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The Erbil Plain Archaeological Survey

Jason Ur, Harvard University, Project Grant 2013–2014

Fig. 1: The Erbil Plain Archaeological Survey research area in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (Ur 2013–2014)
Fig. 1: The Erbil Plain Archaeological Survey research area in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.
The Neo-Assyrian state (ca. 900-600 BC) created one of the world’s first empires.  It was centered on the Tigris River in what today is the Republic of Iraq.  The Assyrians are best known from early excavations in their capital cities, which revealed the monumental reliefs and cuneiform archives that now fill museums in London, Paris, and Baghdad.  Outside of these loci of elite power, the core of the empire is much less understood, but a general idea of its rural landscape can be proposed.  Based on observations from archaeology, epigraphy, satellite imagery, and art historical sources, it is likely that the landscape was centrally planned and highly engineered at almost all scales.  The imperial capitals were new foundations created by royal will; the rural hinterland may have been forcibly colonized with deportees from conquered lands; and the natural hydrology was transformed via a series of dams and canals and redirected to cities and villages for fields, parks, and gardens.  Together, these elements appear to describe a state policy of demographic and hydrological engineering in the imperial heartland.  The hypothesis of an engineered imperial landscape, however, requires archaeological confirmation.  In the 20th century, and especially under the Ba’athist Government (1968-2003), archaeology in the Kurdish region of Iraq was almost entirely prohibited.  Therefore this impression of the Assyrian landscape is based on anecdotal observations, some dating back to Austen Henry Layard in the 1840s, remote sensing studies without subsequent ground confirmation, and field surveys outside of the core provinces of the land of Assyria.

With the new political stability and openness in the autonomous Kurdistan Region of Iraq, it is finally possible to study directly the landscape of the imperial core.  Toward this goal, the Erbil Plain Archaeological Survey (EPAS) has begun to investigate a 3,200 square kilometer region of Erbil Governorate, around the city of Erbil, an important Neo-Assyrian city and presently the capital of the Kurdistan Region (see Figure 1).  Using historical and modern satellite imagery, EPAS has identified potential ancient settlements, dams, and canals.  Within the survey region, declassified CORONA satellite photographs from 1967-1968 have already revealed over 1,200 potential archaeological places, over forty kilometers of pre-modern canals, and roughly 7,000 shafts of subterranean karez irrigation systems. EPAS also uses modern (2010-2012) Ikonos and GeoEye-1 imagery; its high spatial and spectral resolution is especially important for identifying ancient canal and irrigation systems.  Given this abundance of pre-modern features, the Erbil plain represents one of the best-preserved archaeological landscapes found anywhere in the Near East. In particular, it presents unsurpassed opportunities to study the changing ways that human communities structured their surroundings via water management.

Fig. 2: Satellite remote sensing datasets at Site 129 Tell Abu Shita. Left: CORONA satellite photograph (28 February 1967). Right: GeoEye-1 image (16 January 2013). Inset: ground photograph of the high mound, view from the northeast.

In 2013, with the generous support of Dumbarton Oaks’ Garden and Landscape Studies program, the EPAS team spent 22 days in the field, visiting sites and features on the ground, mapping them, and collecting artifacts from their surfaces.  The team began by identifying potential sites in CORONA and GeoEye imagery (see Figure 2).  Historical (1967-1968) CORONA intelligence imagery is readily available and has proven to be very effective for detecting ancient sites throughout the Near East.  More recent (2010-2012) imagery from the GeoEye satellite is critical not only for mapping sites and landscape features.  The project relies on it for field navigation in a country without road maps, and for identifying and monitoring threats to cultural sites and landscapes in a region that is developing at an alarming rate, generally to the detriment of cultural heritage.

In the field, GPS-enabled handheld computers and imagery printouts were used to navigate to potential sites, and to subdivide them for artifact collection.  Ultimately the project visited 121 new archaeological sites, covering a total of 545 hectares, and analyzed over 12,000 artifacts (almost 600 kg).  Since 2012, the project has identified 214 sites, almost all of which were previously unknown.  The density of archaeological site (0.98 sites/km2) ranks as the highest recorded density of sites anywhere in the Republic of Iraq or indeed anywhere in Greater Mesopotamia.

The region also features abundant traces of ancient irrigation canals.  Many of these features are still visible on the ground, and are now used as depressed features for fish tanks and small irrigated gardens.  For example, one large canal is 7 m deep in places and 125 m wide; at its north end is a 300 m wide excavated basin (see Figure 3).  Others are now effaced by plowing or earthmoving and can only be recognized by satellite imagery.

The project’s focus is on the Neo-Assyrian landscape, but sites and features of all periods are mapped and collected, for two reasons.  A potentially planned Neo-Assyrian pattern must be compared to settlement and land use of other times.  The Neo-Assyrian landscape appears to be the point of transition between emergent patterns of the Bronze Age (ca. 3000-1100 BC) and the unambiguously planned imperial system of the Sasanian Empire (AD 200-600); therefore it is crucial that those phases also be understood.  Another reason for mapping all sites is ethical: all sites are currently threatened by the Kurdistan Region’s economic boom, and must be identified and recorded before they are damaged or lost.

Fig. 3: CORONA photograph of a 100 m wide large canal and associated basin. Inset: ground photograph of canal interior, near Site 94, facing northeast. For scale, note the figures outside of the canal at left and right.

Preliminary results from the 2013 field season suggest that the Neo-Assyrian kings and their engineers did indeed plan the imperial core.  Small villages of this time are more frequent than villages of any other time period, and they occur in close association with large-scale water features.  They occur in parts of the plain that had not been settled before and were not subsequently recolonized.  The project has demonstrated that these imperial plans are recoverable via satellite remote sensing and GIS-enabled field archaeology.  EPAS has demonstrated that large-scale but intensive regional research is feasible via these tools, with the capability to recover not only archaeological sites, but the more ephemeral traces of “off-site” landscapes, in particular the hydraulic systems that sustained Neo-Assyrian urbanism in the imperial core.

The Erbil Plain Archaeological Survey is giving a first view of a planned imperial landscape in ancient Assyria, an area which was almost completely unknown outside of its imperial palaces.  Furthermore, it is producing a model of imperial settlement and water management that predates the Classical civilizations, and testing innovative remote sensing and field methods at a large geographical scale.  Finally, it is providing a list of culturally significant places for conservation and protection by local antiquities authorities, and will begin the process of local history writing in Kurdistan after decades of Ba’athist neglect.

In addition to our support from the Dumbarton Oaks Garden and Landscape Studies program, EPAS must acknowledge funding from the National Science Foundation and the National Geographic Society.  We are grateful for the support of the General Directorate of Antiquities for the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (directed by Mala Awat) and the Directorate of Antiquities of Erbil (directed by Nader Babakir).  For further information please see