A ground-penetrating eye in the sky has helped rehydrate an ancient southern Mesopotamian city, labeling it what amounted to a Venice of the Fertile Crescent. Identifying the aquatic nature of this early metropolis has important implications for how urban life flourished nearly 5,000 years ago between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, where present-day Iraq is located.
Remote sensing data, mostly collected by a specially equipped drone, indicates that a vast urban settlement called Lagash consisted largely of four marshy islands connected by waterways, says anthropologist archaeologist Emily Hammer of the University of Pennsylvania. These findings add crucial details to an emerging view that The cities of southern Mesopotamia did not expand, as traditionally thought, outward from the temple. and administrative districts on irrigated farmland that were once surrounded by a single city wall, Hammer reports in December. Journal of Anthropological Archeology.
“There could have been multiple ways of evolving for Lagash to be a swampy island city as human occupation and environmental change reshaped the landscape,” says Hammer.
Because Lagash had no geographic or ritual center, each sector of the city developed distinctive economic practices on an individual marshy island, much like the later Italian city of Venice, he suspects. For example, waterways or canals ran through a swampy island, where fishing and reed gathering for construction may have predominated.
Two other marshy islands of Lagash show evidence of having been bordered by closed walls enclosing carefully designed city streets and areas with large kilns, suggesting that these sectors were built in stages and may have been the first to be settled. It is possible that crops and activities such as pottery were developed there.
Drone photos of what were likely harbors on each marshy island suggest that boat trips connected sections of the city. Remains of what may have been footbridges appear in and adjacent to waterways between marshy islands, a possibility that further excavation may explore.
Lagash, which formed the core of one of the world’s earliest states, was founded between 4,900 and 4,600 years ago. Residents left the site, now known as Tell al-Hiba, about 3,600 years ago, previous excavations show. It was first excavated more than 40 years ago.
Previous analyzes of the timing of the spread of ancient wetlands in southern Iraq by anthropological archaeologist Jennifer Pournelle of the University of South Carolina at Columbia indicated that Lagash and other cities in southern Mesopotamia were built on raised mounds in the swamps. Based on satellite images, archaeologist Elizabeth Stone of Stony Brook University in New York has proposed that Lagash consisted of some 33 marshy islands, many of them quite small.
Drone photos provided a more detailed look at Lagash’s buried structures than is possible with satellite imagery, Hammer says. Guided by initial remote sensing data collected from ground level, a drone spent six weeks in 2019 taking high-resolution photos of much of the site’s surface. Soil moisture and salt absorption from recent heavy rains helped drone technology detect remains of buildings, walls, streets, waterways and other city features buried near ground level.
The drone data allowed Hammer to reduce the densely inhabited parts of the ancient city to three islands, she says. There is a possibility that those islands were part of the delta channels that extend into the Persian Gulf. A fourth smaller island was dominated by a large temple.
Hammer’s drone probe at Lagash “confirms the idea of inhabited islands interconnected by waterways,” says University of Chicago archaeologist Augusta McMahon, one of three co-field directors of ongoing excavations at the site.
Drone evidence of contrasting neighborhoods on different marshy islands, some appearing planned and others more haphazardly laid out, reflect waves of immigration to Lagash between 4,600 and 4,350 years ago, McMahon suggests. Excavated material indicates that the new arrivals included residents of nearby and distant villages, mobile herders seeking to settle, and captured slave laborers from neighboring city-states.
The dense clusters of residences and other buildings across much of Lagash suggest that tens of thousands of people lived there during its heyday, Hammer says. At the time, the city covered an estimated 4 to 6 square kilometers, almost the area of Chicago.
It is not clear if cities of northern Mesopotamia about 6,000 years old back, which were not located in swamps, contained separate sectors of the city (Serial number: 5/2/08). But Lagash and other cities in southern Mesopotamia likely exploited water transport and trade between closely spaced settlements, allowing for unprecedented growth, says archaeologist Guillermo Algaze of the University of California, San Diego.
Lagash stands out as one of the first cities in southern Mesopotamia frozen in time, says Hammer. Nearby cities continued to be inhabited for a thousand years or more after Lagash’s abandonment, when the region had become less watery and sections of more enduring cities had expanded and merged. At Lagash, “we get a rare opportunity to see what other ancient cities in the region were like in the past,” says Hammer.