The terraced site of Khirbet Beit Mazmil in the spring, with almond trees in bloom.

Photo by author

Project (2022)

Putting Knowledge to Practice: “Reading” Agricultural Terraces in Medieval Palestine

This project critically examines peasant knowledge and practice in land use in the medieval Levant through a combination of archaeological and textual methods. It focuses on what was the most important local intervention in field preparation—the construction of agricultural terraces—in Palestine in the Mamluk and Ottoman periods.

Two archaeological projects form the centerpiece of the project: the excavations at Khirbet Beit Mazmil and its terraces in Jerusalem, and TERRSOC, a multidisciplinary and regionally comparative study of terraces in medieval Palestine. A range of archaeological, botanical, geological, and chemical methods are combined to identify ways in which local peasants selected and enriched soils, harvested and diverted water, and cultivated on the basis of these conditions.

The textual component of the project involves a study of a series of court records relevant to land sales and use in Ottoman Jerusalem, and of agrarian manuals (filāḥa texts), which collate information about cultivation practice in encyclopaedic form. By comparing knowledge about “best practices” compiled in agrarian manuals and cropping documented in legal texts, with physical evidence of actual practices derived from the archaeological record in tightly dated contexts, the relationship between scholarly knowledge and everyday practice will come into greater focus. The ultimate goals are to better understand how peasant knowledge was constructed and put into practice, what factors had the greatest impact on the decisions they ultimately made about land and cropping, and how knowledge of these practices was transmitted beyond the local community.