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Societal Stability and Environmental Change: Examining the Archaeology - Soil Erosion Paradox

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JournalGeoarchaeology: An International Journal
DateSubmitted - 2016
DateAccepted/In press - 2 Nov 2016
DatePublished (current) - 26 Dec 2016
Issue number1
Pages (from-to)23–35
Original languageEnglish


This paper critically examines the soil-exhaustion and societal collapse hypothesis both theoretically and empirically. The persistence of civilisations, especially in theMediterranean, despite intensive and 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 three case studies which 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 integrated agricultural systems which 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 whilst external costs are borne by other parties. What these case studies have in common is the creation of soil and increased weathering rates whilst productivity is maintained due to a combination of soft bedrocks and/or agricultural terraces. In societal terms this may not be sustainable but it does not necessarily lead to land abandonment or societal collapse – this is the paradox.

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