Archaeologists explore Iraqi marshes for origins of Mesopotamian cities

April 2nd, 2011 - 5:53 pm ICT by ANI  

Washington, Apr 2 (ANI): Archaeologists have recently undertaken the first non-Iraqi archaeological investigation of the Tigris-Euphrates delta in nearly 20 years.

The three National Science Foundation-supported researchers, Jennifer Pournelle, Carrie Hritz, and geologist Jennifer Smith, carried out the study late last year to look for links between wetland resources and the emergence of Mesopotamian cities.

“Mesopotamia”, which is Greek for “the land between the rivers”, is an area about 300 miles long and 150 miles wide straddling the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, which now run through Iraq, northeastern Syria, southeastern Turkey and southwestern Iran.

It is broadly considered a cradle of civilization, because urban societies first developed there, about six thousand years ago.

“This is an important project because it has the potential to shed new light on the processes by which civilization rose in the Near East,” John Yellen, an NSF program director for archaeological research, said.

The researchers proposed the project to probe how the area’s gulf shoreline and marshes contributed to the economic foundation of Mesopotamian cities.

Specifically, they wanted to investigate archaeological sites from 5,000 B.C. to Islamic times to learn more about how wetland resources contributed to the locale’s towns and cities during the early- to mid-Holocene period.

“Our interest is in early settlement. The early period of settlement is always linked to the development of agriculture,” Hritz, an assistant professor of archaeological anthropology at Penn State, said.

An area of keen interest for the researchers was the Hammar marshlands, located south of the Euphrates River in Iraq and Iran, which were drained between 1950 and the 1990s, in part, to facilitate oil exploration and development.

But after the first Gulf War, former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein diverted the Euphrates River away from the area, causing the marshlands to almost entirely disappear, while at the same time making it more accessible to archaeologists.

Foreign archaeological investigations there stopped, while Iraqis continued only limited research.

“But because their work is unpublished, we are unsure of where they surveyed,” Hritz said.

The three members of the research team were able to get a look–for the first time in nearly two decades.

“Certainly having pedestrian access to much of the region was a help,” Smith, who is an associate professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences and Environmental Studies at Washington University in St. Louis, said.

“However, we only got to see a limited and relatively disturbed portion of the existing remnant marshlands, which made it harder to develop a real modern analogue for past wetland environments,” she stated.

Restoration of the Hammar marshes is now a high national priority in Iraq. The researchers say if they do not act quickly, the window of opportunity for conducting future work in the region will close.

“Iraq holds a wealth of significant archaeological sites and it has a long history of archaeological research. Hopefully, this project will help reinvigorate this rich tradition,” said Yellen. (ANI)

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