Ingenuity in the Oasis: Archaeobotanical, Geospatial, and Ethnoarchaeological Investigations of Bronze Age Agrarian Community Choices in the Northern Oman Interior


Smiti Nathan Staudt

PhD defended at: 

New York University


Oases possess long-established social and economic importance among communities living in arid environments and for those that decided to permanently settle in oases, strategic decision-making surrounding subsistence was crucial. One key strategy employed by oasis communities around the world is oasis agriculture. This project investigates the choices made by oasis agriculture communities in southeastern Arabia, specifically in the Ad Dhahirah governorate in the northern Oman interior, during the Bronze Age (ca. 3100BCE – 1250BCE). The Bronze Age in southeastern Arabia witnessed major social and economic changes including the emergence of oasis agriculture practices and communities. These relatively small-scale communities made strategic organizational and subsistence choices that led to the widespread establishment of oasis agriculture across the southeastern Arabian landscape. Vestiges of these early agrarian practices and communities have endured for over four millennia in Oman and oasis agriculture still holds significant socio-economic importance to this day. While the long-term impacts of Bronze Age agrarian decision-making strategies in southeastern Arabia were fundamental for the socio-economic trajectory of the region, the nature of these foundational decisions is not well understood.

This project proposes a new approach to examining Bronze Age oasis agriculture practices and communities, specifically by investigating the past choices of Bronze Age communities using niche construction theory (NCT) and a multi-proxy approach that consists of archaeobotanical, geospatial, and ethnoarchaeological methods. This project contends that settlement location and plant selection strategies were key choices that led to the growth and longevity of oasis agriculture communities. Geospatial analyses, specifically, digital elevation model (DEM) creation, hydrological modelling, and Kolmogorov-Smirnov statistical tests demonstrate that Bronze Age communities preferred niche oases environments with access to diverse and potential water resources. In terms of plant selection, a combination of carpological, anthracological, and phytolith analyses, coupled with ethnoarchaeological data, demonstrates that Bronze Age communities chose to cultivate both foreign and local plants that were well-suited to the local environment (e.g., date palms and cereals), but required significant resource investments and management, all the while exploiting local wild flora (e.g., grasses and native trees). These original results serve as the foundation for the coded archaeological signature of Bronze Age oasis agriculture activity introduced by this project. This model allows for the incorporation of new data and interpretations; thus, the ability to further refine the initial archaeological signature of oasis agriculture activity set forth by this project.

In the course of illustrating the relationship between humans and their environments, the results of this project also disentangle how Bronze Age oasis agriculture communities harnessed harsh local ecological conditions to support future socio-economic complexity. In summary, this project investigates the strategic choices made by Bronze Age communities, specifically surrounding settlement location and plant selection, and how they contributed to the maintenance and spread of oasis agriculture practices and communities throughout southeastern Arabia, which provided the foundations for the development of regional socio-economic complexity and a key subsistence strategy that has endured for millennia.