The dominant interpretive frameworks for the origins of Early Bronze Age (ca. 2600-2000 BC) urbanism in northern Mesopotamia all revolve around goal-oriented actions of powerful elites: planned creation of cities, their palaces, temples and walls; and the creation and manipulation of intensified staple-based political economies based on centralized storage and redistribution. In other words, EBA cities were largely planned by central decision-makers. In proposing an alternative model, this study employs two approaches that Tony Wilkinson mastered in the course of his career. Empirically, it draws on the full archaeological landscape, including settlement patterns but also off-site features surrounding and between them. It interprets these data through a dynamic modeling lens based on Wilkinson’s “Modeling Ancient Settlement Systems” (MASS) project, which attempted to see social evolution as an emergent result of actions of individuals and households, rather than only decisions of kings and other elites. It concludes that urban form in the EBA was a product of social forces outside the concerns (or control) of elite households, and that unambiguous royal interventions in urban structure were reactions to these processes, rather than causative of them.
In this article we discuss the archaeological landscapes of the Erbil plain during the Hellenistic period (late fourth century BCE–mid second century BCE) based on the data collected during the Erbil Plain Archaeological Survey (EPAS) between 2012 and 2019. We use a landscape archaeology approach to trace patterns of habitation, migration, land exploitation, and water management from the Iron Age to the early first millennium CE. Over the course of the first millennium BCE, the Erbil plain was transformed from an urbanized core region to a rural area of the vast Seleucid world through a moment of depopulation in the post-Assyrian period. These transformation processes continued after the end of the Hellenistic period, but with a different pattern. Urbanization resumed, peaking during the Parthian (Arsacid) era, when the region was part of the kingdom of Adiabene. Ultimately, our analysis shows how the planned landscape of Assyria was transformed in the centuries that followed the collapse of the empire and how the proximity of political power was the critical variable in the settlement patterns of this part of northern Mesopotamia under the empires of the first millennium BCE.
One of the attractions of historical archaeology is the possibility to combine textual data with the archaeological record. In the world of Near Eastern archaeology, however, often the evidence of texts is taken to be the more reliable source, and elaborate historical reconstructions are occasionally made with little or no archaeological input. Such an imbalanced scenario is particularly dangerous with regard to ancient water systems, but the most successful attempts for Mesopotamia have been multidisciplinary collaborations, often incorporating ethnographic or ethnohistoric data.
Despite the perceived limitations of archaeological data, the most successful irrigation studies have involved them, for several reasons. The written sources on irrigation derive mostly from royal inscriptions. These texts reflect the priorities of the royal households that commissioned them, priorities that emphasize the legitimization of existing power structures. They describe not an objective reality (if such a thing is ever possible), but rather an idealized situation that supports the political agendas of the text-producing elite. Rarely do the political interests of the text producers correspond to the academic interests of modern scholars. For instance, royal inscriptions will emphasize the agency of the king in creating water systems (often acting with the blessing of the gods), but will fail to mention the preexisting systems that the king expanded, or the local systems of water sharing that brought water to individual fields.
Very often, the empirical elements of water systems were not considered significant enough to be mentioned. Yet for archaeologists, the physical dimensions of those systems are important for conclusions about economy and society. Elements of system scale (e.g., width and depth of canals, length of system, volume of water, irrigated area) are rarely described. Yet these elements are critical for assessing the extent of political authority, whether through control of land, or through the ability to mobilize the labor necessary for system construction. The absolute scale of an irrigation system could help archaeologists determine whether it was a critical element of the subsistence economy or a vanity project. When done on a regional scale, archaeological evidence can overturn major theories of social evolution; for example, the once-influential hydraulic hypothesis of Karl Wittfogel (1957) is largely out of favor, since Robert McCormick Adams demonstrated that urban settlement patterns preceded major irrigation systems by a millennium.
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Over the past 25 years, CORONA satellite imagery has become an integral part of archaeological research, especially for arid, sparsely vegetated regions such as the Middle East. Since 2020, a new archive of satellite imagery gathered by the US spy satellite programme that succeeded CORONA—HEXAGON—has become widely available for download via the United States Geological Survey. This photographic archive has enormous potential for archaeological research. Here, the authors seek to lower the barriers to accessing and using this imagery by detailing the background, technical specifications and history of the HEXAGON archive. Four case studies illustrate the benefits and limitations of HEXAGON imagery for archaeological and historical research in the Middle East and beyond.
The Erbil Plain Archaeological Survey (EPAS) investigates settlement and land use from the Neolithic to the present in the Erbil Governorate of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, which includes a large portion of the core of the Assyrian Empire. In seven field seasons, it has documented a broad settlement landscape in a region of great social and political importance, especially in the Bronze and Iron Ages, including 728 archaeological sites. Its field methodology combines traditional surface collection with the use of historical aerial and satellite photographs, mobile GIS, and UAV (drone) photogrammetry. Preliminary results show some unexpected patterns: a high density of culturally Uruk settlements in the fourth millennium B.C., variable urban morphologies in the Early Bronze Age; and large but low-density settlements at the end of the Sasanian period or the early Islamic period. The project is explicitly testing several hypotheses about centralized Neo-Assyrian landscape planning in the imperial core. These hypotheses appear to be confirmed, although the situation was more complex than in surrounding provinces, probably due to the longer history of continuous settlement.
Despite its social, geopolitical, and historiographical significance, the city of Kish has been largely left out of archaeological discussions of early Mesopotamian urbanism. This study will combine the results of McGuire Gibson’s 1966–67 surface collection with various geospatial datasets that did not exist or were unavailable to him at the time of his fieldwork (declassified intelligence satellite photographs, digital terrain data, and recent commercial satellite imagery) to reassess Kish’s urban development and compare it to contemporary cities elsewhere in Mesopotamia.
The study of preindustrial cities is in a phase of great dynamism.For a long time, early cities were viewed narrowly through the lenses of Classical and ancient Near Eastern urbanism. In archaeology, this situation emerged largely as a result of the great influence of V. Gordon Childe. His books and articles established a broad model of what an early city was supposed to look like; his seminal article on “The Urban Revolution” is the most heavily cited article in the history of the Town Planning Review. His vision of cities emphasized the “revolutionary” appearance of relatively (for their time) large and dense settlements that housed a ruling class (and its monuments) that extracted the production of the rural hinterland. These new urban places were further characterized by writing systems, art and science, long-distance trade, and the abandonment of kinship as a source of social cohesion.At this point, the critiques of Childe have largely been accepted. First and foremost, his characterization in “The Urban Revolution” is one of an early centralized polity— that is, a political form rather than a settlement form. More importantly, recent scholarship has convincingly demonstrated the remarkable diversity of early urban form, and it has argued, also convincingly, for a definition of “urbanism” that can accommodate such diversity. Indeed, for many current scholars, Childe’s “classic” formulation of the early city only really applies to the ancient Near East and the Mesopotamian examples that inspired him.In fact, Childe’s model does not even apply to Mesopotamian urbanism, at least not in its early stages. The diversity of urban form now recognized globally can also be found in the earliest cities of the Tigris and Euphrates region. “The Urban Revolution” model is not, however, useless, as it describes mature Mesopotamian cities of the third millennium Bce, and many subsequent urban places, quite well. But these cities came about with at least a millennium of previous urban development already behind them. They represent the end of a developmental process, not the start.
This study will illustrate three early Mesopotamian urban structures. They appeared sequentially, but not necessarily in an evolutionary sequence, from the late fifth to the middle of the third millennium Bce. The first, which appears to be unique in Mesopotamian history, seems to be a Near Eastern manifestation of a “megasite,” very large and low-density anomalies in the archaeological record, which in many parts of the world appeared prior to the appearance of less ambiguous urban forms. The second is a candidate for a Mesopotamian “low-density” city, a structure increasingly recognized globally but not yet in the Near East. Finally, at the time of the great Mesopotamian city-states, this study will argue that even the most geometric of settlement forms can be explained through the concept of emergence, as opposed to top-down planning.
In all of these cases, large settlements in early Mesopotamia were largely self-organized. Childe’s model may have emphasized new forms of centralized government in early cities, but a critical look at the archaeological data set of sites and landscapes suggests that bottom-up processes were dominant. It would be incorrect to call them “unplanned,” since all urban phenomena are planned at some scale; rather the issue is the locus of decision-making about planning. Traditional scholarship on Mesopotamian cities assigns most agency to kings and other elites, who often claim such influence in propagandistic royal inscriptions. In the case studies presented here, emphasis has been placed on households and neighborhoods, and the ways in which decision-making at those lower levels might result in the emergent forms of the earliest Mesopotamian cities.
In this paper, we report the results of our work on automated detection of qanat shafts on the Cold War-era CORONA Satellite Imagery. The increasing quantity of air and space-borne imagery available to archaeologists and the advances in computational science have created an emerging interest in automated archaeological detection. Traditional pattern recognition methods proved to have limited applicability for archaeological prospection, for a variety of reasons, including a high rate of false positives. Since 2012, however, a breakthrough has been made in the field of image recognition through deep learning. We have tested the application of deep convolutional neural networks (CNNs) for automated remote sensing detection of archaeological features. Our case study is the qanat systems of the Erbil Plain in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. The signature of the underground qanat systems on the remote sensing data are the semi-circular openings of their vertical shafts. We choose to focus on qanat shafts because they are promising targets for pattern recognition and because the richness and the extent of the qanat landscapes cannot be properly captured across vast territories without automated techniques. Our project is the first effort to use automated techniques on historic satellite imagery that takes advantage of neither the spectral imagery resolution nor very high (sub-meter) spatial resolution.
Racing against the clock as development encroaches on important Kurdish heritage sites, a team of landscape archaeologists deploys drones and comparative image analysis to capture previously undetected ancient settlements.
The chapter is accompanied by various online resources, including interactive maps, which can be viewed at the GISforScience website.
Recently declassified photographs taken by U2 spy planes in the 1950s and 1960s provide an important new source of historical aerial imagery useful for Eurasian archaeology. Like other sources of historical imagery, U2 photos provide a window into the past, before modern agriculture and development destroyed many archaeological sites. U2 imagery is older and in many cases higher resolution than CORONA spy satellite imagery, the other major source of historical imagery for Eurasia, and thus can expand the range of archaeological sites and features that can be studied from an aerial perspective. However, there are significant barriers to finding and retrieving U2 imagery of particular locales, and archaeologists have thus not yet widely used it. In this article, we aim to reduce these barriers by describing the U2 photo dataset and how to access it. We also provide the first spatial index of U2 photos for the Middle East. A brief discussion of archaeological case studies drawn from U2 imagery illustrates its merits and limitations. These case studies include investigations of prehistoric mass-kill hunting traps in eastern Jordan, irrigation systems of the first millennium BC Neo-Assyrian empire in northern Iraq, and twentieth-century marsh communities in southern Iraq.
Notrepremière mission au Kurdistan d'Irak, en avril-mai 2010, sur le site de Kilik Mishik dans la banlieue sud d’Erbil, – la première opération étrangère à obtenir un permis de fouille officiel du Ministère kurde responsable des fouilles – nous avait donné l’occasion de prendre un contact direct avec la réalité archéologique de la culture antique de la région d’Erbil. Elle nous avait aussi permis de nous familiariser avec les méthodes de travail et le fonctionnement des institutions locales et en particulier de l’Université et du Service des Antiquités. Pendant cette période nous avions également pu effectuer quelques rapides prospections et visiter plusieurs sites dans la région, nous forgeant ainsi une idée plus claire des possibilités et des opportunités offertes par l’ouverture de ce territoire à la recherche scientifique et archéologique...
The imperial and provincial capitals of the Neo-Assyrian empire held populations far beyond the limits of the Bronze Age cities that preceded them. This accomplishment came in part from intensifying agricultural production on the lands adjacent to the cities. The irrigation systems of Nimrud and Nineveh have over a century of exploration, but there are still many details to be revealed, especially through remote sensing and field exploration. This paper analyses the irrigation systems between Nimrud and Arbail (modern Erbil) using two sources. The first are remote sensing datasets from a variety of declassified American intelligence missions: aerial photographs from the U2 spy plane, and satellite photographs from the CORONA (1960-1972) and HEXAGON (1971-1984) programs, many of which have not been used for non-intelligence research before. The second source are field observations of the Erbil Plain Archaeological Survey (EPAS) in the regions of Gwer, Shemamok, Erbil, Kawr Gosk, and Qala Mortka, between the Upper Zab and the Chai Bastora. These observations have revealed a complex palimpsest of both massive irrigation systems and small scale karez/qanat systems that can be difficult to untangle. It is certain, however, that the river terraces and plains surrounding Nimrud and Arbail were abundantly irrigated. It is possible that some of these canal features were also being used for downstream shipment of bulky agricultural products, which would further extend the sustaining areas of these great cities.
After an absence of over two decades, foreign archaeology has returned in earnest to one of the “cradles of civilization” in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Two wars, international sanctions, and internal unrest had together brought archaeological research nearly to a standstill; only a few under-funded Iraqi teams and a handful of intrepid Europeans attempted fieldwork following the first Gulf War of 1991. Following a decline in political violence that began in 2008, archaeologists have returned to the Republic of Iraq. The resumption of fieldwork in the southern “heartland of cities” has been significant but slow, and hampered by internal politics. In the autonomous Kurdistan Region, however, foreign research has expanded rapidly and continuously, in partnership with local archaeologists and institutes. This essay reviews these new developments, discusses how the new discoveries are challenging long-held ideas and filling blank spaces on the archaeological map, and suggests some new directions for the future of Mesopotamian studies.
Jason A. Ur. 2017. “The Birth of Cities in Ancient West Asia.” In Ancient West Asian Civilization: Geoenvironment and Society in the Pre-Islamic Middle East, edited by Akira Tsuneki, Shigeo Yamada, and Kenichiro Hisada, Pp. 133-147. Singapore: Springer.
The history of the land of Assyria is, to a considerable extent, the story of a continuous attempt by individuals, communities, states, and empires to define their places in their landscapes. In basic economic terms, people had to feed their families, which meant adapting to the possibilities and limitations of climate and environment for agriculture and animal husbandry, and sometimes extending them. Even for the elite elements of society, the environment was a critical variable in how palace walls were decorated, how gardens and parks were created, and how tribute was collected. Climate and environment played important roles in determining the scheduling of royal campaigns and in which directions they went. The limitations and fluctuations of climate were a major concern in Assyrian temples as well, as priests and kings attempted to intercede with the gods for the favorable growing conditions that sustained cities, enabled trade, and revealed to the people the good relationship between the king and the gods.
The physical landscape of Assyria was far from immutable. Fluctuations in temperature, rainfall, and seasonality took place on yearly, decadal, and even millennial scales. Its human communities were also responsible for modifications that turned the physical environment into the cultural landscape. The nature of these cultural changes have much to tell us about past societies. At one end of the continuum, landscapes were modified by the aggregate actions of their inhabitants, whether they were farmers, shepherds, craftspeople, or traders. Individuals might have only limited effects on their surroundings within their lifetimes, but their collective actions can leave a tremendous, often unintended, footprint. The best example of such cumulative action is the tell, the classic form of archaeological site in the Near East, the largest of which grew to 40 m or higher. Tells formed over centuries or millennia as individual households built, repaired, tore down, and rebuilt stone and mudbrick structures on the same spot (Rosen 1986). The intention of the builders was simply to provide a physical space for their households, not to create a looming aggregate of decayed mud brick on the landscape; the cumulative result of many generations engaging in this simple domestic behavior, however, had just such an effect.
On the other end of the continuum, landscapes could be modified according to royal will; kings and their planners imposed their particular political, economic, demographic, and cosmological visions upon the surrounding land. The resulting landscape elements were often monumental due to the royal household’s ability to mobilize vast amounts of labor toward its ends. These structures are more difficult to remove, and therefore disproportionately likely to survive to the present than lesser changes.
This chapter reviews the physical environment and cultural landscapes, both emergent and imposed, in the regions of modern northern Iraq, southeastern Turkey and eastern Syria that encompass the central part of the ancient “Land of Assyria” (Fig. 1). Although this geographic designation was only meaningful in the late 2nd and early 1st millennia BCE, in the time of the Middle Assyrian and Neo-Assyrian empires, it provides a convenient geographical framework within which to consider earlier landscapes, especially the Early Bronze Age (EBA) urban phase of the late 3rd millennium BCE. Geographically, this region encompasses the middle stretch of the Tigris River between the Eski Mosul and the Fatha gorge, its tributary valleys and plains to the east, the Cizre plain in the north, and the Upper Khabur and Sinjar plains, as well as the Khabur river valley, to the west. These latter areas, while outside of the Tigris Valley “heartland,” were considered by the 1st millennium BCE Assyrian kings to be historically part of the “Land of Ashur,” and were administered as such (Postgate 1992, 1995, Radner 2006, Kühne 2012).
A particularly useful framework for approaching Assyrian landscapes through time is the “signature landscape” concept developed by Tony Wilkinson (2003:11-14). Signature landscapes describe certain combinations of landscape elements that recur across space and time. These landscapes tend to be products of either especially powerful state actors, or of particularly durable and widely shared activities that resulted in the deep etching of a suite of features into the landscape. In both cases, the features survive and sometimes even structure subsequent settlement and land use. Signature landscapes are generally associated with, but not dictated by, combinations of physical environment and social factors (most commonly economy, political structure, and cosmology). Here one might consider the lowland irrigation landscapes of southern Mesopotamia, the oasis-based water catchment systems of the deserts, and the terracing and runoff agricultural systems of highland Yemen. The land of Assyria hosted two distinctive signature landscapes in the Early Bronze Age and Iron Ages under nearly identical environmental conditions, described below. It is thus an excellent case study in the variable connections between cultural landscapes and sociopolitical organization.
The study of cultural landscapes is made challenging by the divergent histories of scholarship in the eastern (Iraqi) and western (Syrian and Turkish) halves of the Assyrian core. The Assyrian heartland along the Tigris River is one of the birthplaces of the modern discipline of archaeology, due to the efforts of Layard, Botta, and others in the great capital cities of the empire (Larsen 1996). These early excavations produced huge volumes of architectural, art historical, and epigraphic data that are still mined today for new insights. In terms of landscape and settlement studies, however, the hinterlands of the great capitals have been almost terra incognita until very recently. Early landscape observations were anecdotal and opportunistic, but remain unsurpassed forty or more years after they were made (see especially Bachmann 1927, Jacobsen and Lloyd 1935, Oates 1968, Reade 1978). The “golden age” of survey archaeology in southern Iraq in the 1950s and 1960s (e.g., Adams 1981, reviewed in Ur 2012) had almost no impact on research in Assyria, which was characterized by a “closing of perspectives” (Liverani 1988:80). The western half of the Assyrian core, on the other hand, has witnessed an explosion of surveys and landscape studies since the 1970s (reviewed in Wilkinson and Barbanes 2000, Morandi Bonacossi 2000 and below). At the time of writing, this imbalance in archaeological survey is beginning to be corrected via new projects in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, in particular in the hinterlands of Nineveh, Erbil, and Kilizu (see, e.g., Ur et al. 2013, Ur and Osborne in press, Morandi Bonacossi 2012-2013) Morandi Bonacossi and Iamoni in preparation).
Despite these biases within the overall dataset, it is possible to describe general trends in the evolution of cultural landscapes, although some aspects will require ground confirmation in the future when new projects in Iraq and its Kurdistan Region begin to be published. After describing aspects of the physical environment, this chapter considers one of the most dramatic landscape shifts in the history of the ancient Near East: the transition from the emergent urban landscapes of the late Early Bronze Age (ca. 2600-2000 BC) to the imposed landscape of imperial Assyria in the early 1st millennium BCE.