One of the wonderful things about archaeology (and academia in general) is the chance to travel… and to the most unexpected places! While focussing on early agriculture in southwest Germany and the Near East, the last place I expected to find myself was Morocco, but a chance meeting with Professor Mohammed Ater at the University of Tétouan set the ball rolling.
It is incredible tricky to find ‘traditional’ farming – without the use of artificial fertilisers and herbicides – still going on in the areas of the world where it first began. You only have to look at a satellite image of the ‘Fertile Crescent’ – an area that includes Syria, Iraq and Iran – to see that millennia of agriculture and irrigation have led to such degradation of the land that the concept of fertile now seems laughable. We therefore have to look further afield to find small-scale farming in similar climates to compare with our archaeological remains.
This is where Morocco comes in. In the south of the country, the arid climate means that many crops are grown in verdant oasis fields, hemmed in by cliff walls and parcelled up into increasingly narrow strips with each passing generation. Here, sheep and goats are stalled in sheds and their manure is used prolifically on the barley and maize fields. Water from the underground aquifer is conscientiously managed, routed through an intricate series of channels to the parcels of crops, a network of lifelines that ensure a successful harvest.
After an exhausting journey getting to the Amtoudi oasis in the Guelmin province of Morocco, through the Atlas Mountains and along dusty roads, it was a relief to reach the shaded confines of the wadi and spend some time stretching our legs in the almost ripened fields of barley. We collected samples of barley grains from over 30 fields, stretching from the wadi floor to the hills above the oasis, where barley just about manages to grow on rainfall alone. The plan is to measure the isotope values of these barley grains and see how the differences in manure and water management effect the carbon and nitrogen in the grains. For a more detailed overview of the trip, visit the official project website.