Researchers Explore Origins of Urbanisation in Mesopotamian Marshlands
By Dan McLerran
Satellite image of Tigris-Euphrates alluvial plain and delta region with marshlands. Courtesy NASA and Visible Earth.
(Click to enlarge)
LONDON, (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 area.
"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 recorded.
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 formal exploration."