Researchers aim for first in-depth study of historic and prehistoric terrace building

We all know the images of Southeast Asia’s vast rice fields neatly terraced against the hills. In Europe too, there used to be terraces, mostly bordered by hedges, which have been overtaken as agricultural practices have been scaled up. Archaeologists and geomorphologists from VUB and KU Leuven are now studying the typology of those terraces. For their research, they are visiting the Eastern Mediterranean basin, to perhaps the world’s oldest agriculture-related terracing. Their findings could have useful insights for today’s agriculture.

The project leader of the Junior FWO project is VUB archaeologist and professor Ralf Vandam. With his VUB colleagues Soetkin Vervust and Barbora Wouters and KU Leuven geomorphologist Matthias Vanmaercke, he will examine how old these terraces are, who built them and how, what their impact was on agricultural production and what crops were grown on them

"We will study terracing in Cyprus and in part of Turkey," says Vandam. "In a later phase of the study, we can possibly extrapolate to other areas where terrace building was an important land use strategy. Despite its widespread occurrence, the history of terracing is little known, as it’s difficult to date their construction and to determine their historical use. These aspects have hindered general research into when and why rural communities built terraces and how their long-term investments and choices helped to shape the landscape."

The researchers initially want to carry out a Lidar survey: laserimaging detection and ranging. Using this technology, they can make laser scans of the landscape from low altitude, resulting in a high-resolution topographic model. "A lidar elevation model should allow us to view old and sometimes hard-to-see terraces," says Vandam. "On those lidar models, we want to apply artificial intelligence in a self-learning system that allows us to find the terraces in the landscape. On that basis, we will try to reconstruct the different types of terraces in Cyprus and Turkey. We will then date them according to type."

That dating is done with a mobile installation for determining age using a process known as optically stimulated luminescence. Sediments that are buried store radioactivity from their environment, which is released when the sediment is exposed to light. The radioactivity present is a measure of how long sediment has been away from sunlight, and can indicate when the terrace was built. Some studies indicate that the first terraces date from the Iron Age, while others suggest there was an intensive period of construction in the Middle Ages. The dating should provide a conclusive answer.

"Those dates will also be archaeologically substantiated," says Vandam. "That can be done by linking them to archaeological sites in the area. We will also investigate the use of the terraces based on microstratigraphic analysis, and discover what crops grew on those terraces through microscopic examination of plant remains in the soil. These can range from grains to vegetables to fruit or olives. Finally, we also want to examine the life cycle of a terrace."

The data obtained will then be modelled, to calculate how much soil a terrace retains, its impact on erosion and soil runoff, whether terraces were embedded in an irrigation system and how they affected the water balance. "The millennia-long history of terraces has exceptional potential to highlight long-term land management strategies in relation to ecological or socio-economic changes," says Vandam. "We want to explore how the data obtained by the survey can be traced back to the human-environment interaction at the time the terraces were in use. This should teach us why the terraces were built then and there and in what socio-economic context."

He adds: "The whole study also has relevance for the present day. Can the farming methods and land use of long ago teach us anything for the future? We think so. So the study may be of interest even for land use in our own regions. Among other things, it can teach us how landslides can be prevented by intelligent terrace construction, how terraces can be deployed against soil erosion or how they affect water resources, including during periods of drought."

The project Terraces as a Land Management Strategy in the Eastern Mediterranean: A Long-Term Perspective received a 650,000 grant from the Research Foundation - Flanders.

Foto’s Ralf Vandam- VUB