Tracing the Emergence of Social Complexity in Southern Mesopotamia: The Sirwan/Upper Diyala Regional Project

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The second field-season of the Sirwan Regional Project (SRP) took place in late May/early June 2014 with a team composed of Dr Claudia Glatz (University of Glasgow), Dr Jesse Casana (University of Arkansas), Dr Kathleen Nicholl (University of Utah) as well as Glasgow and Arkansas postgraduate students. Partly funded by a BISI Pilot Project Grant, one of the main objectives for this season was to investigate the Sirwan/Upper Diyala River Valley’s prehistoric landscapes and settlements in order to begin to address questions about the development and expansion of early complex societies in the Mesopotamian-Zagros interface.  


SRP’s research region comprises ca. 4,000km2 and stretches from the Qara Dagh Massif in the north to the plains surrounding the town of Kalar in the south. This landscape, dissected by the course of the Sirwan/Upper Diyala River, presents a transitional cultural and environmental zone that connects the piedmont and uplands of the western Zagros Range to the north and east with the alluvial plains and marshlands of Mesopotamia to the south. The region today is home to a variety of agricultural traditions, including rain-fed dry-farming more common in the north and intensive irrigation more typical in the south. The river also presents an important communication corridor, whose north-south course connects the fertile Sharezor high-plateau with southern Mesopotamia. Branching off from the river valley are two further important routes that lead north to the Upper Mesopotamian plains and east into the Iranian highlands and ultimately into Central Asia. As a result of its strategic location, the Sirwan region offers a unique topographic, environmental and geopolitical laboratory for the investigation of highland-lowland relationships, which underwrite many of the key themes in the region’s occupation history.


During an initial field season in May 2013, we recorded several promising sites, which have yielded ceramic evidence suggesting they represent a series of relatively short-lived settlements occupied successively in the Hassuna, Halaf, Ubaid and Uruk periods (c. 7000-3000 BC). Each of these sites, all within a 2km radius of one another and situated in the fertile, spring-fed Sozboluq area south-east of the town of Kalar, is an extensive low mound with little occupational overburden from later periods. The aim for 2014 was to explore this rare window into prehistoric settlement using a combination of surface survey, geophysical prospection and test-excavations.


In 2014, we carried out extensive magnetic gradiometry surveys at three of the four prehistoric sites: SRP 22, 28 and 36. SRP 36 yielded the most promising magnetometry results, which suggested the presence of a multi-roomed building near the top of this ca. 1 ha low-mound. A 1x4m sounding was excavated to investigate a burnt feature at the centre of the structure and in order to collect samples for radiometric dating and stratified artefactual and environmental samples. The trench revealed a circular mud-brick feature, an ashy pit covered with broken pottery and what appear to be several consecutive hearths. The majority of the pottery from the site appears to be proto-Hassuna to Hassuna in date. The analysis of the pottery and lithic assemblages, archaeobotanical, zooarchaeological/isotopic is currently in progress. Several attempts to radiocarbon date charcoal and bone samples as well as two charred pulses were unsuccessful, most likely due to the acidic soil at SRP 36. Further bone samples have been selected and will be submitted to SUERC in due course.



 At SRP 22 and 28 magnetic surveys revealed small rectilinear buildings, which we plan to investigate through test excavations in future seasons. A multi-period site (SRP 46), whose main occupation appears to date to the mid-late second millennium BC, was also investigated in this manner. 


In tandem with these site-based invitations, we continued our regional survey, adding ca. 40 new sites, a large number of which range in date between the Neolithic and the Bronze Age. We also recorded a series of large multi-period mounds, Sassanid and later villages as well as special purpose sites such as irrigation and water-management systems. A preliminary geomorphological survey of the area was also carried out and modern environmental samples collected in order to begin to build a geochemical framework for future isotope analyses of archaeological samples.


To sum up, we are very pleased with the outcome of the 2014 season, which has yielded important results, both with respect to the development and execution of our multi-scalar field methodology and with regards to the archaeological results this approach has produced. This includes a large number of prehistoric and Bronze Age sites that allow us to begin to address fundamental questions of highland-lowland interaction on the one hand, and investigate the region’s pathway(s) towards social complexity on the other.


Encouraged by the 2014 results, we plan to continue and expand our work in the Sirwan River Valley in August 2015. This will include a continued focus on the southern plains and their rich archaeological record as well as a more intensive and systematic investigation of the northern part of our survey region. A short visit on the last day of the 2014 field season revealed several previously undocumented mounds near the Darband-i-Balula rock relief, while numerous caves and rock-shelters also await exploration in this part of the survey area.


I would like to take this opportunity to thank BISI for supporting this research.


Dr Claudia Glatz - University of Glasgow