Campus & Community

Investigating canals across time, from space

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Ur takes a step back to see ancient networks

The view from space of an ancient canal network is recasting archaeologists’ understanding of the Assyrian capital of Nineveh and of the farming economy that supported it at its height of power almost 3,000 years ago.

The work of Assistant Anthropology Professor Jason Ur, detailed in the November/December 2005 issue of the archaeology journal Iraq, is casting doubt on the long-held belief that canals that brought water from springs and rivers far to Nineveh’s north were mainly constructed to support the city’s elaborate gardens.

Using declassified satellite photographs taken decades ago, Ur found what he believes is evidence of branches in the canals that indicate extensive agricultural irrigation in the lands north of Nineveh that scholars had thought dependent on rainfall for their annual production.

With irrigation, those fields would have been potentially far more productive than if they had been reliant on the vagaries of natural rain. Ur said the canals indicate that the farming system underlying what was then the Middle East’s dominant empire was more complex and organized than previously thought.

There were likely smaller satellite cities in the areas where the canals branched, Ur said, some of which remain undiscovered or buried under modern villages.

“What I would guess is that there are undiscovered population centers there,” Ur said. “The irrigation infrastructure is there to support larger settlements. We have to go and find them.”

Satellite photographs can be powerful tools for archaeologists in detecting broader patterns of settlement and networks that accompany ancient civilizations, such as roads and canals, Ur said.

An archaeologist trying to piece together these great works can walk the ground, digging to examine a promising mound here or an outcropping there. It helps, however, to step back from the landscape and look for patterns and structures that may be difficult or impossible to detect from the ground, where thousands of years of farming, road building, and urban development obscure all but bits and pieces.