Visit Us | Contact Us | Membership | Make a Gift | Calendar | Order Online | What's New

Print this Page

Home > Research > Projects > Landscape Studies In Upper Mesopotamia

Landscape Studies In Upper Mesopotamia


During the past twenty years both The Oriental Institute and Tony Wilkinson, the Institute's geomorphologist, have undertaken a number of projects within the Jazira of Syria, Turkey and Iraq. In order to provide a broader framework for future work, three major regional study areas are being proposed based on this previous work, geographical representativeness and suitable, and available area coverage (preferably aerial photographs, secondarily good maps). An overall geographical framework can be provided by either LANDSAT or SPOT images used in conjunction with GIS reference systems.

Three Main Study Areas:

  1. Western Jazira, Syria (1:25,000 maps, 1:10,000 aerial photographs, ground control (see below part 2)).
  2. Iraqi North Jazira (1:100,000 maps, 1:32,000 aerial photographs, 1:5,000 maps, ground control (N Jazira Project, Saddam Dam & other sites).
  3. Turkish Hilly Flanks (1:25,000 maps (part of area), extensive ground control).

The above three areas have all received a considerable amount of archaeological attention in recent years and all contain a large number of important archaeological sites. Although each area belongs to the Jazira, each represents a different geographical sub-zone as follows (from most arid to sub-humid):

  1. Straddling the southern margins of dry-land farming (mean annual rainfall of 200-300 mm pa), this region includes to the north and west, areas where dry-land cultivation is feasible so that settlements can spread away from obvious sources of irrigation water (eg Sweyhat and the upper Balikh). To the south and east where dryland farming becomes impracticable, settlement distributions, being more tied to water supply, become more linear. The latter area shows more evidence of canal and qanat water supply (dates to be determined, but predominantly post classical) and the presence within such an area of key early sites like Mureybit and Abu Hureyra requires some environmental or technological explanation.
  2. An area of intermediate annual rainfall (300-400 mm pa) and gently undulating plains, the northern Jazira of Iraq represents an ideal environment for sites to develop freely across the plain. The widely dispersed settlement pattern that evolved was permitted by the the development of waterholes as early as the Hassuna period (7th millennium BC) and perhaps an early phase of enhanced wadi flow. The growth and decay of EBA towns can be investigated within a framework of potentially brittle dry-land cultivation, which made phases of urban growth vulnerable to ultimate collapse. Although a major study has been undertaken within part of this area, there remains much valuable work to be done using the available aerial photographs.
  3. The most distant from the southern Mesopotamian heartland and also the most moist, with rainfall usually in the 400-500 mm pa range. The undulating upland steppe and terraced terrain generally constrains settlements within linear zones along river valleys or clusters within basins. The former settlement types have been sampled around Kurban Hoyuk and the latter around Titris Hoyuk. Although even this relatively verdant area can suffer occasional drought and crop failures, traces of early irrigation are absent and the development of early towns probably occurred within more resiliant land use constraints than the more arid areas further south.

The broad aims of the overall project are to enhance our understanding of the relationship between settlement growth or change and economic / environmental factors such as land-use change, development and presence of route systems, water supply and changes in the environment. To this end a check list of potential research topics has been developed to enable us to retain some consistency of objectives from area to area. The detailed field studies already undertaken can be used to provide ground control for the more general area studies employing aerial photographs, topographic & soil maps. In addition, work on the aerial photographs may identify areas for future fieldwork.

The overall geographical framework can be provided by satellite images and GIS (Geographic Information Systems) systems. It should be pointed out that satellite images although very fashionable with respect to archaeological research designs are not yet at least as powerful a tool as stereo aerial photography, most of which were taken more than 20 years ago when the areas in question were less cluttered with modern settlement and industry. Although the archaeological value of satellite imagery should not be underplayed, its main strength at present lies in the determination of planar data, such as land use, terrain types and regional geomorphology. Linear and point features, such as canals, hollow ways and sites, although frequently recognizable, are more ambiguous than on aerial photographs. In fact because it is usually possible to make a definitive identification of a landscape feature (such as a canal or hollow way) from an aerial photograph, these can virtually be viewed as a primary data source, rather than as simply general source of information that requires additional ground control (although ground control is always advisable).

At present, owing to the situation in Iraq, it is only feasible to conduct fieldwork in the Turkish hilly flanks zone (c) and the Syrian western Jazira (a). Regarding Iraq, it is suggested that The Oriental Institute purchase the required 1:32,000 aerial photograph coverage, because there remains a very large area both to the west and east of the Tigris that has not been studied. Such aerial photographs can be used to enhance previous Institute projects (eg Sennacharib's aqueduct, and perhaps Khorsabad), and can also provide a valuable teaching and research tool. Fieldwork is currently being planned within area (c) at Titrish Hoyuk near Urfa (an off-shoot of the Institute's Kurban Hoyuk project), and perhaps also in the region of Haji Nebi Tepe (Biricik) and near Urfa. Cooperative work around the two last-named sites can be arranged with Gil Stein and Patti Wattenmaker, if permits are obtained.

The main thrust of field work is however planned for the western Jazira of Syria. Work is about to start on the preparation of a field report on the Sweyhat area, on the other control area around Dibsi Faraj, as well as on the overall landscape mapping of the Tabqa region.

The three selected areas (a-c) provide a fairly representative spread of Jaziran environments within which it will be possible to relate changes in settlement and economy to overall changes in the physical environment. By asking similar questions of each area it should then be possible to understand a range of man-land relationships that were hitherto problematic given the imprecise techniques of landscape analysis or field survey that have been used in the past. Obviously the above scheme is no panacea, and it will be necessary to modify and update the approach periodically. Nevertheless it will enable a number of key issues to be tackled, and as a preliminary I suggest the following topics could be tackled within such a framework:

  1. Changes in local settlement pattern and density through time based upon selected case study areas.
  2. The relationship between settlement density (both urban and rural) and land use intensity as suggested by the presence of field scatters of pottery and other artifacts.
  3. The development and trajectory of hollow way routes (especially long inter-regional systems) and their relationship to settlement changes. Also the relationship of radial hollow ways and inferred systems of early intensive cultivation. Finally, hollow ways as runoff concentration features and their impact on runoff changes.
  4. The development and pattern of linear water supply systems (ie canals and qanats) and their relationship to changing patterns of settlement.
  5. The development of waterholes and wells through time.
  6. Archaeological evidence of large-scale excavation and quarrying (for mud-brick, gypsum, salt, basalt etc) and the related appearance of water collection features.
  7. Traces of early cemeteries.
  8. Relationship of settlement and details of land-use to overall cultivable soil resources and potential pasture reserves (satellite image study). Ground control would provide valuable data on the former development of cultivation on upland areas which now have thin upland soils which are only usable as pasture (eg Titrish area, Turkey).
  9. Evidence of landscape degredation, soil erosion, badland development.
  10. Other indications of former environmental change: raised water tables, former phases of wadi flow or aggradation/incision cycles. Changing regimes of the major rivers; for example the possible change of the regime of the Euphrates in Syria from meandering to braided in the light of historical changes in land use or exogenous factors.
  11. The development of major Islamic urban centres such as Raqqa and Medinat al-Far (Balikh valley) and their sustenance. The study of such systems, as well as being intrinsically valuable will act as a useful yardstick against which earlier systems can be measured.
  12. Fluctuation of Neolithic and Chalcolithic settlement (especially Halaf) with respect to changes in the environment.
  13. Any archaeological or environmental indices that may provide a better understanding of fluctuations in the southern margin of dry land farming.

Secondary Question:

  • Palaeobotanical and faunal changes within the overall environmental / economic changes derived from the above studies.

Initially only those topics that are directly relevant to the area of the western Jazira, Area 1 above, will be tackled; the other problems can be dealt with at a future date as appropriate. Eventually all three major regions could be brought together as a compound study rather in the manner of Heartland of Cities,by Robert McC. Adams.

Pilot Project Description

The proposed area of study for a pilot project season, to be presented to the National Geographic Society, comprises two areas that extend from the head of Lake Assad on the Euphrates in Syria to the Euphrates/Balikh junction at Raqqa and thence up the Balikh valley to the Turkish border. These two sub-regions include a number of key prehistoric sites such as Mureybit, Abu Hureyra, Sabi Abyad, as well as important Chalcolithic and Bronze Age centres such as Habuba Kabira, Tells Hadidi, Sweyhat, Bi'a and Mumbaqa. Major later sites include Hellenistic Jabal Khalad, Roman Dibsi Faraj and early Islamic Raqqa and Medinet al-Far.

At this stage of the project, no attempt will be made to undertake a total archaeological / geographical study of the area. Instead, key field areas will be evaluated as control for the overall area described below.

The overall academic objectives of the project are to relate changes in the pattern of archaeological settlement to the physical landscape, man-induced landscape features, land-use systems and the regional environment (including the southern margin of dryland farming). More specific aims will be to evaluate the growth of Early Bronze Age towns, to examine changes in land-use associated with such towns, to provide unambiguous evidence of canal and perhaps irrigation systems, and to relate these to the limits of dry-land farming. In addition recent work on the distribution of Neolithic and Halaf settlements with respect to the margin of dry farming will be evaluated (Akkermans 1990), and individual sites in the steppe and beyond these same margins will be studied with respect to their agricultural production systems. Later work will include an overall study of early Islamic Raqqa together with its water supply systems.

Initially the autumn 1992 season will use two key field areas to provide control over the larger study areas which will be mapped using available aerial photographs. The two larger study areas are:

  1. The Syrian Euphrates from the head of Lake Assad to its junction with the Balikh at Raqqa (Fig.2). Although much of this area is now covered by Lake Assad, the existence of aerial photographic coverage at c. 1:10,000 and good topographic maps at 1:25,000 provides the means for reconstructing the landscape features that are now partly or entirely submerged. Ground control for this area is provided by the reconnaissance survey of van Loon (1967) and by more detailed studies by Wilkinson at Dibsi Faraj (1976 and unpublished manuscript) and Tell Sweyhat (1976, 1982 and continuing). The areas of Dibsi Faraj and Tell Sweyhat provide convenient case studies of settlement modules within the irrigated area proper and within the area of dry-land farming respectively.
  2. The Syrian Balikh valley from the Turkish border to Raqqa. This area can be mapped at 1:10,000 by means of aerial photograph mosaics and soil and topographic maps at 1:25,000. The immediate area around Tell Sabi Abyad would be studied as a joint project with the team from the Leiden Museum under the direction of P.M.M.G. Akkermans. This geo-archaeological and landscape archaeological work would form an early stage of control for the aerial photograph landscape study that in future years, it is anticipated, will extend to cover the entire valley of the river Balikh already surveyed by Akkermans (1990).

Permits for both field control areas are held by Tom Holland, Institute archaeologist and Publications Coordinator, (for Sweyhat) and by Akkermans (for Sabi Abyad). The present National Geographic Society application is for the fieldwork at these two sites as described below.

Basic site survey and off-site archaeological work has already been conducted at Tell Sweyhat by Wilkinson (1976 and 1982) and five seasons of excavation by Holland (1976, 1977) and Holland and Zettler (1989 and 1991 seasons not yet published). Field objectives at Sweyhat would be to finalise the survey and off-site fieldwork (Wilkinson and illustrator), to undertake sample excavations at Early-Middle Bronze Age Tell Juaf (field assistant with botanical back-up) and to finalise the processing of excavated data, which is crucial to the interpretation of the survey results (Holland and illustrator). Excavation of an Early Bronze Age building with intact painted wall plaster will be funded seperately. Sample excavation at Tell Juaf, on the Euphrates floodplain some 5 km distant from Tell Sweyhat, will provide a valuable faunal and botanical sample to compare with that already collected from Tell Sweyhat situated on a higher river terrace. Samples from Tell Juaf within the potentially irrigable zone will be compared with charred plant remains already sampled from Tell Sweyhat within the zone of dry-land farming, thus making it possible to determine whether different land-use systems was operated within these highly contrasting zones.

Aerial photography mapping of the entire area of Lake Assad showing geomorphological features, ancient routes (hollow ways), canals, qanats and other features will continue in the Institute prior to the field season. Costs for this part of the project will be covered by The Oriental Institute.

Fieldwork within the control area around Tell Sabi Abyad in the Balikh valley will be undertaken jointly with the Leiden Museum excavations (directed by P.M.M.G.Akkermans). Initial fieldwork will map and describe hollow ways, excavate trial pits to determine rates of sedimentation and soil formation, undertake off-site sherd collection using techniques devised by Wilkinson (1982) and evaluate wadi and drainage changes around this Neolithic and Late Bronze Age site. This work will be a prelude to more extensive fieldwork in future. Aerial photography mapping of a limited area around Tell Sabi Abyad will be undertaken during a brief trip to the Netherlands (en route for the Middle East), where the aerial photographs are housed.

Techniques to be employed include: aerial photographic interpretation of geomorphological and landscape features; field study of soil profiles; off-site sampling of extensive pottery scatters; palaeobotanical analysis; ceramic analysis and the drawing of collected and stored sherds. Ultimately the entire project coverage will be placed within a geographical framework using either LANDSAT or SPOT images in conjunction with GIS systems. However, owing to the excellent aerial photographic coverage, this is not a first priority. Funding for such work will be sought at a later date.



Revised: June 17, 2010

Home > Research > Projects > Landscape Studies In Upper Mesopotamia