Erbil Plain

Hellenistic Landscapes and Seleucid Control in Mesopotamia: the View from the Erbil Plain in Northern Iraq
Rocco Palermo, Lidewijde de Jong, and Jason A. Ur. 2022. “Hellenistic Landscapes and Seleucid Control in Mesopotamia: the View from the Erbil Plain in Northern Iraq.” American Journal of Archaeology, 126, 3, Pp. 425-442. Publisher's VersionAbstract
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.
Remote Sensing of Ancient Canal and Irrigation Systems
Jason A. Ur. 2022. “Remote Sensing of Ancient Canal and Irrigation Systems.” In Irrigation in Early States: New Directions, edited by Stephanie Rost, Pp. 65-81. Chicago: University of Chicago Oriental Institute. Publisher's VersionAbstract

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: Preliminary Results, 2012-2020
Jason Ur, Nader Babakr, Rocco Palermo, Petra Creamer, Mehrnoush Soroush, Shilan Ramand, and Karel Nováček. 2021. “The Erbil Plain Archaeological Survey: Preliminary Results, 2012-2020.” Iraq, 83. Link to Publisher's VersionAbstract

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.

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Jason Ur. 2020. “Drones Over Kurdistan.” In Situ, Spring 2020. Full Text PDF
Vers une histoire du peuplement de la plaine d'Erbil
Jason A. Ur and Jessica Giraud. 2020. “Vers une histoire du peuplement de la plaine d'Erbil.” In Arbela Antiqua, edited by Frédéric Alpi, Zidan Bradosty, Jessica Giraud, John MacGinnis, and Raija Mattila, Pp. 59-75. Beirut: Institut Français du Proche-Orient. Ur and Giraud 2020 Arbela Antiqua
Mapping Ancient Landscapes
Jason Ur, Jeffrey Blossom, and Christian Harder. 2019. “Mapping Ancient Landscapes.” In GIS for Science: Applying Mapping and Spatial Analytics, edited by Dawn Wright, Pp. 142-165. Redlands CA: Esri Press. Publisher's VersionAbstract

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.

Olivier Rouault, Maria Grazia Masetti-Rouault, Ilaria Calini, John MacGinnis, Jason Ur, and Quentin Vitale. 2018. “Qasr Shemamok-Kilizu (Kurdistan d’Irak), les campagnes de 2011 (9 avril-15 mai et 16 octobre-5 novembre).” In Études Mésopotamiennes – Mesopotamian Studies No. 1, edited by Vincent Déroche, Maria Grazia Masetti-Rouault, and Christophe Nicolle, Pp. 212-253. Oxford: Archaeopress.Abstract
Notre première 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...
Water for Arbail and Nimrud
Jason A. Ur. 2018. “Water for Arbail and Nimrud.” In Water for Assyria, edited by Hartmut Kühne, Pp. 57-75. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz.Abstract

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.

Ur 2018 Water for Arbail and Nimrud [PDF]
The Archaeological Renaissance in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq
Jason Ur. 2017. “The Archaeological Renaissance in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.” Near Eastern Archaeology, 80, 3, Pp. 176-187. Open Access Publisher's VersionAbstract
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.
The Topography of Nineveh
Jason A. Ur. 2017. “The Topography of Nineveh.” In Nineveh, the Great City: Symbol of Beauty and Power, edited by Lucas P. Petit and Daniele Morandi Bonacossi, Pp. 58-62. Leiden: Sidestone. Publisher's Version
Physical and Cultural Landscapes of Assyria
Jason A. Ur. 2017. “Physical and Cultural Landscapes of Assyria.” In Blackwell Companion to Assyria, edited by Eckart Frahm, Pp. 13-35. Oxford: Blackwell.Abstract


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.


The Tell Baqrta Project in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq
Konstantinos Kopanias, Claudia Beuger, John MacGinnis, and Jason Ur. 2016. “The Tell Baqrta Project in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.” In The Provincial Archaeology of the Assyrian Empire, edited by John MacGinnis, Dirk Wicke, and Tina Greenfield, Pp. 117-128. Cambridge: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research.
The Rural Landscape of the Assyrian Heartland: Recent Results from Arbail and Kilizu Provinces
Jason A. Ur and James F. Osborne. 2016. “The Rural Landscape of the Assyrian Heartland: Recent Results from Arbail and Kilizu Provinces.” In The Provincial Archaeology of the Assyrian Empire , edited by John MacGinnis, Dirk Wicke, and Tina Greenfield, Pp. 163-174. Cambridge: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research.Abstract
The world’s first empires were grand experiments in centralized political power and the territorial expansion of social control. The elite manifestations of empires are often prominent and have been studied intensively by historians and archaeologists, and they can lead to the impression that the state was all-pervasive in the lives of its citizens, from the rulers themselves down to the humblest farmer. Given the elite origins and biases of the historical and archaeological datasets, however, we might ask more precisely what were the impacts of empire on the quotidian lives of its people. Were issues of political control of concern only to competing elites, with little or no significance to the majority of the population, or were daily practices closely controlled? This paper addresses these issues by presenting preliminary data of the Erbil Plain Archaeological Survey (EPAS) to better understand the settlement landscape in the heartland of the Neo-Assyrian empire (c. 934–605 bc) in northern Iraq.
Konstantinos Kopanias, John MacGinnis, and Jason Ur. 2015. “Archaeological Projects in the Kurdistan Region in Iraq”. Download in DASH
The Hydraulic Landscape of Nimrud
Jason Ur and Julian E. Reade. 2015. “The Hydraulic Landscape of Nimrud.” Mesopotamia, 50, Pp. 25-51. Download in DASH
Jason A. Ur, Lidewijde de Jong, Jessica Giraud, James F. Osborne, and John MacGinnis. 2013. “Ancient Cities and Landscapes in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq: The Erbil Plain Archaeological Survey 2012 Season.” Iraq, 75, Pp. 89-117. Publisher's PDF on DASH
Jason A. Ur. 2013. “The Morphology of Neo-Assyrian Cities.” Subartu, 6-7, Pp. 11-22. Download PDF from DASHAbstract

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.

TJ Wilkinson, 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, Pp. 23-56.Abstract