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Durham University

Research & business

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Managing Risk in Early Complex Societies

A research project of the Department of Archaeology.


MRECS (“Managing Risk in Early Complex Societies”) investigates the role of pastoral mobility in the rise of urban societies and large, integrated supra-regional economies in western Syria during the 3rd millennium BC through isotopic analysis of skeletal remains. During this period, state-level political systems developed and there was a massive expansion of urban settlement into the arid Syrian steppe.

As part of the Fragile Crescent Project, scholars from Durham University proposed that elite exploitation of the economic opportunities provided by the humble sheep for the development of a vast new livestock-based economy lay at the heart of this transformation, representing a fundamental shift in socio-political networks, economic resilience and risk management strategies (Wilkinson et al 2014). Although material culture and texts provide clear indications about the vital significance of the wool industry in these major socio-economic changes, this research will provide the first reliable means of directly testing these hypotheses by using multi-element isotopic analysis of archaeological animal and human enamel and bone to examine changes in animal management and herding strategies in Syria-Palestine in the 4th-2nd millennia BC. 

Sequential inter- and intra-tooth sampling and analysis of enamel has been successfully used in a variety of regions for elucidating the organisation of animal movements and herding practices, using predominantly carbon (δ13C), oxygen (δ18O) and strontium (87Sr/86Sr) isotopes. Analysis of stable light isotopes such as carbon (δ13C) and nitrogen (δ15N) in bone collagen have examined variations in animal diet and can reveal ancient herding strategies and foddering practices. Isotopic work undertaken to date in Syria-Palestine has focused on herding strategies associated with early domestication in the Neolithic, while this project instead addresses the rise of complex societies. 

Two case studies will represent areas close to the core of this emerging system of economic intensification (Tell Nebi Mend, Syria), and more peripheral areas that were likely impacted by these changes in more subtle ways (Tell esh-Shuna, Pella, Jordan).


From the Department of Archaeology

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Further information

For further information, please contact Dr Lynn Welton.