Not Just for the Birds: Pigeons in the Roman and Byzantine Near East

Posted in: Ancient Near East Today, ASOR

By Jennifer Ramsay

When we think of pigeons today, it is generally not with admiration but rather annoyance or even dread of being targeted by them. The original meaning of ‘for the birds’ was that something was worthless, which may be where we get our modern conception of pigeons. Nonetheless pigeons have played a unique role in human history.

Pigeons and doves, which constitute the family Columbidae, are often referred to collectively as pigeons, but the pigeon is a larger form of these stout-bodies birds and doves the smaller. There are several biblical references to doves, such as in the book of Genesis when Noah sent a dove off after the great flood to see if the world was inhabitable (Genesis 8:8 -12). Doves or young pigeons were also considered acceptable sacrifices in the Hebrew Bible for those who could not afford more expensive animals. In Islamic tradition, the pigeon family is respected because they are believed to have assisted Muhammad by distracting his enemies outside the cave of Thaw'r during the Hijra. Several Near Eastern goddesses, such as Astarte, are also represented by doves.

Throughout history these birds have been used as messengers; Julius Caesar even used them to communicate with his troops while on campaign in Gaul. In Victorian England the breeding of fancy pigeons became a craze. The common pigeon fascinated Charles Darwin, and his observations and breeding of the bird contributed directly to On the Origin of Species

Unfortunately, western society today generally thinks of pigeons as pests rather than a valuable commodity. In New York City pigeons rank with cockroaches and rats as unappealing examples of urban wildlife, not so appealing a comparison. So it might be surprising to learn that pigeon-raising was a widespread livestock industry in the Roman world. What was it about the pigeon that the Romans embraced? First, let’s look at the requirements for raising pigeons and their antiquity.

Pigeon types from Darwin's "On the Origins of Species" (Memorial University)

Pigeons in New York City (ABC News)

Pigeons were the first domesticated bird. You did not have to be wealthy to keep and breed pigeons, and modest structures called dovecotes or pigeon towers could house them as long as they were protected from prey and shielded from winds. There are a wide variety of dovecotes depending on the environment and they are generally found near agricultural fields and vineyards. In some cases it has been argued they were purposely located near temples for use in sacrifices.

References to the uses of pigeon or doves appear in ancient Mesopotamian and Egyptian texts. At the 14th century BCE site of Emar, modern Tell Meskene, cuneiform documents note the sacrifice of doves for religious purposes. And according to the Papyrus Harris, the offerings Ramses III (1186-1155 BCE) gave to the temple at Karnak included 6510 doves. Pigeons have clearly played a part in the history of humankind, likely since the first agricultural communities.

Archaeological and literary research has shown that pigeons were raised primarily for the production of fertilizer and as a year-round source of meat (squab). Farmers during the Roman period routinely raised pigeons. Pliny notes to the importance of pigeon dung, ranking it second only thrushes dung as manure. The Roman scholar Varro stated that pigeon dung to be the best manure as it had the most heat and caused the ground to ferment, and the agricultural writer Columella maintained that bird dung gathered from pigeon towers was considered the best. Varro also indicated that pigeon dung should be broadcast like seed, and not placed in piles like cattle dung.

The importance of pigeon manure as a fertilizer cannot be underestimated; in many cases in the ancient Near East it was the main organic fertilizer available for traditional farmers, particularly in the southern parts of Israel and Jordan. It was used primarily as a high-quality fertilizer in annual crop farming, particularly with irrigated crops and tree orchards. The manure is especially effective in chalky and loess soils poor in minerals and organic matter. Such soils cannot support intensive agriculture without frequent fertilization.

Archaeologically we know that pigeon-rearing was already well established on the southern coastal plains of the Levant by the Hellenistic period. Hundreds of hewn underground installations date to this period and there are also many structures from the Roman and Byzantine Periods all over the region. Pigeon structures have been identified in archaeological contexts at Jericho, Jerusalem, Masada, Herodium, and Petra, to name a few. A newly discovered dovecote at ‘Ain al-Baida/‘Amman in Jordan, dating to the Iron Age, may help date other regional dovecotes to earlier periods than originally assumed. An excellent example of pictorial evidence dated to 100 BCE comes from a scene on the Palestrina mosaic located east of Rome at the sanctuary of Fortuna Primagenia. The mosaic illustrates landscape scenes along the Nile and includes an often overlooked example of a pigeon tower.

Ramsay at the dovecote at Masada (Photo by J. Ramsay)

Dovecote at el-Habis, Petra (Photo by J. Ramsay)

Dovecote at Masada (Photo by J. Ramsay)

First century B.C. mosaic of a dovecote tower found in Palestrina 3 near Rome (Biblical Archaeology Review)

Recent work at the site of Shivta in the Negev documents Roman/Byzantine pigeon towers that were abandoned after their collapse in an earthquake and examines the role of pigeons in the ancient agricultural systems of this arid region. The archaeological excavations recovered a thick layer of manure left in its cells. It was calculated that the pigeon tower excavated contained about 1000 nesting cells producing up to twelve tons of manure annually. That amount of manure could have fertilized 1500 fruit trees or vines and a small garden plot.

Pigeon tower at Shivta with L. Ramsay for scale (Photo by J. Ramsay)

Ramsay analyzing pigeon dung at Shivta (Photo by Boaz Zissu)

Thymelea seed from Shivta (Photo by J. Ramsay)

Processing pigeon dung at Shivta (Photo by J. Ramsay)

The analysis of pigeon dung provided direct evidence for pigeon diet in antiquity. Pigeons ate grapes, figs, olives and dates, as well as several weed species, like mezereon, canary grass and fat hen. The botanical remains recovered from the dung also illustrate that the environment around Shivta, today mostly barren desert, was likely much greener in antiquity due to agricultural practices. These desert agricultural practices were necessary to support a burgeoning population, likely stemming from an increased military presence. Although pigeon towers have yet to be documented at other sites in the arid regions of southern Jordan, such as Bir Madkur and Qasr Umm Rattam, extensive ancient field systems have been located around these sites and a terraced area around Umm Rattan is now called “the Roman Gardens.”

View of agricultural field walls around Bir Madhkur, Jordan (Photo by J. Ramsay)

Field systems near Qasr Umm Rattan, Jordan (Photo by J. Ramsay)

Pigeon rearing was an integral part of the mixed husbandry agricultural regime that dominated the Negev region from at least the Roman through the Byzantine periods. The structures that have been documented related to the raising of pigeons and the literary evidence of Roman era authors such as Pliny, Varro and Columella attest to the importance of pigeons in the ancient society of the Mediterranean. Even today in areas of the Near East pigeon rearing is an important part of the agricultural system, such as in Mit Ghamr, Egypt.

Sign at the site of Qasr Umm Rattam, Jordan (Photo by J. Ramsay)

Image of modern pigeon towers at Mit Ghamr, Egypt (Atlas Obscura)

Examining the role of the pigeon from an agro-archaeological perspective illustrates the complexity of desert agriculture in the Near East and the importance of the pigeon in antiquity. By examining both the floral and fauna components of a collapsed pigeon tower we begin to understand the holistic nature of farming arid environments in antiquity, which may inform modern agricultural practices on arid landscapes. The lowly pigeon may still make a valuable contribution to sustainable agriculture.

Jennifer Ramsay is Associate Professor of Anthropology at SUNY the College at Brockport.



For Further Reading:

Germanidou, S. Dovecotes from the Roman and Byzantine Periods: An Overview. Herom 4.1: 33-51.

Kakish, R. Evidence for Dove Breeding in the Iron Age: A Newly Discovered Dovecote at ‘Ain al-Baida/‘Amman. Jordan Journal for History and Archaeology 6 (3): 175-193.

Ramsay, J.H. and A.M. Smith II. Desert Agriculture at Bir Madhkur: The First Archaeobotanical Evidence to Support the Timing and Scale of Agriculture in the Hinterland of Petra. The Journal of Arid Environments 99: 51-63.

Ramsay, J. and Y. Tepper. Signs from a Green Desert: A Preliminary Analysis of Archaeobotanical Remains from Tower no. VI Near Shivta, Israel. Vegetation History and Archaeobotany, 19:235-242.

Tepper, Y. The Rise and Fall of Dove-raising. In: Kasher, A., Oppenheimer, A. and Rappaport, U. (eds.) Man and Land in Eretz-Israel in Antiquity. Jerusalem: 170-196 (Hebrew).


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