Abstract: Spying on the Past: Satellite Imagery and Archaeology in Southern Mesopotamia


The integration of spatial datasets from historical satellite imagery, digital elevation models (DEMs), and past archaeological surveys provides new insights into the nature and remains of past landscape transformations. Using southern Mesopotamia as a case study, this article addresses, both quantitatively and qualitatively, long-held assumptions concerning the nature and relationship of settlement patterns and river channel systems in antiquity. GIS and image analysis are used to fill in gaps in the settlement record and propose a revised location for the Tigris River during most of antiquity. Given that only one-third of the central alluvial plain had been ground surveyed in southern Mesopotamia, how complete was our picture of landscape and settlement? How could gaps in settlement be interpreted? The present work in the area east of Baghdad suggests that archaeologists and historians have underestimated the nature and movements of the Tigris River. Satellite imagery can help reveal the location of the Tigris River prior to its settling into its modern course, shedding light on its potential role in the rise of early Mesopotamian agricultural societies. The work presented here proposes a methodology for unweaving and mapping preserved pieces of ancient landscapes, addressing larger issues of human modification of the landscape.

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