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.
Click here for an Open Access version of this article.
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.