Signs of soil fertigation in the desert: A pigeon tower structure near Byzantine Shivta, Israel

Yotam Tepper, Baruch Rosen, Annat Haber, Guy Bar-Oz

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


This article explores a means used by Byzantine agriculturists in the Negev in southern Israel to achieve sustainable soil improvement: pigeon manure. We found high concentrations of manure in ancient pigeon towers strewn across the Byzantine agricultural landscape, characterized by the widespread construction of terraces and dams to manage runoff and floodwater. We show that nitrogen (N), phosphate (P) and organic matter (OM), reliable and recognized indices of soil characterization used by both practical agriculturists and archaeologists, are associated with such towers. The distribution patterns of these indicators have shown congruent and significant perturbations north of the pigeon tower at Shivta. Comparisons with other ancient Levantine installations of this type suggest that the perturbations we identified are associated with a single, above-ground opening that did not survive the destruction of the tower. The door facilitated the controlled, periodical extraction of accumulated manure from inside the tower. This study supports the suggested importance of pigeon manure, evidently used to ameliorate local desert soils, and stresses the usefulness of chemical tests, traditional quantifiers of agricultural soil quality, and anthropogenic interference in identifying pigeon towers and clarifying archaeological problems in a desert environment.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)81-89
Number of pages9
JournalJournal of Arid Environments
StatePublished - Oct 2017

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This study was conducted under the license of the Israel Antiquities Authority (G-8/2004; G-31/2011). We are grateful for the assistance of Shivta National Park personnel, Ami and Dina Oach (Shivta Farm), Michael Shomroni, Avishi Blumenkrantz, Ada Caspi and Yigal Tepper (field survey), Anat Regev-Gisis (graphic design). Yaakov Eitan edited the language of the text. We are also appreciate the feedback of three anonymous reviewers for their thoughtful comments. This project has received funding from the European Research Council under the EU's Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation Programme (648427), the National Geographic Society (3857-10) and the Israel Science Foundation (340-14).

Publisher Copyright:
© 2017 Elsevier Ltd


  • Dovecote
  • Manure
  • Negev desert
  • Pigeon
  • Roman and Byzantine archaeology
  • Soil analysis

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Ecology
  • Earth-Surface Processes


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