Seasons and the city

Readers in the northern hemisphere will know just how cold and dark it is outside at this time of year. Unlike earlier years, though, it is also cold inside in plenty of places this winter. The energy crisis has hit hard in Europe, and is being felt in many different ways. Consequently, numerous individuals, communities, governments, and organisations – both private and public – have decided to lower indoor temperatures. This has prompted many of us to adapt our habits, by dressing warmly and making the most of daylight hours. Such responses are a reminder of how temperatures, high or low, can affect people, and this new reality has in turn brought the cycles of the year – the changing of the seasons and the fluctuating climate that accompanies them – back to the fore. This marks a shift for many of us in First World countries, where our everyday lives have long been literally insulated from the harsher impacts of seasonal change.

It was very different for past societies, which were profoundly influenced by the natural turn of the seasons. In the ancient world, from Rome to Ribe, and from the Americas to East Asia, individuals were at the mercy of both the weather and the climate. Everyday lives were not only shaped and structured by the hours of daylight and darkness, but also the annual timetable imposed by the shifting seasons. Then as now, some chores – perhaps most obviously agricultural labour – reached their peak at certain times of year. Alongside such communal effort, seasonal change was felt at the level of individual households. As well as a need to heat or cool rooms, the domestic schedule could be tailored to the climate, so that activities best undertaken inside were reserved for the colder months of the year.

Today, we are used to container ships transporting cargo throughout the year, but the changing seasons once had massive implications for travel, which in turn greatly influenced opportunities for trade. In some cases, seasons even created the circumstances that led to the emergence of new places. Birka, Sweden’s earliest town, now a UNESCO-designated World Heritage Site, started out as a Viking Age trading emporium. It was founded on a lake island, where summer sailing routes to the Baltic Sea met one of the busiest thoroughfares for winter sledge traffic via frozen lakes and snow-bound landscapes. This aspect was keenly appreciated by Gustaf Hallström when he investigated Birka in 1913, because back then winter routes were still an essential part of Swedish life. The original raison d’être for this pioneering urban community, then, was the need to establish a place where merchants could stay and goods could be stored between the travel seasons. Seen this way, the seasons brought different possibilities as well as constraints.

Seasonal cities were not just a feature of northern climes. Alfred Russel Wallace, one of Darwin’s contemporaries and an outstanding naturalist and explorer, observed a strange spectacle when he visited the Aru Islands, west of New Guinea, in 1857. Swedish researcher Mats Mogren, who drew attention to Wallace’s story in a 2013 paper in Lund Archaeological Review, described how the explorer arrived at the settlement of Dobo in January, only to find it virtually a ghost town, populated with rows of largely vacant houses. Gradually, though, as the sailing season commenced, more and more people arrived. They repaired their houses, started trading, and a busy market town duly sprang to life once more.

Such examples illustrate the fundamental role that the changing temperaments of the year could have on people – and the settlements they founded – in pre-industrial societies. But just as the impact of the seasons has been blunted for many modern urbanites, so too they were long neglected by many people researching past societies. Recently, though, there has been a surge of interest in seasonality in archaeology.

Turn! Turn! Turn! Seasons and the evidence

CWA readers will be familiar with the strong passions excited by debate about whether historical sources or archaeological evidence should be considered more reliable when discussing the true nature of ancient events. A fine example of this, which is also anchored in questions of seasonality, can be found at the world-famous Campanian city of Pompeii. There, fresh excavation evidence has revitalised discussions about when precisely in AD 79 Vesuvius erupted and entombed the city. At first sight, the answer should be obvious. No less an authority than Pliny the Younger, who witnessed the catastrophe – which also claimed his uncle’s life – tells us that it occurred in August.

An aerial view  of the excavations of the so-called ‘House of the Garden’ in Pompeii, 2019. IMAGE: © The Archaeological Park of Pompeii

In 2021, Massimo Osanna and Chiara Comegna presented intriguing new leads in a volume dedicated to The Archaeology of Seasonality. The case focused on a freshly found graffito on an atrium wall in a house that was undergoing renovations when the eruption occurred. Although the scrawled text concerned domestic affairs, it also provided a date: 17 October. By then, the building should – on the strength of Pliny’s account – have already been buried. While this graffito must be considered a compelling clue that the eruption occurred at a later date, Osanna and Comegna’s contribution is not the first to tackle the question of timing. Indeed, it has long been appreciated that ample archaeological evidence appears to point to a later date for the eruption. Many of the houses excavated in Pompeii have produced the remains of fruits and nuts in various stages of preparation. The presence of seasonal produce such as figs, pomegranates, and walnuts has always been a better fit with the eruption occurring after August. Perhaps, then, one important aspect of the new evidence is the reminder that we often instinctively trust written sources over the surviving material evidence. This is despite the well-known risk of commentators allowing bias and mistakes to creep in, innocently or otherwise. Even reputable observers like Pliny the Younger often ended up at the mercy of the competence of later scribes. As his writings only survive as copies, it may be no more than a scribal slip of the hand that immortalised August as the month when Pompeii met its fate.

Among the discoveries was a charcoal graffito on the atrium wall, which included a date: 17 October. IMAGE: © The Archaeological Park of Pompeii

Seeking seasons

Gerasa, a Decapolis city in what is now northern Jordan, was also on the receiving end of a natural disaster. The flourishing city was hit – along with a large swathe of the Levant – by a devastating earthquake on 18 January AD 749. Over the last few years, a group of early Islamic, Umayyad-period houses felled during this catastrophe have been excavated by a Danish-German team (see CWA 107), who have scrutinised the archaeological evidence with an eye for the impact of seasonality. It is certainly suggestive that both houses have produced evidence for refurbishment being under way when the earthquake struck. Indeed, one of the residences seems to have been receiving extensive repairs and remodelling. The house had been stripped of its earlier decorations, with new mosaics and wall paintings in the process of being installed. Was it entirely random that this disruptive and largely indoor activity was taking place during the winter months? At this time of year, a bigger labour force would have been available, as seasonal workers were not engaged elsewhere in agricultural activities. Would it therefore have been easier – and cheaper – to secure a labour force for private building projects during the winter?

Today, one of the appeals of ancient cities is that they seem fixed and unchanging as we explore their ruins. Yet life in these settlements would often have shifted with the seasons. This is a story that requires a powerful imagination to picture – and even better archaeology to tell.