Public Release:  Archaeologists explore Iraqi marshes for origins of urbanization

Penn State

The first non-Iraqi archaeological investigation of the Tigris-Euphrates delta in 20 years was a preliminary foray by three women who began to explore the links between wetland resources and the emergence and growth of cities last year.

"Foreign investigations in Iraq stopped in the 1990s," said Carrie Hritz, assistant professor of anthropology, Penn State. "Iraqis continued research, but because their work is unpublished, we are unsure of where they surveyed."

The marshlands in Iraq and Iran were drained between 1950 and the 1990s. While initial explanations were that Iraq needed the land for agricultural uses, more often than not, politics played a role. After the first Gulf war, Saddam Hussein drained the areas between the Tigris and Euphrates to control and punish Shia dissidents among the Marsh Arabs.

Restoration of the Hammar marshes is now a high national priority. If we do not act quickly, the window of opportunity for conducting work in this region will close, according to the researchers who include Hritz; 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.

The project aims to investigate the contributions of the early-mid Holocene shoreline of the gulf and marshes to the economic foundations of Mesopotamian cities. The researchers are looking at archaeological sites from 5,000 B.C. to Islamic times.

"Our interest is in early settlement," Hritz told attendees today (Mar 31) at the annual meeting of the Society of American Archaeology in Sacramento, Calif. " The early period of settlement is always linked to the development of agriculture."

Hritz notes, however, that marshes have all the resources necessary for settlement - fish, game and plants. She suggests that people would need a wide resource base to create urban areas in the midst of the Tigris-Euphrates delta and that the early cities in the marshes might have been precursors to agricultural settlements.

Carrying out any type of survey in a country at war is difficult and making arrangements becomes a daunting task.

"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," said Hritz. "While in Bagdad, we met with the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage, and they encouraged us to visit the sites with a SBAH representative and report back to them any observations."

The researchers also used local Iraqi security for their trip rather than hiring a foreign security firm. They spent a week on their British tour going from Bagdad to Basra and then spent five days with a private guide doing geoarchaeological survey in the Basra area.

"We saw everything we intended to see except for one area that was flooded," said Hritz. "We did not have the proper equipment to enter the flooded area."

Beside the preliminary survey, their aim was to establish collaborations with researchers at the University of Basra. They gave lectures at the university and met with geologists to determine what the researchers needed and the part that researchers and university could play.

Looting and damage to university laboratory equipment occurred during the initial stages of the current war in Iraq. The researchers plan to include the University of Basra scientists in their future work and hope to use not only their expertise, but also enhance their facilities.

"One thing we were able to do was to move forward the process to get the University of Basra access to JSTOR," said Hritz. "They now have access." JSTOR is an online database of more than 1,000 academic journals.

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A National Science Foundation High Risk grant in archaeology supported this work.

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