Abstract: Cities in the Marsh: Sustainability and Resilience Ancient Mesopotamia


The Tigris-Euphrates delta of southern Iraq is the locus of a continuous human occupation for at least eight millennia. The flourit of early Sumerian civilization in southern Iraq at the edges of the marshes and alluvial plain at the onset of the 4th millennium BC marked a degree of economic differentiation, socio-political complexity, and urbanization theretofore unseen elsewhere in the ancient world. Discussions of the economic foundations of early Mesopotamian urbanism note that populations in this area had access to three pillars of complementary resources that resulted in the creation of long-term sustainable resource landscapes; (1) irrigable plains in the northern reaches of the alluvium (2) pasture lands within the alluvium and in the surrounding mountain foothills of the Zagros (3) levee back swamps plus deltaic marshes and estuaries. To date, the little surveyed and unsurveyed areas southeast of the modern Shatt al-Gharraf, termed the Central Marshes, the Hawr Hawiza and the Hawr al-Hammar, have been something of an archaeological terra incognita despite the location of key 3rd  millennium B.C. Sumerian cities such as Lagash and Girsu in this area. Viewed as the fringe of urban society, the natural formation processes of the marshes, primarily the delta of the Euphrates, Tigris and Karun/Karkheh rivers systems, and long-term cultural modification of wetland environments for subsistence activities resulted in a continual cycle of heavy blankets of sedimentation of archaeological sites and features which deterred formal archaeological survey.  The combination of the active draining and resulting drying of the marshes in the late 1990s, and the availability of costly but high resolution satellite images provide a unique set of circumstances that make it possible to investigate land use and settlement patterns in the former Hawr al-Hammar for the first time. The integration of targeted and intensive surface survey, geological coring and remote sensing data can be used to begin to reconstruct the long-term settlement and land use patterns and the role of marsh/deltaic resources in the rise of urban society in Southern Mesopotamia.

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