Record of Roman resource exploitation and urb

image: Study co-director Hans Barnard is leading the study and excavation of Zita’s neo-Punic ritual enclosure (photo credit Brett Kaufman)
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For hundreds of years, Carthage – the Phoenician city-state in North Africa – flourished, establishing itself as a robust trading empire with extensive colonies. As the Carthaginian and Roman Empires extended their reach across Mediterranean Europe and North Africa, escalating tensions over political dominance and trade culminated in the Three Punic Wars.

The conclusion of the conflict marks the beginning of the neo-Punic period and the occupation of Carthage by Rome. After the dissolution of the Carthaginian state, the administrative regions were obliged to provide the Roman state with goods and natural resources. While Neo-Punic citizens were meant to adopt Roman customs and rule, the Romans allowed them to retain some aspects of their own culture. By employing this strategic tolerance, the Romans were able to take advantage of the knowledge and skills of the Punic craftsmen as well as the environment of the region.

This political transition ushered in a period of environmental exploitation and industrial overproduction, and Kaufman et. Al argue that archaeological evidence indicates that Roman colonial dynamics of overproduction played a role in the decay and eventual desertion of the town of Zita in the administrative region of Tripolitania.

Kaufman and. al, in “Quantifying Surplus and Sustainability in the Archaeological Record at the Carthaginian-Roman Urban Mound of Zita, Tripolitania”, published in Current anthropology, use cultural ecology theory to analyze a set of data collected from excavations in two areas of the urban mound. Structures characteristic of both empires – such as kilns, metallurgical workshops, a tophet and a Roman forum – are present on the mound, making the site suitable for studying the transition from Carthaginian to Roman control.

Ceramic evidence collected from excavations and surveys suggests that before the inhabitants began to abandon Zita in 200 AD, the area experienced a period of significant industrialization and prosperity, followed by economic collapse. As the stratigraphic analysis of an ecological core of one of the zones indicates, Zita’s economy was initially based on agricultural products, such as olive oil. During the Roman occupation, however, evidence points to a shift towards the production and refining of metals, such as iron.

Focusing on the correlations between raw materials needed to facilitate industrial processes, the authors use archaeological modeling to determine whether production has increased beyond sustainable levels. To assess Zita’s ecological metabolism, the authors compare levels of olive wood to the amount of metallurgical byproducts, or slag, found at the site. The upper layers of the core contained the orange and black waste, which indicated and could be used as a measure of metal production. Since olive wood was used as fuel for metallurgical work, Kaufman et. al denote olive pits as an approximation to measure the degree of olive tree consumption needed to sustain production. The authors detail an inverse correlation between olive pits and metal production. The data indicates a reduction in olive pits over time, suggesting that olive wood was increasingly allocated for metallurgical purposes. Charcoal analysis highlights the unsustainability of this economic change. While olive wood was primarily used, the authors argue that scarcity may have led to the use of alternative fuels in the years before urban collapse.


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David C. Barham