Hollow Ways

Ancient Communication Networks in Northern Mesopotamia

The landscapes of northern Mesopotamia are crossed by shallow linear depressions, called hollow ways, which mark the locations of ancient paths and trackways.  As humans and their animals walked across these tracks from their settlements to their fields and pastures, they disturbed the surface and caused it to sink.  Today these features are visible as slight depressions or as linear concentrations of grasses and weeds.

Hollow ways can be identified with difficulty on the ground, but they are much easier to see from a vertical perspective.  Earlier researchers such as Willem Van Liere and T.J. Wilkinson used aerial photographs to map them.  Since 2003, over 6,000 kilometers of former tracks have been mapped via declassified CORONA satellite photographs from the 1960’s and 1970’s.  The features generally appear as dark lines running through agricultural fields because the features collect moisture and promote denser vegetation growth than the surrounding fields. CORONA satellite imagery of northern Mesopotamian sites and landscapes can be freely downloaded at the Landscapes of Settlement and Movement in Northeastern Syria online database.

The features are found in two patterns.  Some hollow ways run between high mounded sites (tells) of the Early Bronze Age (ca. 2600-2000 BC), and are to be dated to that time period.  These features moved people and goods between settlements for various economic, political, and social purposes.  Others simply radiate outward from the tells and then fade out.  These hollow ways moved people and animals to the fields and pastures surrounding the settlement.


Ur, J. A. 2002. Settlement and Landscape in Northern Mesopotamia: The Tell Hamoukar Survey 2000-2001.Akkadica 123:57-88. [abstract] [pdf]

2002. Surface Collection and Offsite Studies at Tell Hamoukar, 1999. Iraq 64:15-44. [pdf]

2003. CORONA Satellite Photography and Ancient Road Networks: A Northern Mesopotamian Case Study. Antiquity 77:102-115. [abstract[pdf]

2005. Les imatges per satèllit i l’estructura dels paisatges antics: exemples del Pròxim Orient. Cota Zero 20:129-138.[pdf]

2010. Urbanism and Cultural Landscapes in Northeastern Syria: The Tell Hamoukar Survey, 1999-2001. Oriental Institute Publications 137. Chicago: University of Chicago Oriental Institute. [pdf] [order]

2009. "Emergent Landscapes of Movement in Early Bronze Age Northern Mesopotamia," in Landscapes of Movement: Paths, Trails, and Roads in Anthropological Perspective. Edited by James E. Snead, Clark Erickson, and W. Andrew Darling, pp. 180-203. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Museum Press. [pdf]

Ur, Jason A., and Carlo Colantoni. 2010. "The Cycle of Production, Preparation, and Consumption in a Northern Mesopotamian City," in Inside Ancient Kitchens: New Directions in the Study of Daily Meals and Feasts. Edited by Elizabeth Klarich, pp. 55-82. Boulder: University Press of Colorado.

Wilkinson, T.J., Charles French, Jason A. Ur, and Miranda Semple. 2010. The Geoarchaeology of Route Systems in Northern Syria. Geoarchaeology 25:745-771. [abstract]

Ur, Jason A. 2012. "Landscapes of Movement in the Ancient Near East," in Proceedings of the 7th International Congress on the Archaeology of the Ancient Near East, 12-16 April 2010, the British Museum and UCL, London. Edited by Roger Matthews and John Curtis, pp. 521-538. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz.

Ur, Jason A. in press. "Urban Adaptations to Climate Change in Northern Mesopotamia," in Ancient Society and Climate. Edited by Susanne Kerner, Rachael Dann, and Pernille Bangsgaard Jensen. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press.

Sallaberger, W., and J. A. Ur. 2004. "Tell Beydar/Nabada in its Regional Setting," in Third Millennium Cuneiform Texts from Tell Beydar (Seasons 1996-2002), Subartu 12. Edited by L. Milano, W. Sallaberger, P. Talon, and K. Van Lerberghe, pp. 51-71. Turnhout: Brepols. [pdf]

Ur, J. A., and T. J. Wilkinson. 2008. "Settlement and Economic Landscapes of Tell Beydar and its Hinterland," inBeydar Studies I. Edited by M. Lebeau and A. Suleiman, pp. 305-327. Turnhout: Brepols. [pdf]

In the Media

“Satellites Uncover Ancient Mideast Road Networks,” by John Noble Wilford.  New York Times, January 28, 2003.[link]

"Cold War Spy Photos Reveal Bronze Age Roads," by Michael Robbins, in "100 Top Science Stories of 2003,"Discover Magazine January 2004, p. 65.

"Satellite images lead to ancient 'highways'," by William Harms. University of Chicago Chronicle Vol. 22 no. 9 (February 6, 2003), pp. 1, 8.

"Spying on the Ancients," by Andrew Curry. ArchaeologyMarch-April 2003, p. 13.

"Archaeologists Find Ancient Road," by Marcella S. Kreiter. United Press International, 28 January 2003.

"Cold War Spy Photos Detail Ancient Roads," by Nancy Moffett. Chicago Sun-Times.

"Spy Photos Reveal Ancient Middle East Road Network," Reuters News Agency, 27 January 2003.

"Ancient Mideast Road System," by Stacy Lathrop.Anthropology News, March 2003, p. 27. 

"Un satellite militaire perce des secrets de l'Antiquité."Science et Vie 1028 (May 2003), p. 18.

"Un satellite per l'antica Mesopotamia," by Lorella Cecilia.Archeo March 2003, pp. 12-13.

"Casus Yudular," Atlas (March 2003), p. 24.

Elsewhere on the Web

“Ancient Near Eastern Route Systems from the Ground Up,” by T.J. Wilkinson.  ArchAtlas [full text]