The Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies
(CAIS) -- Looking at this land area between the
Tigris and Euphrates rivers today, one sees mostly desert with scattered
settlements. In recent years, it has been part of the visible backdrop for
combat and military operations, land patrolled by the invading soldiers. But
below the surface, according to a team of US researchers, lie what could be new
evidence of the remains of ancient man-made systems and settlements that defined
the beginnings of urbanisation and the foundations of the great Mesopotamian
civilisations that followed.
Preliminary surveys and investigations
began last year when a team of three researchers, assistant professor of
anthropology Carrie Hritz of Penn Statue University, Jennifer Pournelle,
research assistant professor, School of the Environment, University of South
Carolina, and Jennifer Smith, associate professor of geology, Washington
University in St. Louis, carried out research of the Tigris-Euphrates delta
region to find traces that would help them initiate an exploration of the
connection between wetland resources and the emergence of some of the first
cities. They are looking at archaeological sites from the 4th Millennium, B.C.
E. up to the fall of the Sasanian Persia in 637 CE and migration of Arabs to the
"We were looking for evidence of past marshland and shoreline environments," said Hritz. "We, myself and colleague Dr. Jennifer Pournelle, identified possible features such as possible ancient beach ridges on satellite imagery and were hoping to verify that on the ground. We found some evidence for preserved ancient field systems in the former marshes but were unable to provide a relative date."
Few can imagine wetlands in some of the
areas they were surveying. But before 1950, this part of the delta region was
rich with marshland. Between 1950 and the 1990s, the region was systematically
drained by the Iraqi government to, ostensibly, make way for agricultural
development. Politics played a role. Saddam Hussein drained the areas as part of
his plan to control Shia dissidents living there. Most of the Marsh Arabs who
traditionally inhabited the area were relocated, leaving it substantially
depopulated of its former long-time residents. Now, returning the region back to
marshland has been made a national priority.
Now working against the clock, the
research team is piecing together the resources needed to explore the region
while it is dry so that evidence can be more easily identified, recovered and
Getting started was not easy.
Says Hritz, "Ultimately, we found that the only way to get into the
country that was cost effective was to go on a tour with a British tour
company." During the tour, they
spent time with a private guide conducting a geoarchaeological survey, then gave
lectures at the University of Basra and met with key individuals to establish
collaborative relationships and discuss the role that the University could play
in the research. One of the first things on the agenda would be to determine
what has already been done.
"Foreign investigations in Iraq
stopped in the 1990s," said Hritz, "Iraqis continued research, but
because their work is unpublished, we are unsure of where they surveyed.
However, says Hritz, "Iraqi archaeologist Abdul Amir Hamdani has conducted
archaeological survey in the former marshes recently and we eagerly await the
publication of his results".
Ultimately, the results of their work in
the region may have an important impact on our understanding of the origins of
urbanisation and the emergence of the first cities. "Our interest is in
early settlement," Hritz said at the annual meeting of the Society of
American Archaeology on March 31. "The early period of settlement is always
linked to the development of agriculture." And, she maintains, the marshes
had all the resources necessary to sustain early human settlement following the
hunter-gatherer era. "Southern Mesopotamia is one of the earliest locations
to provide evidence for the importance of irrigation agriculture in the rise of
social complexity. This relationship has been explored on the irrigable plains
of the alluvium but due to a combination of factors such as lack of navigable
roads in the past and the water in the marshes, the marshes have seen little
Copyright © 1998-2015 The Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies (CAIS)