Erbil (Kurdistan Region of Iraq)

Erbil Plain Archaeological Survey

The Erbil Plain Archaeological Survey

The Erbil Plain Archaeological Survey (EPAS) maps archaeological sites and landscape features over the past 10,000 years. Its geographical focus is the plain around the city of Erbil, the capital of Erbil governorate and of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Although rich in history and archaeology, the plain has remained largely unresearched until recently.  The project was initiated in 2012; its funders for the 2013 include the National Science Foundation (see the EPAS award abstract), the National Geographic Society, and Dumbarton Oaks.

EPAS investigates the history of settlement and land use from the Neolithic to the Present. The project counts as its general goals:

  • The identification, mapping, and dating of all premodern habitation sites;
  • Mapping of ancient irrigation systems, both on the surface and subterranean (karez/qanat);
  • Mapping of ancient roads and tracks
  • Creation of a spatial inventory (geospatial database) of sites and features for use by the Directorate of Antiquities for the Kurdistan Region and by the State Board of Antiquities & Heritage in Baghdad
  • Training of Western and Iraqi students in the techniques of archaeological survey, Geographic Information Systems (GIS), and remote sensing


The Rural Landscape of the Assyrian Heartland. The Erbil Plain was part of the core of the Neo-Assyrian Empire (ca. 900-600 BC). Archaeological excavations have targeted the temples and palaces in the great imperial capitals of Ashur, Nimrud, Khorsabad, and Nineveh, and have revealed traces of elaborate canal systems in their hinterlands. No systematic intensive surveys have been conducted anywhere in the imperial core, however, so nothing is known of rural Assyria, and how the countryside exploited the great irrigation systems. EPAS will investigate explicitly the distribution of cities, towns, villages and water across the plain, to test the hypothesis that the center of the empire was highly planned in terms of demography, agriculture, and hydrology.
Erbil Plain Archaeological Survey
Methods. The EPAS survey region covers 3,200 square kilometers between the Upper and Lower Zab rivers, with the city of Erbil at its center. The project makes extensive use of satellite imagery for site and feature identification, especially declassified intelligence photographs from the CORONA program. A preliminary assessment recovered almost 1,200 sites. These places will be visited, their site status confirmed, then mapped and artifacts collected from their surfaces.

First Results. In August 2012, EPAS investigated 110 square kilometers of the survey area, and it recovered 93 archaeological sites, ranging in time from the Proto-Hassuna (ca. 6400 BC) to the late Ottoman period. These sites included previously undocumented urban centers of the Early Bronze Age (ca. 2500-2000 BC), the Middle Bronze Age (ca. 2000-1500 BC), and the Sasanian era (ca. AD 200-600). The team also recovered seven new surface canals, probably of Neo-Assyrian date. Imagery analysis located several hundred kilometers of premodern trackways (“hollow ways”) and over 7,000 shafts from karez subterranean water systems. A preliminary report is in preparation for the journal Iraq.

Acknowledgements. The EPAS would like to express its gratitude for the help and encouragement of the following institutions and individuals:
• General Directorate of Antiquities of the Kurdistan Regional Government, in particular its director Kak Abubakir Othman (Mala Awat)
• Directorate of Antiquities, Erbil Governorate, especially its director Kak Haydar Hussayn, its Head of Inspectors Kak Saber, and our representatives Kak Khalil Barzanji and Kak Gareb Bawamurad
• KRG Representation in Washington DC, including its former Representative Kak Qubad Talabani and the Director of Culture and Community Kak Najat Abdullah
• State Board of Antiquities and Heritage, Baghdad, especially its former director Dr Qais Rashid
• The directors and team members of the Qasr Shemamok Excavation (especially Olivier Rouault and Maria Grazia Masetti-Rouault), the Tell Nader/Tell Baqrta Excavation (especially Konstantinos Kopanias), and the Land of Nineveh Project (in particular Daniele Morandi Bonacossi) for logistical help and collegiality
• Funding was generously provided by the National Science Foundation, the National Geographic Society, Dumbarton Oaks, Harvard University, the American School of Prehistoric Research, and the University of Groningen.

EPAS Survey Region


EPAS Team Members 2012

  • Jason Ur (Harvard University), Project Director
  • Lidewijde De Jong (University of Groningen), Associate Director and Hellenistic Specialist
  • Jessica Giraud (IFPO Erbil), Associate Director and Landscape Archaeologist
  • James Osborne (Johns Hopkins University), Associate Director and Iron Age Specialist
  • Max Price (Harvard University), Archaeological Surveyor
  • Khalil Barzanji (Directorate of Antiquities, Erbil), Archaeological Surveyor and Museum Representative
  • Gareb Bawamurad (Directorate of Antiquities, Erbil), Archaeological Surveyor and Museum Representative



Publications on Assyrian Landscapes


Ur, Jason A. 2004. CAMEL Laboratory Investigates the Landscape of Assyria from Space. Oriental Institute News & Notes 2004:6-7. [pdf]

—. 2005. Sennacherib's Northern Assyrian Canals: New Insights from Satellite Imagery and Aerial Photography. Iraq 67:317-345. [pdf]

—. 2012. The Present and Future of Archaeology in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. TAARII Newsletter Spring 2012:20-23. [pdf]

—. 2013. The Morphology of Neo-Assyrian Cities. Subartu 6-7:11-22. [pdf]

—. in press. "Physical and Cultural Landscapes of Assyria," in Blackwell Companion to Assyria. Edited by Eckart Frahm. Oxford and Malden: Wiley Blackwell.

Ur, J. A., L. de Jong, J. Giraud, J. F. Osborne, and J. MacGinnis. 2013. Ancient Cities and Landscapes in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq: The Erbil Plain Archaeological Survey 2012 Season. Iraq 75:89-118. [pdf]

Wilkinson, T.J., Jason A. Ur, and Jesse Casana. 2004. "From Nucleation to Dispersal: Trends in Settlement Pattern in the Northern Fertile Crescent," in Side-by-Side Survey: Comparative Regional Studies in the Mediterranean World. Edited by John Cherry and Susan Alcock, pp. 198-205. Oxford: Oxbow Books. [pdf]

Wilkinson, T.J., Eleanor Wilkinson, Jason A. Ur, and Mark Altaweel. 2005. Landscape and Settlement in the Neo-Assyrian Empire. Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 340:23-56. [pdf]