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  • P1: FLFJournal of Archaeological Research [jar] PL143-78 July 1, 2000 14:33 Style file version Nov. 19th, 1999

    Journal of Archaeological Research, Vol. 8, No. 3, 2000

    Regional Approaches to Mesopotamian Archaeology:The Contribution of Archaeological SurveysT. J. Wilkinson1

    This work synthesizes and critically evaluates the results of field surveys conductedover the last 20 years in southern (lower) and northern (upper) Mesopotamia, withemphasis placed on the increasing contribution of off-site and intensive surveys toregional analysis. During the Ubaid period the density of settlement was probablyhigher in the rain-fed north than the irrigated south, and even during the phase of3rd millennium B.C. urbanization, settlement densities in the north were probablyequivalent to or even exceeded those in the south. Although trends in settlementwere often synchronous between north and south, there was also a marked spatialvariability in settlement, with declines in one area being compensated by riseselsewhere. Particularly clear was the existence of a major structural transforma-tion from nucleated centers during the Bronze Age towards dispersed patterns ofrural settlement and more extensive lower towns in the Iron Age.KEY WORDS: archaeological survey; Mesopotamia; settlement; population.


    Ancient Mesopotamia forms a major heartland of early civilization. One man-ifestation of this civilization is the pattern of settlement, especially the distributionof its component cities. Archaeological survey provides the means of recoveringsuch settlement patterns; therefore, this field of research is fundamental to an un-derstanding of the development of the early state. The golden age of archaeologicalsurvey in Mesopotamia and Iran was arguably in the 1960s and 1970s, when manyinnovative techniques and theoretical approaches were applied to regional analysisof settlement patterns and economic systems. Since that time archaeologists havecontinued to conduct surveys. Despite the various levels of scale and quality, ar-chaeological surveys have contributed significantly to our knowledge of the social

    1Oriental Institute, 1155 East 58th St., Chicago, Illinois 60637; e-mail: t-wilkinson@uchicago.edu.


    1059-0161/00/0900-0219$18.00/0 C 2000 Plenum Publishing Corporation

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    dynamics and cultural development of greater Mesopotamia, especially concern-ing the dry-farming zone. Here I focus particularly on how archaeological surveyshave contributed to our knowledge of changing patterns of settlement, population,and land use, emphasizing structural changes in settlement, such as processes ofurbanization and settlement dispersal, as well as qualitative shifts in settlementand population that reflect changing political, socioeconomic, and environmentalconditions.


    Few would now question the importance of surveys for contributing robustdata fundamental to understanding human activity at a regional scale (Banning,1996, p. 25). Yet when the earlier Mesopotamian surveys were initiated, theyrequired some justification. At first, surveys in the Near East were conductedsimply to find a good site for excavation (Redman, 1982, p. 375). This goal per-sisted throughout much of the 20th century, although as early as the 1930s RobertBraidwoods Amuq survey sought to find data on the relationship between patternsof settlement and human behavior (Braidwood, 1937). Braidwoods approach wasechoed by Lloyd (1954) who appreciated the value of Near Eastern surveys forproviding data on the extent and interrelation of cultural provinces, the com-parative density of population, the economy and military sites, the directions ofancient roads, and place names. More specifically, Jacobsens initial survey in theDiyala area in 1936 attempted to establish a relationship between irrigation andsettlement by plotting the tells of each period on period maps. The site alignmentsso formed then reflected the alignments of rivers and canals upon which they de-pended (Jacobsen, 1995, p. 2747). Similar methodologies were then employed in1953 when Jacobsen teamed up with Vaughn Crawford and Fuad Safar for a surveyof central Sumer (Jacobsen, 1969).

    At a later stage, in an introduction to Heartland of Cities, Jacobsen then statedthe aims of Mesopotamian survey rather generally: to provide the geographicalsetting within which ancient Mesopotamian history evolved, and to throw light onthe rise of the earliest cities in human history (in Adams, 1981, p. xiii). The ob-jectives of Adams original surveys were ambitious, namely to provide some levelof explanation for the precocious early growth of this oldest, literate civilizationin the world as well as its precipitous decline (Adams, 1981, p. xvii). AlthoughAdams realistically noted that no comprehensive explanation could be offered forsuch growth or decline, there is no doubt that these early surveys contributed enor-mously to our ability to describe the process of urbanization. With Adams work,patterns of differential growth and decline were explicitly tackled, an interpretiveframework that has continued up to the present day, albeit now using techniquessuch as those of Dewar (1991) for establishing more fine-grained population trends(Kouchoukos, 1998; Pollock, 1999, pp. 5277). Despite the fact that archaeological

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    landscape has been the subject of archaeological surveys since Jacobsens initialDiyala survey of the 1930s, the more phenomenological approach to landscapespracticed in recent years by postprocessual archaeologists has made little impact inthe Near East. Even though Morandi (1996a), for the Neo-Assyrian Khabur Valley,has explored the concept of landscapes of power, his methodological approachis more tied to those of the locational models of 1960s geography than to those ofthe postprocessual schools.

    Whatever the goals of survey, interpretation of patterns of settlement anddemographic trends are only as good as the quality of survey data retrieval. Thusa 1981 review of the field stated that a current concern of survey archaeology ingeneral was a return to basic questions (Ammerman, 1981, pp. 8182). This back-to-basics approach included increased emphasis on site recognition, a shift to moreintensive strategies, an appreciation of geomorphological factors and relationsbetween surface and subsurface remains, to which I would add cultural taphonomicprocesses. Such objectives that focus on the nuts and bolts of site recognition andartifact recovery would seem mean-spirited in comparison with the earlier goals ofidentifying the origins of urbanization and human institutions (Adams, 1966), orstate formation (Wright, 1977; Wright and Johnson, 1975). Here I follow a back-to-basics approach, with an emphasis on the description of patterns of settlementdevelopment, land use, and the economic infrastructure in the form of traces ofirrigation and communication systems.

    In general most surveys in greater Mesopotamia have treated the agriculturaleconomy, population trends, or relationships between settlement and the environ-ment. Unlike in Mesoamerica, few have explicitly examined political organization.Specific themes pursued in this paper include landscape transformation processesand settlement; demographic patterning and long-term trends; urbanization, ru-ralization, and the recognition of trace occupations of transitory settlement, bothsedentary and nomadic; the reconstruction of land use systems, and, more tenta-tively, the recognition of long-distance communications (for complementary aimssee Hole (1980, p. 24). The broad issue of state development and development ofthe political economy are only touched upon, but I hope that some of the resultssummarized here may contribute useful building blocks to these debates.

    Because relatively few large-scale surveys have been conducted in southernMesopotamia since the publication of Heartland of Cities (Adams, 1981), thereis less to say about this area than the rain-fed north. Consequently, the status ofsurveys in southern Mesopotamia is simply updated based on results from smallsurveys that can act as a control on earlier, more extensive field operations, as wellas recent reassessments of regional settlement and environment (e.g., Pollock,1999), especially those derived from remote sensing. Specifically, it is the growthof the last-named methodology that has moved the field forward significantly inrecent years, through the use of satellite images to map settlement systems withintheir environment, and their analysis using Geographical Information Systems(Verhoeven and Daels, 1994).

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    Since the publication of the seminal works of Adams (Adams, 1965, 1981;Adams and Nissen, 1972) and his coworkers (Gibson, 1972; Wright, 1981), and thereview articles and other overviews of the field that followed (e.g., Ammerman,1981; Redman, 1982), there have been no major studies on the subject ofMesopotamian surveys. On the other hand, the major synthetic work on the ar-chaeology of western Iran (Hole, 1987) provides a valuable overview of the areato the east, and I therefore say little more about that area. The main thrust of thispaper postdates 19801982 when reviews by Hole (1980), Ammerman (1981),and Redman (1982) were published, and Heartland of Cities appeared. With theburgeoning of surveys and excavations in northern Iraq, the Syrian Jazira, andsouthern Turkey during the last 20 years,