Satellite photographs reveal ancient road system

Press Release From: University of Chicago
Posted: Saturday, February 15, 2003

Archaeologists at the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute have used recently declassified satellite surveillance images to show that subtle land depressions -- which had gone largely unnoticed by scholars -- are actually the remnants of ancient roadways that knitted together the fabric of emerging civilizations in the ancient Near East.

These 5,000-year-old roadways were important thoroughfares for agricultural exchange and other commerce in an area of Syria and Iraq. It was here that expanding local settlements were coming into contact with cultures from southern Mesopotamia as urban civilization developed in the third millennium B.C., according to Tony Wilkinson, Research Associate at the institute, and Jason Ur, a researcher at the institute.

The ancient roads went out of service when better routes emerged late in the first millennium B.C. Because the old roads were in slight depressions, they became locations where local people gathered moist clay for mud bricks. Over the years, the roadways faded and they largely escaped the attention of archaeologists.

Although research by the Oriental Institute team focuses on the northern reaches of Mesopotamia, the roads probably were common throughout the region, the scholars said.

The roadways were 200 to 400 feet wide and 20 to 24 inches deep. They were made by early people who herded their livestock to fields for pasture and between towns as part of the emerging economic system. Continual traffic by people, animals and vehicles hardened the surface and caused the roadway to sink into the landscape.

These inter-site routes are more than connections between towns and nearby settlements, the scholars said. "When considered at a regional level, these routes emerge as segments of larger 'highways' that run from site to site on a generally east-west axis," wrote Ur in his paper, "CORONA Satellite Photography and Ancient Road Networks: A Northern Mesopotamian Case Study," to be published in the spring issue of the journal Antiquity.

Previously, archaeologists had drawn straight lines between major settlements, supposing a road system connected them, but not knowing its exact location. Now, rather than connecting the dots in an abstract way, they are able to see where the roads were and how they meandered between settlements.

The information also shows that the most important towns were those with the most roadways leading to them. The recent Oriental Institute work in northeastern Syria is based on two sites, Tell Brak and Tell Hamoukar, both of which emerge as communities of some importance in the third millennium B.C.

The satellite images show that Tell Hamoukar?the site of a continuing Oriental Institute expedition -- was a more important site than scholars had previously thought. Wilkinson and Ur agree it probably was on a road system that stretched from Nineveh, in what is now northern Iraq, to possibly Aleppo in western Syria near the Mediterranean.

"For the Early Bronze Age, new conclusions can be drawn about the underlying economy, which had a large role in producing this pattern of settlements and roads," Ur said. "The agricultural backbone of these towns is vividly illustrated by the abundant radial system of roads, although the interconnectedness of these systems suggests a far more integrated agricultural economy than originally recognized."

High-value luxury goods, such as textiles and metals, also traveled on these routes. Now with a better picture of how communities were connected, scholars will be able to further document trade using ancient texts.


[Image 1: (653KB)] Ancient roads, clearly visible in a CORONA satellite surveillance photograph, extends from the ancient city of Tell Hamoukar, site of Oriental Institute excavations in Syria. One road goes to the southwest and forms a fork. The road connected the ancient settlement with another several miles away. Photo courtesy USGS.

[Image 2: (691KB)] Roads radiate from Tell Brak, an ancient site in Syria. The ancient roads, which are clearly seen in CORONA satellite surveillance photographs, indicate that the settlement was an important city. Photo courtesy USGS.

[Image 3: (421KB)] A road, visible on CORONA satellite photography, leaves the ancient settlement of Tell Beydar in Syria, and goes through a plowed field into nearby hills. Photo courtesy USGS.

[Image 4: (1.1MB)] CORONA satellite imagery permits archaeologists to measure the size of ancient sites with great precision because it enables measurement of uneven, irregular walls such as the site of ancient Nineveh in Iraq, across the Tigris river from modern day Mosul. Photo courtesy USGS.

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