Fuelling the Early State: Understanding Energy Use, Resource Management, and Environmental Impacts in the Development of Early Urban Societies


Fuel was fundamental to the emergence of early complex societies in the Near East. Key technological innovations, such as smelting and working of metals or firing of pottery, were fuel intensive processes. However, the organisation and management of fuel resources remains poorly understood. Access to fuel sat at the nexus of a set of contemporary developments – improved transport (donkey domestication and wheeled vehicles), extensification of agriculture, woodland management, the collection of animal dung – which taken together must have had profound impacts on the organisation of landscapes and societies. This project aims to establish quantified estimates of fuel requirements for specific ancient craft processes through experimentation, and to use these to model requirements for ancient societies. These will be combined in turn with data on settlement patterns and agricultural potential.

The geographical focus of the project is the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East. Here we find the earliest urban agglomerations, small-scale polities and the first territorial empires anywhere in the world. Energy capture has been used as a proxy for complexity (Morris 2011). The archaeological record associated with early states evidences rapid population growth, new infrastructure, and increases in the type and scale of craft-industries. Underpinning these developments would have been commensurate increases in fuel consumption, with wide ranging environmental and social impacts, and yet this aspect of the energy economy has received limited attention. Improving our understanding of fuel resource management and unravelling it from agricultural production enables a more nuanced understanding of the social processes which facilitated the development and decline of early urban states.

This project will employ a multidisciplinary framework to investigate the procurement and consumption of fuel in the earliest urban societies. Specifically, the project will focus on a key Early Bronze Age (ca. 3000-2000 BC) industry, ceramic production, in two different environments: northern coastal Lebanon (Mediterranean climate) and north-eastern Syria (semi-arid climate). The aim is to investigate the development of supply chains, energy use, and environmental impacts before, during and after this period, which is associated with a massive shift in the scale of craft production, from households to specialised industries. The student will work with a potter using different types and combinations of fuels representing the full range of organic materials known to be available in the period (e.g. wood, olive by-products, dung etc) (Shillito et al. 2011, Deckers 2016). The student will use a suite of analytical methods to quantify the viability and efficiency of fuel types and to determine impacts on fired ceramics and associated materials (ash, charcoal, etc…). By linking fuel use, firing regimes, and archaeometric data, the student will be able to identify fuel/firing specific signatures. These can then be applied to the archaeological record.

The data on fuel requirements will be integrated with climate, archaeological and palaeobotanical inputs from three associated research projects, the CRANE project (Computational Research on the Ancient Near East -Philip, Badreshany, Lawrence and Greenwell) funded by SSHRC Canada, the ERC funded CLaSS project (Climate, Settlement, and Society in the Ancient Near East Lawrence), and the Wellcome-trust funded Biofuels and Respiratory Health (Shillito). They will: 1) determine the amount of fuels required to meet scale of ceramic production during this period, and 2) model what impact the collection of these resources would have on the environment of the two study areas. Expected outcomes include a greater understanding of which fuels were employed as part of wider resource management strategies, the development of archaeometric methods to quantify their use in the archaeological record and ascertaining the implications for human-environment interactions. The production of this unique dataset will allow the development of innovative explanatory frameworks, with great potential to bring about step-changes in our understanding of early urbanism.

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Image Captions

Traditional kiln firing in the Lebanese Mountains using a mixture of fuels


The student will learn a wide range of techniques used in the analysis of archaeological ceramics and biofuels. They will also work closely with experimental potters from the National Glass Centre in Sunderland and the supervisory team to build kilns and produce and fire ceramics under different conditions. Variables will include fuel types, temperatures, atmosphere regimes (oxidising/reducing), and kiln designs.


The student will assist in the design and implementation of the firing experiments, including kiln design, procurement of clay and temper materials, and the procurement of fuels. Where necessary, all samples and permissions required to conduct the proposed analytical program have been obtained by the supervisory teams.

Laboratory Based Analyses:

1) Assessment of Fuel Resources – using calorimetry to test the heating values of various fuels (different woods, animal dung, rancid oil, animal bone etc.). Proximate and Ultimate Analysis will be used to understand the energy value of fuels in light of their composition, variables tested included, moisture, volatile compounds, fixed carbon, and burning efficiency.

2) Geochemical Analysis of Clays and Ceramic Vessels – using X-ray fluorescence (XRF), Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometry (ICP-MS), X-Ray Diffraction (XRD), and Pyrolisis-GC-MS. The aim is to characterise geochemical composition/bulk mineralogy of raw clays and the resulting fired vessels to assess any general chemical changes and those that might specifically relate to various fuel/kiln combinations. The ash samples resulting from the firing will also be tested to identify markers of fuel/kiln combinations that might preserve in the archaeological record.

3) Texture Analysis of Clays and Ceramics – using Polarising Light Microscopy and SEM/Zeiss Mineralogic will be used to quantify textures (rocks, minerals, and pore space) to understand the relationship between physical and geochemical characteristics and how they are impacted by firing under various fuel/kiln combinations. Zeiss Mineralogic is an SEM based platform for automated texture analyses which vastly increases the detail of textural data and the number of samples that can be analysed for this information. Durham Archaeology has one of only five units available in the UK.

3) Landscape modelling – the student will produce landcover models for fuel related flora for the two study areas. This will involve working with databases and GIS, and supported by the Durham Informatics Laboratory. The results will show how the observed changes in fuel use may have impacted the wider landscape. In conjunction with the wider CLaSS project, the work will allow for the reconstruction of both the agricultural and fuel economies through time.

Project Timeline

Year 1

Oct-Dec: Research and writing of literature review. Developing and organising firing experiments. Begin training in computer-based methods. This includes auditing relevant modules in Archaeology at Durham and Newcastle as needed.

Jan-Apr: Training in the practical methods described above in the analysis of fuels for firing experiments, assisting with the planning of firing experiments. Complete training in computer-based methods. This includes auditing relevant course work as needed.

May-July: Training in the practical methods of clay and ceramic analysis described above. Assisting in the planning and scheduling of firing experiments.

Aug-Sept: Assisting with firing experiments in the field.

Year 2

Oct-Dec: Complete review chapter
Jan-June: Carry-out laboratory analyses of clays and ceramics from firing experiments.
July-Sept: Begin building computer-models. Conduct further firing experiments if needed.

Year 3

Oct-Dec: Complete remaining analytical work or begin writing PhD. PhD can be written either as a traditional 80-100,000 word dissertation or in the form of 4 papers written and submitted to peer-reviewed journals. The student can choose either track, which will be decided early in the PhD.

Jan-Sept: Writing PhD, or the preparation and submission of one paper every 2-3 months.

Year 3.5

Writing PhD, or the preparation and submission of one paper every 2-3 months.

& Skills

The project will allow the student to develop an advanced and transferable multidisciplinary skill-set in experimental design, analytical materials analysis across a number of platforms (XRF, XRD, SEM-EDS, and ICP), and the computer based (GIS) modelling and interpretation of large-scale datasets. The ability to integrate lab-based analyses in a spatial format (GIS) is relatively uncommon, and yet in high demand.

In partnership with the Durham Archaeomaterials Research Laboratory (directed by Badreshany) the student will actively participate in the development of new methods for the analysis and elemental mapping of clay and ceramic samples

The student will benefit from a broad range of training opportunities provided at Durham and Newcastle Archaeology through associations with the Durham Archaeomaterials Research Centre (DARC lab), the Durham Archaeology Informatics Lab and the Newcastle Geoarchaeology group, which provide access to a comprehensive range of analytical equipment and contact with associated researchers. Involvement with the three research projects will give the student the opportunity to develop important links and networks with national and international collaborators, providing extended training possibilities and forming the basis for new research partnerships moving forward.

References & further reading

Badreshany, K. Philip G. Kennedy M. 2019 The Development of Integrated Regional Economies in the Early Bronze Age Levant: new evidence from “Combed-Ware” jars, Levant 51-3

Deckers K 2016 Oak charcoal from north eastern Syria as proxy for vegetation, land use and climate in the second half of the Holocene. Review of Palaeobotany and Palynology 230, 22-36

Lawrence, D. et al. 2016. Long Term Population, City Size and Climate Trends in the Fertile Crescent: A First Approximation. PLOS ONE 11(6). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0157863

Morris, I. 2011. Why the West Rules – For Now: The Patterns of History and What They Reveal about the Future. London: Profile Books.

Shillito, L-M., Matthews, W., Almond, M.J. and Bull, I.D. (2011) The microstratigraphy of middens: capturing daily routine in rubbish at Neolithic Çatalhöyük, Turkey Antiquity 85(329): 1024 – 1038

Wilkinson, T. J. et al. 2014 Contextualizing Early Urbanization: Settlement Cores, Early States and Agro-pastoral Strategies in the Fertile Crescent During the Fourth and Third Millennia BC. Journal of World Prehistory 27(1), pp 43-109

Further Information

Dr Kamal Badreshany

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