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.
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 capitals of the Neo-Assyrian empire appear to be firm examples of cities created as acts of political will, via top-down centralized planning, and with little or no input from their more humble inhabitants. This presentation will argue for a more flexible model that recognizes variability in top-down and bottom-up processes among the Assyrian capitals. Two sources enable a critical assessment. Recent research on provincial capitals has adopted a holistic approach that includes geophysical prospection and the targeting of non-elite residential areas. Satellite-based remote sensing has also opened windows into urban structure. Assyrian cities were highly variable in their morphologies, and these differences can be used to investigate their divergent origins and developmental trajectories. This presentation will review the form and structure of imperial and provincial capitals, with particular emphasis on satellite remote sensing of Nimrud and new topographic data for Qasr Shemamok (the provincial capital Kilizu), now being excavated by the Mission Archéologique Française à Erbil under the direction of Oliver Rouault and Maria Grazia Masetti-Rouault.
Tell Hamoukar is one of the largest Bronze Age sites in northern Mesopotamia. The present volume presents the results of three seasons of field survey and remote-sensing analysis at the site and its region. These studies were undertaken to address questions of urban origins, land use, and demographic trends through time. Site descriptions and settlement histories are presented for Hamoukar and fifty-nine other sites in its immediate hinterland over the last 8,000 years. The project paid close attention to the "off-site" landscape between sites and considered aspects of agricultural practices, land tenure, and patterns of movement. For each phase of occupation, the patterns of settlement and land use are contextualized within larger patterns of Mesopotamian history, with particular attention to the proto-urban fifth millennium B.C., the Uruk Expansion of the fourth millennium BC, the height of urbanism in the late third millennium, the impact of the Assyrian empire in the early first millennium BC, and the Abbasid landscape of the late first millennium AD.
The volume also includes a description of the unparalleled landscape of tracks in the Upper Khabur basin of Hassake province, northeastern Syria. Through analysis of CORONA satellite photographs, over 6,000 kilometers of premodern trackways were identified and mapped, mostly dating to the late third millennium and early Islamic periods. This area of northern Mesopotamia is thus one of the best-preserved ancient landscapes of movement in the world.
The volume's appendices describe the sixty sites, their surface assemblages, and the survey's ceramic typology.
CORONA satellite photography taken in the 1960s continues to reveal buried ancient landscapes and sequences of landscapes – some of them no longer visible. In this new survey of the Mughan Steppe in north-western Iran, the authors map a ‘signature landscape’ belonging to Sasanian irrigators, and discover that the traces of the nomadic peoples that succeeded them also show up on CORONA – in the form of scoops for animal shelters. The remains of these highly significant pastoralists have been virtually obliterated since the CORONA surveys by a new wave of irrigation farming. Such archaeological evaluation of a landscape has grave implications for the heritage of grassland nomads and the appreciation of their impact on history.