Societal stability and environmental change: Examining the archaeology-soil erosion paradox

Brown, Tony and Walsh, Kevin (2016) Societal stability and environmental change: Examining the archaeology-soil erosion paradox Geoarchaeology, 32, (1), pp. 23-35. (doi:10.1002/gea.21611).


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This paper critically examines the soil exhaustion and societal collapse hypothesis both theoretically and empirically. The persistence of civilizations, especially in the Mediterranean, despite intensive and presumably erosive arable farming creates what is described here as the archaeology soil erosion paradox. This paper examines the data used to estimate past erosion and weathering rates before presenting case studies that engage with the theoretical arguments. Study 1 shows 5000 years of high slope erosion rates with both soil use and agriculture continuously maintained in the catchment. Study 2 shows how ancient agricultural terraces were constructed as part of an integrated agricultural system that fed the ancient city of Stymphalos—now abandoned. Study 3 presents a recent example of how after the removal of terraces high soil erosion rates result during intense rainstorms but that arable agriculture can still be maintained while external costs are borne by other parties. What these case studies have in common is the creation of soil, and increased weathering rates while productivity is maintained due to a combination of soft bedrock and/or agricultural terraces. In societal terms this may not be sustainable but it does not necessarily lead to land abandonment or societal collapse.

Item Type: Article
Digital Object Identifier (DOI): doi:10.1002/gea.21611
ISSNs: 0883-6353 (print)
Organisations: Palaeoenvironment Laboratory (PLUS)
ePrint ID: 405764
Date :
Date Event
2 November 2016Accepted/In Press
26 December 2016e-pub ahead of print
January 2017Published
Date Deposited: 18 Feb 2017 00:21
Last Modified: 16 Apr 2017 17:13
Further Information:Google Scholar

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