Scarcity and Cataclysm in the Ancient Mediterranean

This is part of a series of blog posts highlighting objects and archival documents from Social Climates: Power and the Environment in the Archives, an exhibition currently on view in the Kempner Gallery at Columbia’s RBML. Drawing on a wide array of RBML collections and materials, Social Climates explores the interconnections between culture, history, politics, and the natural world. 

The following is adapted from the Social Climates exhibit essay text by Emily Runde, Curator of Medieval and Renaissance Collections. 

Letter to a superior reporting an attack, Fayum, ca. 400-499 CE. Columbia University Rare Book & Manuscript Library Papyrus Collection. P.Col. VIII 242

The Nile’s rich silt and the ingenuity of Egypt’s irrigation systems enabled millennia of agricultural flourishing in the Fayum basin – and yet shifts in the climate and breakdowns of those systems resulted in crop failures in Roman Egypt and the desertion of once thriving communities. This letter, for example, recounts conflicts over the payment of taxes that point to an underlying agricultural crisis. The letter’s author documents his difficulties collecting taxes in Karanis. Owing in part to a breakdown in the area’s irrigation system, the town had already lost a substantial percentage of its population in preceding centuries and is believed to have been abandoned by the sixth century. Changes in East African rainfall patterns during this period may well have contributed to lower Nile levels, which would in turn have diminished the effectiveness of the Fayum basin’s irrigation system.

Back of papyrus. Columbia University Rare Book & Manuscript Library Papyrus Collection. P.Col. VIII 242

Climate change has played a crucial role in the preservation of the rich documentary record that exists for the agricultural town of Karanis. Papyrus, while quite vulnerable to mold in humid conditions, remains stable in more arid climates. The desertification of Karanis and its environs in the centuries following the production of these documents meant that while the Roman town was abandoned as its lands became increasingly unsuitable for farming, its records were preserved for centuries in remarkably good condition.

Specimen bottles of sulfur from Vesuvius and ashes from Pompeii, Italy, 1860. Henry Nehemiah Dodge Artifacts Collection, Boxes 3 and 4

When he was fifteen years old, the future poet, author, and dentist Henry Nehemiah Dodge embarked on a long voyage around Europe, accompanying classical scholar Henry Drisler, a Columbia professor of Latin and Greek. Dodge kept a detailed journal on his travels and particularly in Italy collected artifacts from many of the places he visited. The specimens he collected and his account of his travels around Pompeii and on Vesuvius reveal a fascination with the devastations nature wrought on the Roman city and the preservation of the city’s ruins that it simultaneously enabled. Above you can see specimen bottles of ash that he collected in Pompeii and sulfur that he collected from Vesuvius. 

Social Climates runs through September 30, 2022 in Kempner Gallery at Columbia’s RBML, 6th Floor Butler.