Drone footage reveals an early Mesopotamian city constructed of marsh islands.

 This urban settlement lacked both a city center and a defensive wall.

New remote-sensing studies at the massive Tell al-Hiba site in southern Iraq, shown here from the air, support an emerging theory that an ancient city there was largely made up of four marsh islands. ARCHAEOLOGICAL PROJECT LAGASH
New remote-sensing studies at the massive Tell al-Hiba site in southern Iraq, shown here from the air, support an emerging theory that an ancient city there was largely made up of four marsh islands. ARCHAEOLOGICAL PROJECT LAGASH

A ground-penetrating eye in the sky has helped to rehydrate an ancient southern Mesopotamian city, dubbed the Fertile Crescent's Venice. The discovery of this early metropolis's watery nature has important implications for how urban life flourished nearly 5,000 years ago between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, where modern-day Iraq is located.

According to anthropological archaeologist Emily Hammer of the University of Pennsylvania, remote-sensing data, mostly collected by a specially equipped drone, a vast urban settlement called Lagash largely consisted of four marsh islands connected by waterways. These findings add crucial details to a growing consensus that southern Mesopotamian cities did not, as previously thought, expand outward from the temple and administrative districts into irrigated farmlands surrounded by a single city wall, according to Hammer's report in the December Journal of Anthropological Archaeology.

"As human occupation and environmental change reshaped the landscape, there could have been multiple evolving ways for Lagash to be a city of marsh islands," Hammer says.

She suspects that because Lagash had no geographical or ritual center, each city sector developed distinct economic practices on a single marsh island, similar to the later Italian city of Venice. Waterways or canals, for example, crisscrossed one marsh island, where fishing and reed collection for construction may have predominated.

Two other Lagash marsh islands have gated walls that enclose carefully laid out city streets and areas with large kilns, indicating that these sectors were built in stages and may have been the first to be settled. Crop cultivation and activities such as pottery making may have taken place there.

Drone photos of what appears to harbor on each marsh island indicate that boat travel is linked to city sectors. Footbridge ruins can be found in and near waterways between marsh islands, a possibility that can be investigated further.

Lagash, the core of one of the world's earliest states, was established between 4,900 and 4,600 years ago. Previous excavations indicate that residents abandoned the site, now known as Tell al-Hiba, around 3,600 years ago. It was excavated for the first time more than 40 years ago.

Hidden city

Drone photos taken across a vast site in southern Iraq revealed buried structures from the ancient Mesopotamian city of Lagash, shown in yellow, clustered in four sectors that were most likely marsh islands. Two large sectors were surrounded by red walls. Waterways, shown in dark blue, connected sectors and crisscrossed one sector on the far right.

Lagash composite map based on remote sensing data
Lagash composite map based on remote sensing data

Previous research by anthropological archaeologist Jennifer Pournelle of the University of South Carolina in Columbia on the timing of ancient wetlands expansions in southern Iraq suggested that Lagash and other southern Mesopotamian cities were built on raised mounds in marshes. According to satellite images, archaeologist Elizabeth Stone of Stony Brook University in New York believes Lagash was made up of around 33 marsh islands, many of which were quite small.

According to Hammer, drone photos provided a more detailed look at Lagash's buried structures than satellite images could. A drone spent six weeks in 2019 photographing much of the site's surface, guided by initial remote-sensing data gathered from ground level. Soil moisture and salt absorption from recent heavy rains aided the drone's technology in detecting buried remnants of buildings, walls, streets, waterways, and other city features.

According to Hammer, drone data allowed her to narrow down densely populated areas of the ancient city to three islands. It's possible that those islands were part of delta channels leading to the Persian Gulf. A large temple dominated a smaller fourth island.

According to University of Chicago archaeologist Augusta McMahon, one of three co-field directors of ongoing excavations at Lagash, Hammer's drone probe "confirms the idea of settled islands interconnected by watercourses."

According to McMahon, drone evidence of contrasting neighborhoods on different marsh islands, some looking planned and others more haphazardly arranged, reflect waves of immigration into Lagash between 4,600 and 4,350 years ago. According to excavated material, newcomers included residents of nearby and distant villages, mobile herders looking to settle down, and slave laborers captured from neighboring city-states.

According to Hammer, dense clusters of residences and other buildings across much of Lagash suggest that tens of thousands of people lived there during its heyday. At the time, the city was estimated to be 4 to 6 square kilometers in size, roughly the size of Chicago.

It's unclear whether northern Mesopotamian cities that were not located in marshes around 6,000 years ago had separate city sectors (SN: 2/5/08). However, according to archaeologist Guillermo Algaze of the University of California, San Diego, Lagash, and other southern Mesopotamian cities likely exploited water transport and trade among closely spaced settlements, enabling unprecedented growth.

Hammer describes Lagash as a "frozen in time" early southern Mesopotamian city. After Lagash's abandonment, nearby cities continued to be inhabited for a thousand years or more, as the region became less watery and sectors of longer-lasting cities expanded and merged. "We have a unique opportunity to see what other ancient cities in the region looked like earlier in time," Hammer says of Lagash.


Hammer, E. Lagash, an early Mesopotamian city, had multi-centric, marsh-based urbanism (Tell al-Hiba, Iraq). 101458, Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, Vol. 68, December 2022. DOI: 10.1016/j.jaa.2022.101458


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