Well discovered on ancient Egyptian site suggests climate instability in region

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A well discovered on an Egyptian dig site shows volcanic evidence. (Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities via AP)

Archaeologists have discovered the first well along the west coast shores of the Red Sea, where the ancient Egyptian city of Berenike is located, suggesting that the city's temporary abandonment at the end of the third century B.C. may have been the result of a multiyear drought that caused the city's freshwater source to run dry, according to a new study.

Berenike is a Greco-Roman port city on Egypt's southern Red Sea coast, founded between 275 and 260 B.C. It is one of the key ports forming a chain of outposts that allowed Ptolemaic-era Egypt to make contact with the ancient land of Punt and later with South Arabia and India, according to Marek Woźniak, a co-author of the study and an assistant professor at the Polish Academy of Sciences. 

Archaeological excavations of Berenike have been ongoing since 1994, and, recently, archaeologists have been working to excavate the Hellenistic-era portions of Berenike. The Hellenistic period covers the time in Mediterranean history between the death of Alexander the Great in 323 B.C. and Rome's conquest of Egypt in 30 B.C., which signaled the emergence of the Roman Empire. 

During excavations undertaken between 2014 and 2019, archaeologists discovered the Hellenistic well "located adjacent to the remains of a gate and tower in the fortress wall," which is "associated with the ruins of buildings and structures related to the storage and distribution of water," according to the researchers.

The well was cut into the Berenike bedrock at the heart of the gate complex, measuring about 3.7-3.9 meters in depth from the crown of the preserved part of the western wall. The discovery of coins and ceramic pottery material allowed the archaeologists to date the entire complex to a short period between "the establishment of Berenike (somewhere in the first half of the third century B.C.) and the end of the 3rd century B.C., possibly with a period of revitalization somewhere in the late 2nd to 1st century B.C.," according to Woźniak.

The archaeologists first thought this deep, internal chamber might be a cistern carved into the bedrock, where water may have been brought from an intake located elsewhere at the foot of the region's mountains.

"The absolute biggest surprise, however, was the discovery that we are not dealing with a cistern dried out for centuries, but with a well in which — despite being filled with windblown sand — cold, almost fresh water can be found," Woźniak said. 

"After the silt subsided, we tasted it and tested the possibility of using it for washing," he said. "It turned out that the water is much clearer than in the Bedouin well located more than half a kilometer to the northwest. ... My workers from the Ababda tribe said that a man can drink this water for a few days, but it is even better for watering camels."

The discovery of this well disproved the theory that Berenike was not a location where drinking water could be obtained from the town itself or in the immediate vicinity, as was suggested both by the practice of importing water to the city during the early Roman period and by Berenike's location on the shores of the Red Sea, a sea famous for its high salinity, according to Woźniak.

The Hellenistic Berenike well seems to have stopped functioning around the end of the third century B.C., as suggested by the coins and pottery remains recovered from the upper layers of the windblown sand that later filled the well. The discovery of abundant wood charcoal from two hearths suggests that the well was being used as a shelter before the coins and pottery remains fell into the well.

"The well had clearly gone dry and had begun to fill with windblown sand when these fires were set at the end of the third century B.C. or beginning of the second," according to the researchers.

"Perhaps the inhabitants in the first years after the 'rebirth' of Berenike, in the second half of the second century B.C., knew that the well had dried up and looked for other sources of water," Woźniak said. "In the period of the 'rebirth' of the town, and especially in the Roman period, water for the inhabitants of Berenike was brought from wells located much further away, at the foot of the mountains."

The researchers theorized that a multiyear drought may have caused the well to dry up and the temporary abandonment of the city before its "rebirth," when it was revived as a commercial port in the late second century B.C. Berenike "reached its most prosperous phase following Rome's annexation of Egypt in the late first century B.C.," according to the researchers.

"Such events are a common feature of the Eastern Desert's climate and can be caused by normal processes, such as periodic changes in the El Niño/La Niña Southern Oscillation in the tropical Pacific Ocean, which have far-reaching climatic effects in northeast Africa," the researchers wrote.

However, another possible explanation for the regional drought is volcanic eruptions in the Northern Hemisphere that released "large volumes of ash and sulfurous gases into the stratosphere, with the latter condensing into sunlight-reflecting sulphate aerosols," the researchers wrote. 

"These aerosols cool the atmosphere, causing either a weakening of or latitudinal shift in climate belts, such as the Intertropical Convergence Zone that controls the summer 'monsoon' rainfall in the Nile River's headwaters in the Ethiopian and Ugandan highlands," the researchers wrote.

The researchers are not sure exactly which volcano may have been responsible, but they theorize it was probably one of four Northern Hemisphere volcanoes known to have had large-volume eruptions around this time: Popocatépetl, in central Mexico; Pelée, on the Caribbean island of Martinique; Yufu-Tsurumi, on the Japanese island of Kyushu; and Hakusan, on the Japanese island of Honshu.

"Personally, I think Popocatépetl and Pelée are the more likely guesses; however, I am not a volcanologist and am happy to leave this to the experts," Woźniak said.

This exploration and these discoveries in antiquity are a drop of water in the well of ancient knowledge as Berenike's excavation continues; the researchers have discovered another large cistern carved in the rock that Woźniak hopes will bring more interesting observations. 

"There is still a great deal to discover about the ancient world," he said. "We are far from being able to say that we know everything, even about such well-studied parts of the ancient world as Egypt. We strongly underestimate today the genius, determination and courage of ancient people in exploring even in the most remote regions of the world."

For archaeologists specifically, Woźniak emphasized the need to continue exploring the remaining port cities of the Hellenistic period that were operating on the Red Sea coast. As for scientists as a whole, he emphasized the need to continue exploration in peripheral regions of the world through multidisciplinary cooperation.

For everyday people, Woźniak said, "Research on the past does not only have to serve the purpose of developing tourism. They can bring a huge amount of information that will allow us to look critically at the history of our societies. They will allow us to see our successes, but also mistakes, the example of which will allow us to avoid such mistakes in the future. Knowledge about our history gives us the unique opportunity to evaluate what is happening today. Let's learn from our own example."

The discovery of the well highlights nature's relationship and relevance to human society both ancient and modern and, ultimately, serves as a reminder of nature's power, according to Woźniak.

"Climatic instability due to both global warming and volcanic eruptions is a major concern in the modern world," the researchers wrote. "Berenike's experience provides a good example of how people responded to, and ultimately overcame, adverse climatic episodes in the distant past, yet also provides a sobering lesson on society's vulnerability to geological forces."

Woźniak said Berenike "can be a warning even today in the face of natural phenomena and the power of nature is that all human actions are still extremely fragile and weak."

"Despite centuries of research, we do not fully understand the relationships that occur in nature between various factors, and especially how this extremely dynamic system is affected by dramatic natural disasters," he said. "Even small disturbances in this natural system (whether caused by us or completely natural) can, without the slightest problem, crush our civilization, as happened to many flourishing cities not only in ancient times."

The study "When the well runs dry: climatic instability and the abandonment of early Hellenistic Berenike," published March 19 in Antiquity, was co-authored by Marek Woźniak, Polish Academy of Sciences; and James Harrell, University of Toledo.

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