Climate change has affected human development for thousands of years, according to scientists investigating why a well-fortified port city in Egypt was suddenly abandoned more than 2,100 years ago.
Berenike, also known as Berenike Troglodytica, was a fortified city founded in 275 BC by the Macedonian pharaoh Ptolemy II, who gave it to his mother, Berenice I.
Located on a narrow strip of coast on the west coast of the Red Sea, Berenike relied on an advanced water storage system for drinking water.
But a volcanic eruption in 209 BC spewed enough gas and ash into the atmosphere to change the region’s climate, triggering a perennial drought that forced residents to flee.
Archaeologists have found coins, pottery, and other artifacts in the remains of a newly discovered well that date the desertion of the Hellenistic Berenike to the end of the third century BC.
The eruption of an unidentified volcano in about 209 BC released large amounts of ash and sulfur into the stratosphere, according to a new report in the journal Antiquity.
The volcanic material blocked sunlight and cooled the atmosphere, failing the traditional summer monsoons that flooded the Nile River.
The failure of the Nile flooding, an important element of Egyptian agriculture at the time, had a devastating impact throughout the region.
Famine is said to have fueled the revolt of the Egyptians against their Ptolemaic rulers during the Great Theban Revolt of 207-186 BCE.
Archaeologists have excavated large pools that are said to have held thousands of gallons in what may have been Berenike’s only source of drinking water. Depicted: interior of the well in the gate complex
The Ptolemaic Dynasty was a Macedonian Greek royal family that ruled ancient Egypt from 305 to 30 BC.
Ptolemy II Philadelphus, son of the founder of the dynasty, founded Berenike in 275 BC and it soon became a trading center for exotic goods from India, Arabia and other parts of Egypt, and a staging post for African ‘war elephants’ living in various fights.
But the desert route to Berenike was cut off by the drought, which also disrupted “the long-distance sea routes on which the city depended.” Heritage Daily reports, which led to its abandonment for nearly half a century.
The ruins of Berenike were first discovered in 1818, but excavations did not begin until the 1990s.
Evidence at the newly discovered well in Berenike suggests that the city was abandoned in the late third century BC due to a perennial drought caused by a volcanic eruption in 209 that filled the stratosphere with sulfur gas and ash and changed the climate.
Coins, amphorae and other objects in the remains of a newly discovered well date from the desertion of the Hellenistic Berenike to the end of the third century BC.
In 2019, researchers from the University of Warsaw discovered the remains of the Hellenistic fortress, with three main courtyards and numerous buildings with workshops and shops.
They also found a huge source of water collection near the northwest corner of the fort, directly within a gate through the outer wall.
It housed a series of large baths, the two largest of which may have a total capacity of more than 4,500 liters, Polish archaeologist Marek Woźniak noted in a 2019 Antiquity report.
Water was likely drawn from the well using a shadouf, an early crane-like implement consisting of a rotating wooden pole with a rope attached to an amphora or bucket at one end and a stone counterweight attached to the other end of the pole .
The water was stored in basins lined with hydraulic lime plaster, which improved water quality “ by aeration and by allowing suspended particles to settle, ” the researchers said.
Founded in 275 BC by the Macedonian King Ptolemy II, Berenike was a fortified port that served as a trading center for exotic goods from India, Arabia and other parts of Egypt
“This area was clearly important for water retention – also indicated by the presence of rainwater drainage and collection facilities next to the gatehouse on the east side,” he said.
The installation “shows that there was enough rain to make the collection worthwhile, indicating a more humid climate than now,” Woźniak wrote.
Plans of the early Hellenistic gate complex on the western ridge of Berenike. Archaeologists found a huge source of water collection near the northwest corner of the fort, directly within a gate through the outer wall
The city’s limited water supply was further burdened by a population growth in the second half of the third century BC, “as well as the simultaneous increase in ship and caravan traffic that Berenike left.”
Then the drought caused the well to dry up and be buried under wind-carried sand.
As reported in Antiquity this month, Woźniak and the University of Toledo geologist James Harrell painstakingly removed the layers of sand that had filled the well.
Underneath, they found coins, pottery, and other artifacts that place the desolation of the Hellenistic Berenike at the end of the third century BC.
“This well is one of – if not the only – sources of drinking water for the residents of the fort,” the researchers write.
Bronze coins extracted from the top layers of the blown sand came from a coin in Joppa, Israel, and must have been some time before 199 BC. Struck when the coin’s production stopped.
Pottery found in the sands can be traced back to the same era, probably during the reigns of Ptolemy III or IV, who reigned from 246 to 222 BC and from 221 to 204 respectively.
Pictured: Plaster counterweight (inset) and amphora bucket fragments found in the well’s southwest alcove. Charcoal from fireplaces found near the bottom of the well suggests the complex was used as a basal shelter after the well ran dry
“The complete absence of subsequent coins and pottery is further evidence of the rapid filling of the well and basins after they were out of use,” wrote Woźniak and Harrell.
Charcoal from two hearths found near the bottom of the well suggests that the complex was used as a basal shelter after the well dried.
‘Because this is the only structure discovered so far along the coast of the Red Sea, we can see for the first time how climate can affect the functioning of an ancient settlement in such an extreme environment,’ the researchers indicated .
“It also enables us to investigate the relationship between geological and climatological phenomena on the one hand and economic, logistical and political factors on the other.”
The city was later reoccupied in the latter part of the second century BC and became even more prosperous as a Roman port city.
Earlier this year, archaeologists reported having found the world’s oldest known animal burial site in Berenike.
But in the mid-sixth century, the city was abandoned and never inhabited again.
“Berenike’s excavations have not only uncovered the first Hellenistic city on the East African coast, but have also contributed to a better understanding of the effect of natural disasters on ancient societies,” the researchers said.