Research on Medieval ‘Green Revolution’ wins award

Four medieval researchers have been awarded the 2024 Antiquity Prize for their article, “Re-thinking the ‘Green Revolution’ in the Mediterranean world.” The piece, which was published last year in the journal Antiquity, examines the archaeological evidence for the so-called ‘Islamic Green Revolution’ and the spread of new crops and agricultural practices in the medieval Mediterranean.

In 1974, historian Andrew Watson popularised the idea of an ‘Islamic Green Revolution’, suggesting that Arab expansion into the Mediterranean in the 7th century AD caused a revolution in agriculture.


He proposed that the early Islamic empires introduced many new crops and agrarian practices, causing an intensification in agriculture that had a lasting impact on the region, stimulating population growth, urbanisation, manufacturing, and economic reorganisation.

Map showing the Arab (and later Berber) conquests in the Mediterranean, and sites, mentioned in the text, from which archaeobotanical remains of Watson’s IGR species have been recovered. Dates: Tortosa tenth–twelfth century, Ilbira ninth–eleventh century, Volubilis seventh–ninth century, Mazara del Vallo ninth–tenth century, Fezzan eighth–ninth century, Quseir al-Qadim second–thirteenth century, Jerusalem eighth–ninth century. Image by the authors, courtesy Antiquity.

However, this idea has been criticised. Many crops and technologies were present in the Mediterranean before the Arab conquests, and established cereals such as wheat remained staples, whereas newly introduced grains such as rice were not widely adopted.


To reassess the theory, a team of archaeologists from several Spanish and UK institutions propose a new method. Their results were published in the August 2023 issue of Antiquity.

“We propose a new, multi-stranded archaeological approach to tackle one of the most fractious debates in Islamic history – the impact of the Arab conquests on European agriculture”, says co-author Professor Corisande Fenwick from University College London.

In the past, archaeologists have been heavily reliant on archaeobotanical data. To achieve a better understanding of the overall extent of agricultural and ecological change, the authors argue for the use of a wider range of evidence, such as animal bones (to examine how domesticated animals were integrated into agrarian farming), as well as landscape archaeology and palaeoclimate data.

To fully examine the long-term causes and effects of Islamic expansion, the authors also argue for the expansion of the region and period typically considered, to encompass the entire Mediterranean from the 6th to 16th centuries AD.


Finally, they apply new interpretative approaches to the data, examining agricultural developments as adaptations to changing social and environmental factors.

“Medieval archaeology in the Mediterranean has traditionally been regionally or nationally siloed,” states Professor Aleks Pluskowski from the University of Reading. “We hope our proposed framework encourages inter-regional collaborations that will develop a better understanding of connectivity between Europe, North Africa and Southwest Asia.”

“A holistic approach to the Medieval Green Revolution, with a broad timeframe, will bring together disconnected categories of data to challenge earlier approaches that focused on the mechanical diffusion of plant species and hydraulic techniques”, says co-author Professor Helena Kirchner from the Autonomous University of Barcelona.


The research shows that many of the changes attributed to Islamic influence may be better explained by a wider combination of factors. For example, whilst Islamic control increased the availability of many crops, their adoption may have been a response to climate fluctuations.

By applying this new approach to the archaeological evidence, the researchers set a new agenda for the examination of the long-term ecological impact of the Arab conquests on the Mediterranean, western European, and, ultimately, post-Columbian American societies.

Co-author Professor Guillermo Garcí a-Contreras Ruiz from the University of Granada concludes: “this article highlights the importance of integrating isolated research efforts to better understand medieval societies and their environment, allowing for a comprehensive analysis of the western Mediterranean.”

The article, “Re-thinking the ‘Green Revolution’ in the Mediterranean world,” by Helena Kirchner, Guillermo García-Contreras, Corisande Fenwick and Aleks Pluskowski, can be read by clicking here.


Top Image: Image from a 13th-century manuscript made in al-Andalus. Hadîth Bayâd wa Riyâd – BAVaticana Ar. Ris. 368 / Wikimedia Commons