A new study sheds light on the history of Karanis, an ancient Greco-Roman agricultural settlement in the Fayum oasis in Egypt. The results of the research suggest that this place may have been inhabited until the mid-7th century AD, challenging the previous belief that the site was abandoned in the mid-5th century. This finding suggests that the settlement remained active during a time of significant political and environmental changes in the region and beyond.

The chronology of Karanis was reevaluated thanks to radiocarbon dating of 13 samples of plant remains extracted from the settlement’s structures. The dating was conducted by the 14CHRONO Centre at Queen’s University Belfast, which helped to pinpoint the age of the crops. These results suggest that the occupation of the site extended for centuries beyond what was previously thought.

The initial excavations from 1924 to 1935, based on papyri and coins, and the scarcity of these materials after around 460 AD, led researchers to conclude that Karanis was abandoned around that time. This suggests that factors like the Antonine Plague (165-180 AD) and the subsequent economic decline triggered the abandonment of the settlement.

Location of Karanis and nearby settlements
Location of Karanis and nearby settlements. Credit: Laura Motta et al. / Antiquity

According to the study, although some areas of the settlement might have been depopulated in the mid-5th century, other parts continued to be inhabited until the 7th century, during the period of the Islamic conquest of Egypt. This finding contradicts previous conclusions based on papyri and coins, which suggested an early decline.

The settlement seems to have undergone a gradual transformation, with structures being reused and remodeled over time. During this period, the climate and Nile levels were known to have experienced significant fluctuations, while the political context also changed due to Byzantine and Arab conquests. These dynamics could have influenced the survival and transformation of Karanis, allowing some areas to remain active while others were abandoned.

The study’s results also align with other recent work suggesting a greater continuity in the occupation of Karanis. The presence of plant remains from later periods and evidence of remodeling and reuse of structures indicate that the settlement may have been more vibrant and enduring than previously thought.

Top row) House C51, Room B before (left) and after (right) excavation of its abandonment fill; the sand layer is visible under the second floor collapse; bottom left) plans and sections of the house in its original configuration; bottom right) section showing the second floor as House B227 and the sand layer in Room C51B
Top row) House C51, Room B before (left) and after (right) excavation of its abandonment fill; the sand layer is visible under the second floor collapse; bottom left) plans and sections of the house in its original configuration; bottom right) section showing the second floor as House B227 and the sand layer in Room C51B. Credit: Laura Motta et al. / Antiquity

According to the researchers, the settlement was continuously inhabited in the 6th century and appears to have survived in some form at least until the period of the Islamic conquest in the 7th century AD. How much it retained its prosperity is difficult to assess with current data and without a better understanding of its changing urban fabric.

However, they acknowledge that it is also unclear when and in what manner Karanis was finally abandoned; the absence of papyri and coins cannot be interpreted as an indication of an absence of population.

Our datings place the abandonment of the settlement within the Late Antique Little Ice Age (mid-6th to mid-7th century AD) and during a period of political transitions, such as the Sasanian conquest of Egypt, the Byzantine reconquest, and the subsequent Arab conquest. The causes of the abandonment of Karanis and the decline of the region resonate with broader debates about the fall of the Roman Empire and the socio-economic transformations at the start of the Middle Ages, whose absolute chronology gains a new perspective thanks to the dates presented here, they conclude.

House 120, room B during excavation and the pot containing lupine seeds
House 120, room B during excavation and the pot containing lupine seeds. Credit: Laura Motta el al. / Antiquity

SOURCES

Motta L, Johnson TD, Burton S, Reimer PJ, Erdkamp P, Heinrich F. Re-dating Roman Karanis, Egypt: radiocarbon evidence for prolonged occupation until the seventh century AD. Antiquity. Published online 2024:1–19. doi:10.15184/aqy.2024.69


  • Share this article:

Something went wrong. Please refresh the page and/or try again.