An earthly eye penetrating the sky helped to rehydrate the ancient southern Mesopotamian city and develop it into the fertile Crescent of Venice. Recognizing the watery nature of this first metropolis has important implications for why urban life flourished about five years ago between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, where present-day Iraq lies.
Remote sensing data, mostly collected by specially equipped drones, indicate a vast urban settlement called Lagash, largely made up of four islands connected by marshes and water, says anthropological archaeologist Emily Hammer of the University of Pennsylvania. These findings add important details to the emerging theory that the cities of southern Mesopotamia did not expand, as was traditional, outside the temple and administrative areas into irrigated gardens surrounded by a single wall, Hammer reports in December. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology.
“There could have been a number of ways that Lagash could have developed as a marshland city as human occupation and change changed the landscape,” Hammer says.
Because Lagash had no geographic or ritual center, each part of the city developed its own economic practices on each marsh island, much like the later Venetian city of Italy, it is suspected. For example, rivers or canals crossed one island marsh, where fishing and the collection of reeds for manufacturing predominate.
Two other islands of the Lagash marshes show evidence of porticoed walls that carefully enclosed the streets of the city and areas with large furnaces, suggesting that these parts were built in mansions and were the first to be settled. Crop growing and activities such as pottery making took place there.
Drone images of what were probably harbors on each of the island’s marshes suggest that boat travel connected parts of the city. The remains of what were pedestrians are visible in the river waters between the adjacent islands, a possibility that further excavations can explore.
Lagash, which formed the core of one of the world’s first states, was founded between about 4,900 and 4,600 years ago. Excavations indicate that the site was abandoned by residents, now known as Tell al-Hiba, approximately 3,600 years ago. It was first dug up more than 40 years ago.
Previous analyzes of ancient wetland expansions in southern Iraq conducted by anthropological archaeologist Jennifer Pournelle of the University of South Carolina in Columbia indicated that Lagash and other southern Mesopotamian cities were built on mounds raised in swamps. Based on satellite images, archaeologist Elizabeth Stone of Stony Brook University in New York proposed that Lagash consisted of 33 marshy islands, many of them very small.
The drone images provided a more detailed look at the buried structures at Lagash than is possible with satellite images, Hammer says. Based on initial remote sensing data collected from ground level, the drone spent six weeks in 2019 taking high-resolution images of many surface sites. Soil moisture and salt absorption from recent rains helped drone technology detect the remains of buildings, walls, streets, waterways and other city features next to the buried earth.
Hammer provided drone data to narrow down parts of the ancient city to three densely populated islands. It is possible that those islands form part of the Delta channel towards the Persian Gulf. The smaller and fourth island is dominated by the great temple.
Hammer’s excavation of Lagash “reinforces the idea of islands anchored by watercourses interconnected,” says University of Chicago archaeologist Augusta McMahon, one of three co-directors of the ongoing excavation at the site.
Drone evidence of contrasting neighborhoods on different swamp islands, some unsightly and others more chaotically arranged, reflect waves of immigration into Lagash, McMahon suggests, between about 4,600 and 4,350 years ago. The excavated material shows the inhabitants of neighboring and distant villages, mobile shepherds looking to settle down, and mercenary slaves captured from neighboring states.
Dense clusters of residences and other buildings throughout much of Lagash suggest that tens of thousands of people lived there in its heyday, Hammer says. At that time the city covered an estimated 4 to 6 square kilometers, which was close to the Chicago area.
It is uncertain whether the cities of northern Mesopotamia from about 6000 years ago, which were not located in the marshes, contained separate parts of the city.SN: 2/5/08). But Lagash and other southern Mesopotamian cities likely provided profitable water transport and trade between neighboring colonies, providing new growth, says archaeologist Guillermo Algaze of the University of California, San Diego.
Lagash stands out as the earliest concrete city in southern Mesopotamia, Hammer says. The cities were inhabited for a thousand years or more after the desert of Lagash, when the region became less watery and parts of the long-standing cities were enlarged and confused. In Lagash, “it’s a rare opportunity to see what other ancient cities in the region looked like back in the day,” Hammer says.
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