (Price and Nixon 2005),
students of the cultural landscape of South America and issues relating to the abandonment of terraces
(Donkin 1979). Since then work was initiated by a and erosion (James et al. 1994; Inbar and Llerena
number of different scholars (notably, Denevan 1988; 2000; Lasanta et al. 2001). The dating of terraces
Turner 1983) and some terraces in Peru were even still remains a notoriously difficult matter in many
excavated and restored (Keeley 1984; Treacy 1987). of these studies (e.g. Frederick and Krahtopoulou
Attempts to estimate the amount of time necessary 2000: 89ff.; Bevan et al. 2013: 269f.).
for terrace construction in the Peruvian highlands,
has shown that this depends on environmental factors
20.2.2  Research in the southern Levant
(the availability of stones and soil, and the distance
they have to be brought from) and human factors In the Near East and the southern Levant in par-
(the character of the builders and the effort they put ticular, agricultural terraces have been the subject
into the work) (Guillet 1987). of much scholarly interest from the early twentieth
In the Mediterranean area, important research century onwards, with research objectives changing
on terraces and the changing landscape was under- over time. Terracing in the marginal semi-arid and
taken by a group of scholars working in the southern desert regions of the southern Levant was of particu-
Argolid of Greece (Van Andel et al. 1986; Van lar interest to geographers and archaeologists alike
Andel and Runnels 1987: 145–152, Figs. 10-12). owing to their accessibility for research, as opposed
They suggested that these terraces were probably to work on terracing in the highland regions of the
first built at the time of the Mycenaeans. Terraces Mediterranean zone, where many terrace systems are
were also investigated by Zangger (1992: 144ff.) in still under cultivation and abandoned terraces show
the Berbati-Limnes area just east of Mycenae on the clear signs of having undergone major structural
Peloponnese and the older terraces in this area are modifications and rebuilding over time. We will not
Chapter 20 – The archaeology of agricultural terraces and OSL dating 297

be discussing terracing in the semi-arid and desert graphy presented to the Hebrew University in 1964.
regions because the focus of this paper is specifically Two years later, Ron published the results of this study
on the archaeology of terracing in the highland re- in a two-part article (1966: 33–49 and 111–122; for a
gions of the Mediterranean zone (for recent work on revision of this study, see Ron 1977a-b) which dealt
desert terracing in southern Israel, see: Haiman 2012; with various factors (climatic, tectonic, topographical,
Bruins 2012; Erickson-Gini 2012; Ashkenazi et al. lithological-morphological, hydrographical) including
2012: 57f.; Avni et al. 2012; Avni et al. 2013; and in the distance of terraces from villages, all of which he
southern Jordan: Rice 2010; Beckers et al. 2013). regarded as crucial in determining the spatial distribu-
Terraces in the Mediterranean zone of the south- tion and formation of terraces. This was followed by
ern Levant were seen in the 1960s to be morphological Ron’s Ph.D. thesis on agricultural towers and their
features of landscapes of interest primarily to geog- connection to highland terracing (1977c). Ron also
raphers, with researchers showing little concern with published a short paper dealing with the subject of
issues of chronology and archaeological association. erosion and terracing (1977d). Since then, he has
However, this changed in the 1970s and 1980s, with reworked some of the results of his earlier research
scholarly interest ensuing among biblical historians in a number of follow-up studies, mainly on irrigation
and archaeologists in regard to the origin of terracing terraces (Ron 1979; 1985; 1986). While his researches
in the highlands of the Palestine region, which was were pioneering in many ways, they clearly lacked the
seen to have been concomitant with the emergence of important dimension of archaeology and ethnography.
the Israelites, c. 1000 BCE. Much research therefore Ethnographers have almost totally ignored the subject
was conducted on the biblical aspects of terracing, of terracing in their studies of traditional peasant
but the matter of their dating was not dealt with ap- agriculture in Palestine (figure 20.2). Dalman in the
propriately, resulting in (incorrect) speculation that second volume of his monumental Arbeit und Sitte
terracing in the southern Levant did not pre-date in Palästina (1932: 23f.) dedicated very little space to
the early Iron Age. Archaeological excavations were the matter. The same is true of the work of the Pol-
eventually carried out on terraces in the late 1980s, par- ish ethnographer Turkowski (1969: 24) dealing with
ticularly in the highlands around Jerusalem, showing traditional agriculture in the Judean Hills; apart from
that they were indeed locations fit for archaeological noting that farmers recognised that communal effort
investigation, and that the best method of study was was necessary in maintaining terraces, he added very
that of landscape archaeology (Gibson 1995). Ter- little else to the subject.
racing was shown at Sataf to date back to the early Interest in the possibilities of archaeological re-
third millennium BCE (Gibson et al. 1991). search into terraces began in the 1970s. Following a
As mentioned previously, pioneering modern field trip to Israel in 1973, De Geus published an in-
research into agricultural terraces in Palestine was fluential paper proposing that archaeological research
initially conducted by geographers. An important should be conducted on agricultural terraces (De Geus
study of terraces in the area of the Mountain of 1975). That same year Stager began a pioneering
Lebanon was published by Lewis (1953). It dealt not
only with the various methods of terrace construction
but also with the part they played in the economy of
Lebanon at the time the article was written. In his
highly influential article from 1953 on the pattern
of settlement in Palestine, Amiran, the doyen of
modern geography in Israel, wrote that “much of the
land cultivated in the uplands is made up of small
terraces, levelled and reinforced by stone walls at great
expense of labour.” He warned that their condition
was so precarious that if not kept under permanent
maintenance they would begin deteriorating rapidly.
Amiran pointed out that many of the slopes of the
Judaean Hills “show traces of old terrace-cultivation;
but following centuries of abandonment very little soil
is left on them today.” (Amiran 1953: 67).
A project which focussed on agricultural terracing
in the Judaean Hills, especially west of Jerusalem, Figure 20.2: Terraces in the area of Beit Jala on the southern
was initiated by Ron, one of Amiran’s students, in outskirts of Bethlehem. Note that some terraces are in a state of
1958 and was continued until 1960. The results of his abandonment, whereas others have been ploughed and cultivated
research were included in his M. Sc. Thesis in Geo­ (photo: Shimon Gibson).
298 Shimon Gibson

survey of terraces in the region between Hebron and for the first time (Edelstein et al. 1983). From 1980,
Nablus (summarized results appear in Stager 1975: Edelstein (with various collaborators) carried out
236–258) but admitted that in those days he could detailed surveys and excavations of terraces and sites
“find hardly a soul interested in the topic” (personal in the Rephaim Valley (Edelstein et al. 1998). Between
communication, 20 December 1985). This was to 1987-1989 a project of landscape archaeology with
change during the course of the 1970s with surveys of surveys and excavations of terraces was undertaken
terraced landscapes in Samaria by Dar (1986), with at Sataf and in the Soreq Valley (Gibson et al. 1991).
research by Edelstein into terraces surrounding an In the 1990s and 2000s terraced landscapes were
ancient settlement at Mevasseret Yerushalayim, west also investigated by archaeologists from the Israel
of Jerusalem, between 1977 and 1978 (Edelstein Antiquities Authority in many emergency projects
and Kislev 1981), and with surveys of the terraces at ahead of large scale building projects (e.g. Modi’in),
Khirbet er-Ras and in the Rephaim Valley, southwest resulting in an abundance of data, of which much,
of Jerusalem, by Edelstein between 1979-80. But it unfortunately, is still unpublished. On an academic
was only during the course of the 1980s that large level, there has been a greater interest during the
scale archaeological projects designed to investigate last decade in the utilization of a wider spectrum of
the history of terraced landscapes were carried out landscape studies in archaeological projects, resulting
in the active investigation of terraces as components
of landscapes in Israel / Palestine (Gibson et al. 2000;
Pfann et al. 2007; Ackermann et al. 2008) and in
Jordan (Christopherson and Guertin 1995; Rice
2010). The method of landscape archaeology, com-
bined with various dating tools, was mostly used in
these investigations (Barker et al. 1999; Gibson 1995;
Gibson 2003). New projects aimed at the study of ter-
racing have been conducted in recent years at Ramat
Rahel, Khirbet er-Ras and at Har Eitan, using OSL as
the primary tool for dating (Davidovitch et al. 2012).

20.3  Terrace technology and construction

20.3.1  Highland terraces

Terracing is undoubtedly one of the most striking

Figure 20.3: Terraces on a hillside and in a valley in the Judean Hills
manmade features dominating the highland agri-
between Bethlehem and Hebron (photo: Shimon Gibson).
cultural landscapes of the southern Levant (figure
20.3). The amount of human effort which went into
building these hundreds of thousands of terraces is
staggering. An agricultural terrace may be defined as
an artificially flattened or built-up surface which is
much more horizontal than the land surface which
preceded it. The terrace is constructed in order to
provide additional ground space for the cultivation
of fruit trees and other crops. Flowing water, whether
from rain or from a spring, spreads across the levelled
surface and provides soil moisture for crop growth.
The capacity of the terrace to absorb and conserve
moisture depends on the depth and soil texture of
the terrace deposits.
Terraces are located on the slopes of hills (known
as “lateral” or “contour” terraces), on sloping plateau
areas (known as “enclosure” terraces), and across gul-
lies and valleys (known as “cross-channel” terraces or
Figure 20.4: Irrigated terraces at Battir, south-west of Jerusalem, in a “check dams”) (for alternative nomenclatures used
photograph by Krikorian taken in the late nineteenth century (photo: for terraces in Crete and the Aegean, see: Moody and
Palestine Exploration Fund). Grove 1990: 183f.; Frederick and Krahtopoulou
Chapter 20 – The archaeology of agricultural terraces and OSL dating 299

2000: 80f.). Natural drainage patterns were thereby

transformed. Sheet erosion, in particular, is effectively
reduced by terracing on slopes. In the central highlands
of Israel terracing is usually to be found in areas of
limestone and dolomite rocks which have reddish-
brown terra rossa or greyish-white rendzina soils
(Orni and Efrat 1980: 57f.). Hillslopes with natural
bedrock shelves, created by alternating strata of lime-
stone and dolomite interspersed with thin layers of
chalky marl, were the most accessible for agricultural
terracing (for further lithological considerations, see
Ron 1966: 43ff.; Ron 1977a: 216f.).
The terraces discussed here are located in the
highlands of the Mediterranean zone with a climate
combining fairly short winters (with an annual rain-
fall of 400-800 mm a year) and long dry summers.
North-facing slopes were the prime areas chosen
for terraced dry farming, since those terrace walls
would have been less exposed to the rays of the sun Figure 20.5: Irrigated terraces at Sataf, west of Jerusalem, showing
and so the soils would retain moisture better. This is a subsidiary water-collecting pool and water-distribution channels on
particularly evident in the areas of terracing on the the terraces below the two springs (drawing: Shimon Gibson).
border of the Mediterranean and semi-arid zones.
The number of terraces on a slope of a hill varies,
depending on the height of the hills and the width of
the terrace structures. Wilson (1906: 200) counted 70 Palestine and in one early rabbinical source we hear
or 80 serried terraces on a single hillside in Lebanon. that “during mid-festival and during the Seventh
Many terraces were part of continuous systems, Year an irrigated field may be watered whether from
sometimes enclosed by stone fences. However, there a newly flowing spring or from a spring that is not
were also fragmented systems with terminal-walls, as newly flowing; but it may not be watered from (col-
well as isolated small terraces. lected) rainwater or from a swapewell...” (M. moed
katan 1:1; Danby ed.).
20.3.2  Irrigation terraces
20.3.3  Valley terraces
Irrigated terraces associated with aquifer-fed springs
of water in the highlands were much better built and The transformation of the narrow valley bottoms in
maintained than those used for dry farming (figures the highlands into a series of terraced levelled fields
20.4-20.5). They were used for growing vegetables required a lot of work. The valleys west of Jerusalem
and crops which required a permanent source of were up to 60 metres wide. Such limited catchments
water. Irrigated valley and contour terraces are usu- needed to have concentrated soil and water resources,
ally larger and broader than those on the slopes, with especially in the case of narrow wadis and gullies which
well levelled horizontal surfaces enabling the equal were usually terraced from one side to the other. Gully
distribution of water across the cultivation plots. Ron terraces were either part of a continuous system of
(1985: 151) has recorded some 87 spring-irrigated check dams (Golomb and Kedar 1971: 139; Dar
terrace systems in the hills west of Jerusalem, and 1986: 202) or were integrally related as a continuation
these represent only 0.6% of the total of terracing of contour terraces on the adjacent slopes.
in the same region. Additional spring-irrigated ter- With the broader valleys, such as the Rephaim
race systems have been investigated by Dar (1986: or Soreq Valleys west of Jerusalem, care was taken
199ff.) in western Samaria. The existence of traces of to control the concentrated flow of winter flood
proto-historic terracing adjacent to a spring at Sataf waters accumulating from the nearby slopes (Ron
probably suggests concomitant irrigation of terraced 1966: 116ff.). This was done by the construction of
slopes already existed by the early third millennium an artificial channel-bed along the length of a val-
BCE (on the relationship between terracing and ir- ley, fenced with a stone wall on either side (figure
rigation: Donkin 1979: 132; Guillet 1987: 409f.). 20.6). The drainage channel in the Rephaim Valley
The extent of hand-irrigated terraces, with water was approximately 3 metres wide, and the retaining
taken from wells or cisterns, is unclear. However, this stone walls on either side were about 1.5 metres high.
practice was known from at least Roman times in Alternatively, the flood water could be diverted from
300 Shimon Gibson

its original bed into a fenced channel extending along 20.3.4  Terrace deposits
one side of a valley. This allowed for continuous
cultivation over larger expanses of soil. This was the In the past three decades numerous agricultural
case at Bir Ayyub in the Kidron Valley near Jerusalem terraces have been excavated in different parts of
(Gibson 2014). Israel / Palestine: near Beth Shemesh, in Modi’in, in
the hills of Judaea and Samaria, and in the Carmel.
The internal deposits of partly collapsed terraces have
also been investigated during comprehensive surveys
in the Judaean Hills (Gibson and Edelstein 1985).
On the basis of all these investigations, a number of
general comments may now be made about the con-
struction of hillslope terraces in the central highlands
of Israel / Palestine (figure 20.7).
Terraces on hillslopes in the central highlands
were artificially built over exposed bedrock and filled
up with considerable amounts of earth and stone
brought from the near vicinity or from a distance. It
required an enormous investment of energy. It has
been estimated, for instance, that 1500 donkey-loads
of material would be required to fill a terrace which is
10 metres long and about 5 metres high (Rozenson et
al. 1994: 71). The time it would take to build a terrace
depended also on environmental and human factors
(cf. Guillet 1987). The practice of transporting fills
over distances is also attested to in other parts of the
world (Spencer and Hale 1961: 20). The deliber-
ate filling of terraces with soil in Palestine during
Roman times was clearly referred to in an early rab-
binical source (M. shebiith 3:8; Danby ed.). Where
pre-existing soils were to be found on the slope of a
given hill, these were incorporated into the terrace fills
or cleared and reused as terrace fills elsewhere, as at
Manahat, Masu‘a and Sataf. The aim was to obtain
a sufficient depth of terrace soil which would then
absorb and conserve moisture (figure 20.8).
The topsoil of terraces is usually high in organic
Figure 20.6: Fenced artificial channel bed in the matter owing to sedimentation, to manuring practices
Rephaim Valley, south-west of Jerusalem (photo: and to the decomposition of plant debris. Stoniness
Gershon Edelstein, Jerusalem Survey). was definitely a factor which increased water infiltra-

Figure 20.7: A section through terraces in the Judean Hills: (1) stone terrace wall with batter; (2) internal stone fill; (3)
lower stone fill; (4) soil deposits; (5) plough-zone with partly decomposed organic litter (drawing: Shimon Gibson).
Chapter 20 – The archaeology of agricultural terraces and OSL dating 301

tion, preserving the terrace surface from heavy rain

and preventing crust formation. While water conser-
vation was important, the quick drainage of excess
water was clearly also imperative for the stability of
the terrace structure and prevented the lower deposits
from becoming waterlogged. Therefore, many terraces
contained a series of deliberately-laid fills of stone.
These were laid behind the terrace walls and over
bedrock, and served to facilitate the efficient drain-
age of surplus rainwater absorbed by the terrace soils
(a similar phenomenon was observed by Spencer
and Hale 1961: 16). We also note that terraces near
the foot of hills contained larger quantities of these
stony deposits than those near the summits. Deposits
of soil were subsequently added over the stony fills.
Stony deposits were clearly absent in the terraces
investigated in areas of soft chalky limestone, as at
Ras ’Amar, and in some extremely rocky areas, for
instance at Um Rihan, where stones appear to have
been deliberately removed from the terrace deposits.

20.3.5  Terrace walls

Terraces were normally retained by stone walls of dry-
built construction founded on bedrock. Mortar ap- Figure 20.8: Experimental archaeology with the
pears never to have been used to bind stones together construction of a terrace at Sataf in 1989 (photo:
in terracing. The height of terrace walls depended on Shimon Gibson).
a number of different factors: the angle of the slope,
the breadth of the terrace, the availability of stones of the stones were deliberately trimmed during con-
for the terrace walls, the availability of appropriate soil struction. Indeed, in south-western Jerusalem there
and stones deposits for the terraces, and the skill of is evidence that large irregular chunks of stone were
the builder. Walls which were not built on to bedrock being deliberately removed from the bedrock surface,
tended to be very low, usually no more than 30 cm in before being split up and trimmed into regular sized
height (Wilson 1906: 199). Contour terrace walls (no stones for the terrace walls. Some stones came from
more than 20 cm high) were observed by us to have backslope cutting which took place during terrace
been built above a thin layer of soil on slopes south construction in areas with softer types of limestone,
of Hebron. The larger amounts of deposits in wide but this was quite a rare phenomenon. It is not clear
and high terraces increased the difficulties of efficient whether the backslope cutting shown in Lewis’ sec-
construction. Terrace walls were never vertical but tion drawing of stone wall terraces in Lebanon was
always had an external batter or rearward slope. The based on observed fact or assumption (Lewis 1953: 3).
general rule is that the higher the wall, the greater the The absence of available stone did not restrict
external batter. terrace building. In the lower Galilee, Golomb and
Stones for the walls came from a variety of differ- Kedar (1971: 137) studied a system of hillslope ter-
ent sources: fieldstones scattered on natural slopes, races which were not retained by stone walls. These
stones from quarries and stones from the ruins of terraces were mistakenly described by Golomb and
ancient settlements. Ron (1966: 34) suggested that Kedar as “strip lynchets”; there is at present no evi-
the terrace wall served as “a depository for the stones dence to suggest that they were formed by a process
cleared from the terrace surface...”. This would only of ploughing. They were probably largely formed
be true if the terrace walls had been erected solely by backslope quarrying. At Ras ’Amar, north-west
to retain pre-existing soils. However, this was clearly of Jerusalem, similar terraces containing rendzina
not the case for much of the central highlands of fills have been excavated. These fills were held in
Israel / Palestine. Indeed, during later periods of ex- place by the deliberate growth of a hardy shrub, the
tensive terracing, stones sometimes had to be brought thorny burnet (Sarcopoterium spinosum L.), along
from great distances (see the reference to this in a the external sloping banks. The shrub appears to have
rabbinical source: M. shebiith 3:9; Danby ed.). The been allowed to grow even along the edges of terraces
use of selected stones was common practice and many which had stone retaining walls.
302 Shimon Gibson

must be taken not to assume that the technology of

one set of terraces will necessarily be repeated in other
areas. For example, Golomb and Kedar (1971: 138)
have suggested, wrongly we believe, that terracing in
the Galilee was “inferior” to the kind found in the
Judaean Hills (see also the comments by Gal 1991:
108-109, on the terraces of the Lower Galilee). The
reason for this, they suggested, was that the inhabit-
ants of Galilee were tenant farmers “who lacked the
resources for the construction of elaborate terrace
work.” (Golomb and Kedar 1971: 138). This sug-
gestion is totally unsubstantiated and there are just
as many different types of terraces in the Galilee as
there are in the Judaean Hills.
Variations in the construction of terraces can oc-
cur even within one system of terraces on the same
hillslope, especially where there is evidence indicating
continuous use over different periods. This may occur
for a number of reasons. Firstly, various parts of the
terrace system may have been built piecemeal in dif-
ferent periods. The earliest terraces were most likely
to have been built out of local materials, whereas later
builders may have been forced to make use of materials
taken from further afield. The way in which terraces
were built will also have been affected by the type of
stones and deposits available. Secondly, some terraces
will be completely rebuilt at various periods, whereas
others will undergo several phases of wall heightening
Figure 20.9: Terrace with a double-faced wall exca­ (as at Sataf). These variations in the technology of
vated at Sataf (photo: Shimon Gibson). terrace construction make it virtually impossible to
establish a clear typology of terraces for the Levant.
Some of the terraces investigated (as at Ras et-Tawil, Spencer and Hale (1961: 7ff.; see the critical remarks
Sataf, and et-Tell) had double-faced walls (figure 20.9). by Wheatley 1965: 143), however, have proposed six
The stones in the internal face of these walls are usu- terrace types for the Near East, two of which were
ally much smaller than the stones in the external face. in use in the dry or semi–arid areas (for alternative
This suggests that the inner face of these walls served typologies of terraces: Moody and Grove 1990: 183f.;
to facilitate the drainage of surplus rainwater in much Frederick and Krahtopoulou 2000: 80f.).
the same way as the internal stone fills in other ter- The main motivation for the construction of
races. Double-faced walls are, of course, much more horizontal areas of agricultural land on the hillslopes
sturdy and resistant to collapse than single-faced was to yield better cropping surfaces, and, as we have
terrace walls, but in terms of construction are much shown elsewhere (Gibson et al. 1991), this can be
more labour-intensive. traced back to the time of the earliest rural settle-
ments in the highlands dating from the beginning
of the third millennium BCE. The construction and
20.3.6  Terrace construction
maintenance of terrace systems is labour-intensive
All terrace construction requires some form of dig- and so this would only have been undertaken by
ging, piling and the carrying of earth and stone people leading a sedentary or semi-pastoral way of
deposits. However, the details of the construction life. The earliest terracing was probably a direct result
methods of terraces can vary from one sub-region of the need to extend or create agricultural lands on
of the highlands of Israel / Palestine to another. In the slopes of hills adjoining the wadi beds. Cultiva-
some areas where the slopes had a sufficient cover tion can only occur without terracing on land of less
of soil, notably in the Galilee and in the Lebanon than 10º to 15º of slope (Wagstaff 1992: 155; Bevin
(Spencer and Hale 1961: 8f.; cf. Wagstaff 1992), and Conolly 2002-2004: 126; Rackham et al. 2010:
terraces were constructed by back-slope digging and 269). Interest in the conservation of soil and water
fore-slope filling. The original surface soils would then was perhaps of secondary importance. Some contour
have been used to cap the terrace fills. Therefore, care terracing was established contiguous and without
Chapter 20 – The archaeology of agricultural terraces and OSL dating 303

any clear-cut boundary to enclosed field systems on their stability owing to stabilizing vegetation even
plateaus and in broad valleys. when abandoned. It was perhaps a factor only at the
time of extensive terracing in the Iron II period, with
the growing scarcity of agricultural lands, that farmers
20.3.7  Woodland clearance and erosion
began to show a greater concern for widespread soil
Processes of deforestation and devegetation would erosion. Spencer and Hale (1961: 26) have noted that
have preceded any terracing activities in the high- soil erosion “becomes a concern only to peoples who
lands of Israel / Palestine, from the very beginnings have long occupied a given landscape.” The erosion of
of permanent agricultural settlement there and until entire terrace systems in the highlands is usually a very
the latter part of the Iron Age. Originally, the tree gradual process, but actual walls tend to collapse quite
cover and its undergrowth prevented the loss of soil rapidly especially after strong rainfall. Hence, a lot of
and water, and absorbed the energy of rain impact. human labour went into the unceasing maintenance
The methods adopted in clearing areas of woodland of terrace walls. This is a fact which we should keep
would have relied on the various technologies avail- in mind when dating terraces (see below).
able in different periods. Hence, deliberate firing of There are quite a number of terrace systems west
areas of woodland is still a distinct possibility in very of Jerusalem which have not been cultivated since
earlier periods, though one which needs proving. There 1948, but yet are still in a fairly good state of preser-
can be no doubt that the removal of the woodland vation even after close to 70 years of abandonment
in the immediate vicinity of settlements without (see also in Spain: Solé-Benet et al. 2010). This is
concomitant terracing would have meant substantial usually the case in regard to former terraces which
soil loss (Christopherson and Guertin 1995). Non- have seen recolonization with stabilizing vegetation
terraced slope cultivation with soil-exposing crops (for a similar phenomenon, see James et al. 1994: 412;
(notably wheat) would have been disastrous. The soil Bevan et al. 2013: 271). Abandoned terraces appear
erosion would have been even further intensified by to be particularly vulnerable if the land loses its sur-
over-grazing and the quarrying of slopes for stone. face vegetation (Ron 1977b), as a result of intensive
It seems reasonable, therefore, that some form of over-grazing (in Spain: Lasanta et al. 2001), shrub
terracing was undertaken to prevent soil loss from removal as fuel for limekilns, or because of a rapid
the very earliest time of deforestation. Substantial succession of brush fires (cf. similar observations by
deforestation in the highlands probably only dates Van Andel and Runnels 1987: 147). The cutting
from the time of the earliest extensive terracing ac- and compacting of soils caused by animal hooves
tivities there, which, as I have pointed out elsewhere can also be disastrous in areas where the terrace fills
(Gibson 2001), took place in the Iron Age II period at are not very thick. The cessation of fallowing as a
the earliest, but areas of woodland continued to exist result of economic pressure can also accelerate the
until later periods. Recent evidence from the Valley of erosion of terrace deposits (Van Andel et al. 1986). It
Suba, north of Har Eitan, indicates a Hellenistic date is sometimes just one heavy rainfall on an abandoned
for the deforestation activities there, suggesting that terrace system, which can unexpectedly produce over-
the landscape dynamics of the hilly regions close to saturated soils and terrace wall degradation, with the
Jerusalem varied, with hillslope terracing co-existing
with areas of woodland.
Care was taken by farmers in antiquity to prevent
the collapse of terraces and the loss of their fertile
soils, by adopting certain management practices
(figure 20.10). Soils could have been kept in place by
the cultivation of perennial crops with deep roots,
such as deciduous fruit trees and vines. Grain crops,
however, could hasten the erosion of the topsoil of
terraces. Hence, localised soil erosion may have been a
concern for the earliest farmers. However, it is highly
unlikely that terracing was undertaken with the sole
motivation of preventing erosion processes and this
notion reflects modern values (cf. Ron 1966: 34; Ron
1977a: 210; Ron 1977b). The protection against soil
erosion was an end result and not a prime motivation.
In any case, the problem of widespread soil erosion
was definitely not an early concern, and in some cases Figure 20.10: Collapsed terrace wall at Horvat Sa’adim, west of
former terraced slopes (e.g. near Sataf) maintained Jerusalem (photo: Shimon Gibson).
304 Shimon Gibson

swelling and partial collapse of the retaining walls at 210) only 60 % of the total terraced area in the hills
vulnerable points. The eventual collapse of the terrace west of Jerusalem were in a state of cultivation prior
wall leads to the gradual erosion of the accumulated to 1948 (cf. Kendall 1949: 15, who estimated that
deposits, unless it is immediately repaired. Deep rills between 46 % and 55 % of the precipitous and steep
and gullies open up on the slopes of collapsed ter- slopes in the Nablus-Tulkarm area of Samaria had
race deposits and soil is washed down into the wadis. neglected terraces on them). Hence, there was very
Some of these deposits are then transported for a fair rarely any necessity for a farmer to build new terraces.
distance along the wadis, others increase sedimenta- Maintenance work on dry-farming terraces was only
tion processes. undertaken if there was sufficient labour available.
As a result, some existing terrace walls were left in
a state of disrepair even if the terraces were being
20.3.8  Traditional and modern terracing
cultivated. In some cases, old terraces were deliber-
Not enough modern ethnographic research has been ately destroyed. Upslope ploughing through ancient
conducted among the Palestinian farmers (fellahin) contour terracing was observed on a slope of a hill,
presently practising traditional terraced agriculture in to the south of Hebron (personal observation, 25
the central highlands. A small amount of work was August 1987). The intention of the farmer appears
undertaken by Dalman (1932: 23f.; 244 ff.) and later to have been to hasten soil erosion into the areas he
by Turkowski (1969). Additional data was collected was cultivating in the valley below. Terraces cultivated
during random interviews held by ourselves in 1979- under an irrigation regime (as at Battir) were mostly
1980 with farmers from Beit Jala and Shu‘fat near perfectly maintained at all times. In his study of ter-
Jerusalem. Important research was done by Lewis races around Palestinian villages, Ron (1977a: 223)
(1953) on terraced agriculture in the hills of Lebanon. was able to demonstrate that terraces became much
However, there is still a need for a proper project of more dispersed at a greater distance from the villages.
ethno-archaeology to be undertaken on areas of Terrace surfaces were usually ploughed. Extremely
traditional terracing in the Levant (figure 20.11). narrow terraces and the areas around trees were dug
The farmers from Beit Jala and Shu‘fat were with the use of mattocks or hoes (Turkowski 1969:
all found to be extremely proficient in the methods 25). Vines were either grown on wooden supports or
of maintaining terraces (Ar. sinsleh) but, on being tied to the ground in rows, spaced about 2 metres from
questioned, few of them admitted knowing how to each other, parallel to the terrace walls. Polyculture
construct new terraces from scratch. They themselves on terraces undercropped with cereals was quite
pointed out that there was always a plentiful number common in the highlands. Trees (figs, mulberries,
of old abandoned terraces available and so all one almonds, olives) tended to be planted along the outer
needed to do was to restore them and put them back edges of terraces, where the deepest fills were located
into use. This method was described by Post (1891: (Wilson 1906: 200). Piled stones or low walls were
116) in his essay on agriculture: “This procedure sometimes built around the base of trees growing on
is called naqb. It consists in turning over the soil, the gully terraces. The rest of the crops (vegetables,
prying out the rocks, and removing the stones from wheat and barley, or lentils) were grown between the
the loam, then building terrace walls or rubble, and trees and towards the back of the terraces. At Sataf,
levelling off the terraces...”. According to Ron (1977a: olive trees were spaced about 6 metres from each
other on the hillslope terraces. Around Hebron they
were spaced about 4 metres from each other. On the
terraces in the valleys, such as in the el-Baqa‘ Valley
close to Tekoa, olive trees tended to be spaced closer
together at 3 metre intervals with a gap of 4 metres
between each row.
A large percentage of the terraces in the hills of
Lebanon were being used for grain cultivation in the
early 1950s (Lewis 1953: 6). This allowed the farmers
there to be self-sufficient. Exclusive orchard cultivation
would have forced a dependency on the fluctuating
and erratic market. According to Lewis (1953: 7), only
low grade terraces were used for grain cultivation and
these produced on average 20-30 kilograms of grain
per dunam (about 200-300 pounds per acre). The ter-
Figure 20.11: Cultivated terraces used for dry-farming at Battir races used for growing grain were usually wider than
(photo: Shimon Gibson). those used for orchards (Post 1891: 116). Circular or
Chapter 20 – The archaeology of agricultural terraces and OSL dating 305

rectangular stone-built towers were frequently found

in association with terraced orchards (39 %) and
particularly with vineyards (50 %) (Ron 1977c). Steps
lead up to the roof which is used as an observation
platform overlooking the terraces during the harvest
months. A flimsy wooden frame consisting of four
poles and a roof of branches is usually erected on
top of the stone tower.
It is a great pity that traditional terrace systems
are not being preserved today. Israeli attempts at tra-
ditional terrace construction in the western Judaean
Hills during the 1950s were not successful (Ron
1977a: 226f.). Traditional terracing for orchards in
the Lebanon was much more successful (Lewis 1953:
10f., Fig. 5). The present-day Israeli methods of creat-
ing levelled fields on the slopes of hills (described by
Orni and Efrat 1980: 441), have involved the use of
mechanised equipment (cf. in other Mediterranean
countries: Lewis 1953: 11; Spencer and Hale 1961:
3; Van Andel and Runnels 1987: 150) and these
probably will not last as long as the traditional type
of terrace systems.

20.4  The dating of terracing

20.4.1 Incipient forms

Very little is known about the earliest forms of agri-

cultural terracing in the highlands of Israel / Palestine. Figure 20.12: The excavation of a terrace above
It seems reasonable to assume that the technology of ‘Ain esh-Sharkiya at Sataf. The terrace wall seen
in the foreground dates to the Early Bronze Age; it
creating flat areas on hillsides by building walls and
was enlarged and extended in the Early Roman and
levelling deposits was invented by various rural groups Ottoman periods (photo: Shimon Gibson).
acting in cooperation at a local level, in different parts
of the Levant and at different times, from the advent
of early agriculture. Hence, various centres of origin terracing would only be possible on less than 10º to
for terrace construction may have existed, with Pales- 15º of slope (Wagstaff 1992: 155).
tine being one of them (farming terraces dated to the Another suggestion which has been made is that
Pottery Neolithic, c. 6000 BCE, have been identified the natural step-like appearance of many of the
at Dhra’ east of the Dead Sea in Jordan: Kuijt et al. slopes in the highlands, with thin layers of chalky
2007). Incipient forms of terracing, such as soil held marl interspersed between limestone or dolomite
in place by logs of wood, by rows of wooden stakes, strata, may have prompted man’s first attempts at
or piled rocks, would be very difficult to detect in the terracing (Wilson 1906: 200; Dalman 1932: 23; Orni
archaeological record (cf. Spencer and Hale 1961: 3, and Efrat 1980: 55). However, no evidence supports
15 note 16; Doolittle 1990; Williams 1990: 83). It the assumption made by Spencer and Hale (1961:
was probably recognized early on that obstructions 180; cf. Ron 1977a: 222) that the earliest terraces with
placed across a stream channel would eventually help stone walls must have been crudely executed, low in
towards stopping the movement of eroded soils and height and built on relatively slight slopes. Indeed, the
would induce a process of alluviation (for check dams earliest terrace found at Sataf, which is from the begin-
dated to the fourth and third millennia BCE in Wadi ning of the Early Bronze Age (EBI), was relatively
Sana in Yemen: Mccorriston and Oches 2001; cf. well constructed and was built on a very steep slope
Gibson and Wilkinson 1995: 178; Harrower 2008: (Gibson et al. 1991) (figure 20.12). Spencer and Hale
197). Early slope terracing may have taken place ini- (1961: 7, 14) also suggest that the origins of terracing
tially in the lower parts of hills, with newer terraces should be sought in the marginal semi-arid regions
later being built further up the slopes. In any case, of the Near East. They suggest that their “channel-
the cultivation of land without the construction of bottom, weir terrace” type was possibly the earliest
306 Shimon Gibson

form of terrace. However, it may have been the other belonging to each stage of terrace wall reconstruction.
way around, with the earliest terracing appearing in Results of this sort were achieved at Sataf (Gibson
the highland regions of the Mediterranean zone first. et al. 1991). Another point of consideration is that
It is interesting to note that Donkin in his study of small animals, such as field mice, frequently live in
New World terracing (1979: 131) also reached the burrows just behind the terrace wall and these might
conclusion that the earliest terraced sites must have push down material from a higher level. Intrusive ma-
been in the less arid areas first. terial resulting from animal activities of this sort was
observed during the excavation of terraces at Sataf.
The surface fills of a terrace are equally problem-
20.4.2  Methods of excavation
atic since they are frequently ploughed (to a minimum
The excavation of terraces can quite clearly reveal data depth of at least 20 cm) with newer potsherds being
of archaeological significance. Numerous terraces have dug in and older potsherds being exposed on the
been excavated in recent decades in Israel / Palestine surface all the time (cf. James et al. 1994: 412; French
and in all of them stratified fills were distinguished and Whitelaw 1999: 156f.). There are a number
behind the retaining terrace walls. As a result, serious of other reasons why potsherds may appear in the
attempts can now be made to date terraces, contrary to surface deposits of terraces (cf. De Geus 1975: 68),
Van Andel and Runnels (1987: 147) who were of the and they may be significant for dating purposes if
opinion that “one might scrabble in the accumulated the potsherds were scattered on terrace surfaces as
soil behind them [the terrace walls] in hopes of find- a result of ancient manuring practices (Wilkinson
ing datable sherds, but that would depend on sheer 1982; Tepper 2007: 43; Korobov and Borisov 2013:
luck and it is unlikely to please the landowner.” The 1089). Manuring as a soil-improving measure was
difficulties of dating terraces has been experienced especially important for terraces under brief fallow-
by many researchers working in the Mediterranean ing. The chief reason for potsherd displacement on
region (Frederick and Krahtopoulou 2000: 89ff.; the surface of terraces is more likely from grazing
Price and Nixon 2005: 670). livestock than from erosion (James et al. 1994). Soils
There are a number of points which need to be high in organic matter were sometimes taken from
taken into account on the matter of the dating of the ruins of ancient sites (khirbe soils) and then added
individual agricultural terraces (figure 20.13). The to the topsoil of terraces, especially for those which
part of the terrace most susceptible to collapse and were used for growing vegetables under an irrigation
washout is the terrace wall. A farmer will most likely regime (Feliks 1963: 93). This explains why at Sataf
restore a terrace wall on his property on a number of potsherds were frequently found in the topsoil which
occasions during his lifetime (Christopherson and were substantially older than the potsherds sealed in
Guertin 1995). Hence, the latest potsherds found the terrace deposits further below (i.e. reverse stra-
in the backfills of the wall, may only date the final tigraphy). Isolating the material from these deposits
restoration of the terrace. Careful stratigraphical exca- can be quite interesting for the picture they provide
vation may, however, enable one to detect the backfills of the practice of transporting soils from one part
of a landscape to another. However, not all terraces
have potsherds on them or in them, and it is frequently
the case that the farther the distance from the site of
an ancient farmhouse or village, the fewer potsherds
are to be found.
The lower terrace deposits are usually the most
intact part of the original terrace, since, as we have
seen, the upper fills are frequently ploughed and the
wall itself can be repaired and its backfills restored,
on more than one occasion. Hence, the pottery found
in these lower deposits may actually date from the
time of the construction of the terrace, or may in-
dicate the kind of pottery that was lying around
on the surface of the ground prior to the terracing
activities. Obtaining carbonized materials from these
primary fills, especially short-term samples such as
seeds, may be tested by the radiocarbon method. One
Figure 20.13: Collapse of terrace wall on a hillside at Beit Safafa, should also take into consideration that in the case
south of Jerusalem. Note the lower stone fill visible beneath the of newly-constructed terraces, the first deposits of
roots of the tree (photo: Shimon Gibson). soil to be placed over the top of the stony fills of the
Chapter 20 – The archaeology of agricultural terraces and OSL dating 307

terrace would eventually settle and would thus need

to be replenished soon after. Hence, the lowest two
layers of soil may date from the same period. Isolating
buried soils which existed prior to the construction
of the terrace, can also provide chronological data.
Numerous buried soils which preceded the terracing
activities were found beneath terraces at Sataf, Masu‘a
and Manahat.
The excavation of more than one sondage is nec-
essary when gathering dating evidence on a terrace
system, unless the system is linked quite definitely
to a single-period settlement, as at Ras et-Tawil. At
Sataf, however, it would have been impossible to trace
the history of the terrace system at the site had only
one trial trench been excavated. The terraces at Sataf
were frequently elevated and replenished with the ad-
dition of new fills at different periods. Eventually, the
overall dating evidence from these excavations can be
combined with the data resulting from a survey of the
terrace system as a whole. This may show, for example,
terraces built up against structures and installations of
known date. This is where the methods of landscape
archaeology can then be used to the fullest.
Finally, attempts were made in the 1980s to date
terrace walls according to their style of construction
and a tentative chronological typology was eventu-
ally proposed (Edelstein et al. 1983: 19; cf. Price
and Nixon 2005: 670). Today, after two decades of
research, we are now quite certain that this method
does not work or should be used with extreme cau-
tion (see also the comments by Wagstaff 1992: 159).
The choice of stones used in a terrace wall quite
clearly depended on the availability of stones, and Figure 20.14: Construction style of terrace walls from hillslope
appearance and size was not so important (figure overlooking En Kerem, built of hard (white) and soft (hatched)
20.14). Older terraces were more likely to be built of limestone rocks of different sizes (drawing: Shimon Gibson).
larger stones (cf. Zangger 1992: 144f.), but this was
because earlier builders had a wider choice of stones
available to them. Stager (personal communication, dating from the Iron Age (Edelstein et al. 1983: 19)
20 December 1985) has reached a similar conclusion: was observed to be identical with the construction
“My impression was that larger blocks were used in style of two modern terrace walls built near Shu‘fat,
Iron Age terrace dams and in Iron Age hillside ter- northeast of Jerusalem, and also near Hebron (per-
races than were found in later exemplars.” sonal observation, 25 August 1987). Any construction
In later periods, however, because of extensive ter- style evident in the terrace wall must, therefore, be
racing, there was very little access to larger stones and interpreted as a direct response made by the farmer
it was easier to transport smaller stones. The transport to the availability of certain sizes and grades of stone.
of large stones from a distant location would have The farmer’s stone-working skills probably also had
been labour-intensive and costly. The shape of the a part to play in the construction style.
stones used in the terraces depended on the sources
of the stones and their hardness. Stones taken from
a quarry would be quite different in shape compared 20.5  The dating of terracing using OSL
to fieldstones. Stones made of soft limestone tended
to be smaller than those made of the harder types In recent years optically stimulated luminescence
of limestone. Finally, the comparison of the styles (OSL) has been used as a primary tool for dating in
of walls of excavated terraces, shows no uniformity the study of individual terraces in several archaeo-
of style specific to any given period. In fact, the logical projects undertaken in the southern Levant,
construction style of a wall belonging to a terrace notably in the semi-arid regions of Israel / Palestine
308 Shimon Gibson

uranium-thorium, radiocarbon, and so forth (Weiner

2010: 245ff.; Dreibrodt et al. 2014).
However, the use of OSL for establishing chrono-
logical determinations at sites of historic settlements
(such as tells or at urban locations) with a complex
build-up of deposits, has met with a low degree of
success in the southern Levant. The main reason for
this is that such deposits, particularly at habitation
sites, are more likely to have seen repeated disturbance
by humans through time. Constant building and dig-
ging operations over thousands of years will result in
the shifting and re-deposition of sediments away from
their original locations. This means newer soil tips
appearing beneath older deposits – a form of reverse
stratigraphy – with further disturbances from pitting
and trenching, and the establishing of wall footings
at different levels. Ultimately, this constant move-
ment of deposits will mean the frequent re-exposure
of the quartz grains to sunlight; thus only the signal
emanating from the latest exposure will be determined
in the laboratory. While this might not be so signifi-
cant at a prehistoric site, it is extremely detrimental
at an historic site where precise dates within short
periods of time are constantly being sought. Thus,
OSL is not very useful at sites of human occupation
of historic date, unless such sites are demonstrably
Figure 20.15: Hillside terrace in the Rephaim Valley.
short-term, one period occupations. OSL is useful
Note the differing construction styles on the left and
in regard to sites relating to environmental contexts
right which clearly reflect collapse and restoration
procedures (photo: Gershon Edelstein, Jerusalem (Sanjurjo-Sánchez and Fenollós 2014), to one-term
Survey). construction events (Porat et al. 2013; Davidovich et
al. 2014), and for deposits wholly lacking in materials
for radiocarbon dating or ceramic finds (Ackermann
(Avni et al. 2012; Avni and Porat 2013) and southern et al. 2014: 228, 232).
Jordan (Beckers et al. 2013). More recently, it has OSL has recently been used for the dating of
featured in three projects studying hillside terracing agricultural terracing in the immediate vicinity of
in the central highlands close to Jerusalem: at Ramat Jerusalem: at Ramat Rahel, Khirbet er-Ras, and
Rahel, Khirbet er-Ras, and at Har Eitan (see below). Har Eitan. The results from the latter two locations
The luminescence method was introduced as a remain unpublished, but the OSL determinations
means of estimating the amount of time elapsing taken from the terraces at Ramat Rahel are now avail-
from when buried sediment grains (quartz or feldspar able (Davidovitch et al. 2012). Eleven test pits were
minerals) were last exposed to daylight, and the pro- dug at Ramat Rahel and three types of terraces have
cedure worked well in cases where there was absolute been identified, dating from the Late Byzantine / Early
certainty that the deposits tested remained hidden Islamic to Ottoman periods. Strangely, the test-pits
from light until the samples were taken and the last were excavated on both sides of the terrace walls,
signal resetting by sunlight had been measured in the rather than all the way to the back of the terraces.
laboratory. The use of OSL is based on solar reset- While potsherds were found at the site, none of the
ting (or bleaching) of the luminescence signal during diagnostics or fabric wares have been published. The
sediment transport (Wintle 2008). This method has claim made by the researchers is that by sampling the
been a successful and extremely reliable chronological deposits using OSL the date of the construction of
tool for Quaternary studies, for the examination of these terraces was thus determined. They wrote that
geological aeolian or fluvial deposits (Murray and ”the internal consistency of the samples [checked
Olley 2002; Jacobs and Roberts 2007). OSL deter- by OSL], and the fact that they form coherent age
minations have provided chronological indicators at clusters, testify to the direct relationship between the
prehistoric sites with early human remains (Cochrane placement of the terrace fill, wherever it is sourced,
et al. 2013). OSL has also been successful when used and the bleaching of the quartz within the sediments.
in combination with other dating methods, such as If the resetting was partial or insignificant, we would
Chapter 20 – The archaeology of agricultural terraces and OSL dating 309

expect a much larger range of ages, with no clusters, cost of doing this is simply not feasible. For these
depending on the specific age of each soil source” reasons, I suggest landscape archaeology as the best
(Davidovitch et al. 2012: 203f.). However, from the overall research framework for the study of terracing.
data provided it is uncertain that the conditions of the
soil retained behind the terrace walls have not changed
since their original deposition, especially since OSL 20.6  The dating of terraces
samples were taken from deposits located behind the using landscape archaeology
terrace walls rather than from the lowermost areas at
the back of the terraces where foundation deposits Landscape archaeology is an all-inclusive and highly
would more likely have survived. The deposits behind flexible method for studying the development through
terrace walls (as we have shown above) are usually time and space of a continuous distribution of large
the most vulnerable to repeated collapse, will have and small man-made features across a given landscape.
undergone repeated and uneven exposure to daylight, In using this method, one is attempting to explain how
and so will undoubtedly give more recent dates when what one sees today came to look the way that it does
sampled by OSL rather than any construction dates and to interpret the spatial patterns and structures
as such (figure 20.15). created in the past in terms of social and economic
The excavation of terraces (and concomitant OSL behaviour (Gibson 1995; Gibson et al. 1999; Wilkin-
sampling) should therefore concentrate on sediments son 2003). The method is particularly suitable for
derived from the time of the construction of the investigating rural landscapes – for example, farms
terraces, as well as those from the various phases of with their field systems or areas of terraced hillslopes –
rebuilding, and from the time of their abandonment. It which have tended to defy analysis and interpretation
is not enough just to dig behind the terrace walls. Our using conventional archaeological methodologies. In
observation of terraces has shown that terrace soils this method, the entire landscape is in effect the “site”
were frequently re-deposited on numerous occasions, and settlements are only features within the overall
especially on slopes highly sensitive to collapse and landscape, albeit important features, since they rep-
in areas suffering from bad weather regimes. Farmers resent foci of human activities. The well-established
have been known to rebuild entire collapsed terraces tool of GIS also helps to understand past landscape
and not just the walls, especially at times following and settlement dynamics (Bevan and Conolly 2002-
lengthy periods of abandonment. Hence, a later 2004), combined with forms of aerial reconnaissance
terrace can preserve the memory of an antecedent such as LiDAR (Hanson and Oltean 2013). Even
terrace that is no longer physically extant; therefore short-term events such as battles can be recorded
the absence of Iron Age II terraces at Ramat Rahel within landscapes (Lewis 2013). This definition of
does not mean they were not there. landscape archaeology as a form of “total archaeol-
The topsoil of a terrace is extremely sensitive to ogy” – settlement patterns, field systems, territories
repeated ploughing and hoeing activities. One should and communications – differs from the conventional
point out that the percolation of water through the concept of “off-site” features spread between occupa-
surface deposits might also bring down quartz grains tion sites. Defining the entire landscape (or the part
into the lower deposits of terraces, and this might af- chosen for research) as the “site” is far more expansive
fect OSL sampling. One should add animal burrowing than the restricted geographical definition of the term
(such as by field mice) as a factor, especially within as reflecting the location or situation of a place (Cain
deposits situated immediately behind the retaining 1963: 307f.; Wagstaff 1991: 9).
walls. Moreover, the variables of terrace construc- Landscape archaeology is the best method we
tion can change quite dramatically not just from one believe suitable for the study of agricultural terracing
given zone of a highland landscape (summit of hill, in the southern Levant. It allows for the dating of
hillslope, gully, wadi floor) to another, but also from terraces on many different levels. First, by studying
one sub-unit of terracing to another, and even in the entire rural landscapes, the date of a specific terraced
case of individual terraces one adjacent to the other. unit can be suggested on the basis of its association
Thus the “mirroring” affect (with one zone of terrac- with given primary ancient structural features which
ing supposedly having the same attributes as another) have been identified and excavated, such as farm
cannot be relied upon, especially since an enormous buildings, installations, water systems, and roads.
amount of change and variety is evident in terracing Second, dating of terraces can also be attempted based
systems. Hence, for OSL to succeed in the dating of on pottery finds extracted from stratified deposits
terraces, many thousands of samples would need to be situated behind the retaining walls of terraces. Care
taken from large numbers of different deposits inside has to be taken in terms of interpretation, and some
terraces, and also from many hundreds of terraces potsherds might be residuals from a time preced-
situated across a given highland landscape. The high ing the terrace construction or alternatively might
310 Shimon Gibson

limited scale during the Early Bronze Age and as late

as the eighth century BCE. No evidence supports the
theory that the early Israelites (or Proto-Israelites)
were responsible for inventing or introducing ter-
racing into the highlands during the early Iron Age
(Gibson 2001). They simply made use of an existing
technology without any special adaptations or innova-
tions. Archaeological work has shown that the major
expansion of terracing in the highlands took place at
a number of times over a period spanning some 1600
years, from the Iron Age II (eighth century BCE) to
the Abbasid period, with cycles of contraction operat-
ing in the landscape at intervals of between 250 and
350 years. The wide-scale appearance of terracing in
the Iron Age II with cultivation on steeper slopes fits
Figure 20.16: Terracing beneath the Early Bronze and Iron Age I the commonly accepted notion that terraced fields
site of ‘Ai, north-east of Jerusalem, in a photograph taken by John
spread considerably within highland regions as a
Garstang in the 1920s (photo: Palestine Exploration Fund G37).
result of population pressure. A decline in the use of
the terraced areas appears to have set in during the
Mamluk and Ottoman periods, especially in areas
be intrusive e­ lements introduced from the surface of irrigated terraces, and this decline has continued
through animal burrowing, the digging of tree-pits, or until the present century. Terrace abandonment and
ploughing. Potsherds found in surface deposits may degradation was undoubtedly a function of a combi-
also be the result of manuring practices in antiquity. nation of physical, economic and social factors (see
Thus, careful stratigraphic excavation has to take place on this Inbar and Llerena 2000: 78).
within terraces to determine from which deposits There can be no doubt that the use of OSL as
the potsherds were derived. Third, the examination an additional tool for dating is beneficial in projects
of potsherds from deposits in terraces across entire dealing with terraced landscapes, but care has to
terraced landscapes is also required, in order to look be taken that the other equally important chron-
at the patterning of artifacts and to reach firmer ologically-determining factors are also taken into
chronological conclusions (this was the method used consideration, otherwise the chronological results
at Sataf). Finally, scientific dating procedures, such obtained through OSL might be skewered. Those
as uranium-thorium, radiometric (AMS) and OSL, using OSL for the dating of terraces seem to be un-
should be used in conjunction with the methodol- der the misapprehension that the conditions of the
ogy of landscape archaeology (as was done on the retained soil (containing the sampled quartz grains)
terraces of Antikythera: Bevan and Conolly 2011: within terraces, have not changed since their original
1305; Bevan et al. 2013: 256). Ultimately, however, deposition. This is simply not the case. Terraces were
it is the overall patterning of the landscape features rebuilt over hundreds and even thousands of years,
that will suggest possible dateable sequences for ter- whereas the OSL results would seem to indicate that
races, a method which does not rely solely on isolated terraces are largely of recent origin. Hence, the best
potsherds or random OSL determinations. framework for preventing such inaccuracies from
occurring is landscape archaeology. In other words,
while OSL sampling (like other dating methods) is
20.7 Discussion used to support chronological determinations in
projects of landscape archaeology, it cannot supplant
Terracing allowed for long term agricultural sustain- this all-inclusive methodology. Many considerations
ability in highland regions, and was very likely a need to be taken into account when dating terraces,
co-efficient of earliest human existence in such dif- and not just OSL determinations.
ficult terrain (figure 20.16). Archaeological evidence
from Israel / Palestine indicates that terracing was in
existence in the highlands from at least the beginning
of the Early Bronze Age (EBI). It is perhaps not sur-
prising that the earliest known use of terracing in the
highlands should coincide with the introduction of
plough agriculture in that area (cf. Sherratt 1981).
However, terracing was clearly only practised on a
Chapter 20 – The archaeology of agricultural terraces and OSL dating 311

Acknowledgments Barker, G. W.; Adams et al. 1999: Environment and Land Use
in the Wadi Faynan, Southern Jordan: the Third Season
My first major attempt to summarize the subject of of Geoarchaeology and Landscape Archaeology (1998).
agricultural terraces in the southern Levant was made In: Levant 31: 255–270.
in the pages of my doctoral thesis which was submit- Beckers, Brian; Schütt et al. 2013: Age Determination
ted in 1995 to the Institute of Archaeology, University of Petra’s Engineered Landscape: Optically Stimulated
College London. My supervisor was Peter Parr and Luminescence (OSL) and Radiocarbon Ages of Runoff
I am very grateful to him, to Gordon Hillman, Ken Terrace Systems in the Eastern Highlands of Jordan. In:
Thomas, Peter Dorrell, and others for their advice and Journal of Archaeological Science 40: 333–348.
support during my research. I was the happy recipient Bevan, A.; Conolly, J. 2002-2004: GIS, Archaeological Survey,
of two major grants during my investigation of the and Landscape Archaeology on the Island of Kythera,
terraces around Jerusalem, from the British Academy Greece. In: Journal of Field Archaeology 29/1: 123–138.
(1986-89) and from the Wingate Scholarship fund Bevan, A.; Conolly, J. 2011: Terraced Fields and Mediter-
(1989-91). The publication of the results of the Sataf ranean Landscape Structure: An Analytical Case Study
project is now underway, and I am grateful to the from Antikythera, Greece. In: Ecological Modelling 222:
Council for British Research in the Levant (CBRL) 1301–1314.
for providing me with two Project Completion Awards. Bevan, A.; Conolly et al. 2013: The Long-Term Ecology of
I am also grateful to Yuval Gadot and Naomi Porat Agricultural Terraces and Enclosed Fields from Antiky-
for very graciously discussing their on-going research thera, Greece. In: Human Ecology 41: 255–272.
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to Bernhard Lucke for inviting me to contribute this The Economics of Agrarian Change Under Population
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Shimon Gibson, University of North Carolina at Charlotte, USA; University of the Holy Land, Jerusalem;
address for correspondence: POB 4405, Jerusalem 91043, Israel