New remote sensing data collected via drone has revealed that the southern ancient Mesopotamian city Lagash, located between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, in present-day Iraq, would have consisted of four marsh islands connected by waterways.
Among the world’s earliest settlements, Lagash was founded sometime between 4,900 and 4,600 years ago. Roughly 3,600 years ago, residents abandoned the site now known as Tell al-Hiba. The site was first excavated more than 40 years ago.
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Drone photos, taken over a six-week period in 2019, offered a more detailed look at Lagash’s buried structures than previously possible with satellite images, including remnants of buildings, walls, streets, waterways, and other features near ground level.
These recent findings, which are reported in the December issue of Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, shed light on the development of the vast urban settlement. Akin to the way the Italian city Venice functions, scholars believe each marsh in Lagash developed distinct economic practices. Waterways crossed on one marsh island, for example, where fishing and reed collection for local construction may have been prevalent.
Two other marsh islands appear to have been bordered by gated walls enclosing carefully laid out streets and areas with large kilns, where agriculture and activities like pottery making could have occurred. These sectors may have been among the first settled and are believed to have been constructed in stages.
Drone photographs also showed remnants of possible harbors and footbridges on each island for boat travel that would have connected each sector. A smaller fourth island housed a large temple.
Across the marsh islands, some neighborhoods appear well-planned while others are more haphazardly arranged. It is thought that between roughly 4,600 and 4,350 years ago an influx of immigrants would have contributed to more hasty construction. Based on what has been excavated so far, it appears that this would have included residents coming from other villages, mobile herders looking to settle down, and slave laborers captured from neighboring city-states.
Dense residential clusters also indicate that, in its prime, tens of thousands of people would have lived in the one-and-a-half to two square mile city.
Previous studies conducted by anthropological archaeologist Jennifer Pournelle of the University of South Carolina in Columbia indicated that Lagash and other southern Mesopotamian cities were built in marshes on raised mounds. Archaeologist Elizabeth Stone of Stony Brook University in New York proposed, using satellite images, that the city consisted of 33 small marsh islands.
While it is unclear whether northern Mesopotamian cities contained separate city sectors, their southern counterparts likely took advantage of water transport and trade, which would have enabled and greatly impacted urban growth.