The Fragile Crescent: Settlement Change during the Urban Transition

Lead Research Organisation: Durham University
Department Name: Archaeology


Whereas Mesopotamia is known as the hearth of development of early cities, the Levant and Northern Syria represent the crucible of the so-called agricultural revolution. In terms of urbanization, the tells and associated polities of the Levant and Northern Syria are normally categorized as an arena of secondary state formation. Here nucleated tell-type settlements developed within broad, fertile plains and ultimately attained a maximum size of 100 to 130 ha (Wilkinson 1994).
In Mesopotamia the seminal surveys of Robert McCormick Adams have provided the crucial framework for understanding the development of the city, but no such large scale surveys exist to provide an understanding of the history of urban development in northern (upper) Mesopotamia or the Levant. It is the objective of the FCP to try to rectify this imbalance.
First, the record of settlement will be described for the period between roughly 3500 and 1200 BC. Systematic, intensive surveys conducted over the last 25 years will provide a base-line series of sample areas across a wide swathe of the rain-fed farming zone from virtually the Tigris to the Mediterranean. Remote sensing will place these sample areas within a geographical context to facilitate a rigorous comparative analysis.
The geographically corrected survey data will be imported into a GIS framework, and cross-checked using satellite imagery such as Corona (Philip et al. 2002; Donoghue et al. 2001) and SRTM 3D terrain models (Sherratt 2004; Hritz and Wilkinson 2006) so that previously unrecognized sites and landscape features such as 'hollow way' roads, canals, and associated geomorphological features can be mapped beyond the often arbitrary limits of survey areas. Finally, the original survey results will be reinterpreted in the light of recent advances in archaeological method and theory.
The sample survey areas will be increased in their utility if they are extended to encompass a wider universe and are contextualized in terms of their economic landscapes (as stated above). Settlement distribution and trends in settlement will be assessed as follows:

First spatial data from the existing sample survey areas (see case for support) will be geographically corrected to enable sites and other landscape features (as mapped in the field) to be incorporated into a Geographical Information System (GIS).

Second, remote sensing will supply confirmation of the identified sites, and will pinpoint previously unrecognized sites and features.

Third, remote sensing will extend and extrapolate the existing ground survey data in appropriate directions to encompass previously omitted sites and landscape zones. This enlarged survey universe will supply more meaningful and statistically valid units of analysis.

Finally, limited ground control will be undertaken to provide greater definition on, for example, areas of wind deflation, alluvial sedimentation, anomalous features such as hollow way routes or previously unrecognized sites and other features. Such ground verification will be confined to key areas within which the PIs are conducting fieldwork or have direct access to field areas.
It is anticipated that the enhanced surveys will pinpoint nuclei of early urbanization, later secondary growth, long-term settlement stability, as well foci of long-term pastoral-nomadic strategies and communication networks. We feel that the current models (including those of Wilkinson) over simplify a much more complex reality, and that by understanding the spatial patterning and chronological subtleties of the settlement record, Upper Mesopotamia and the northern Levant can be interpreted more meaningfully than as simply an area of 'secondary state formation'. By relating such patterns to the historical record of sedentary-pastoral interactions, diplomacy and political allegiances, the FCP will be able to contextualize both historical texts and archaeological records.


10 25 50
Description One of the key findings has been the presentation of long-term population for the Near East. Comparison of data at the regional scale necessary to demonstrate settlement trends
across the Fertile Crescent requires the integration of different surveys into a single chronological framework (Lawrence et al. 2012). Differences in ceramic chronologies across this region preclude direct comparisons between individual phases, so
that each of the FCP surveys divided the millennium-long EBA into between two and five phases, none of which are of the same length. The solution developed in the FCP, is to use published chronologies to relate each phase to calendar dates in years (Lawrence et al. 2012). By transforming the individual phases into a similar metric we can model trends in settlement in a way that allows for direct visual comparison between evidence from different surveys. The disparities in phase length render direct comparisons between individual phases
problematic. However, by converting these phases into 'time blocks' of one hundred years each we can display the data in a way which allows the broader trends to emerge.
In this way we can see both local populations trends as well as broader trends in population and settlement over the entire northern Fertile Crescent.

Additional key findings include the use of archaeological survey data to demonstrate the boom and bust trajectories of Early Bronze Age cities in the Middle East. This appears to have been partly related to the growth and spread of the third millennium BC textile industry. One important consequence of our work is that for the first time we have been abkle to show, using archaeological survey data how huge areas of semi-arid steppe were incorporated into the settled zone in order the extend the pasturing of sheep, the wool of which was then used in the almost industrial scale textile industry. These outcomes are discussed in more detail in our article in the Journal of World Prehistory (Wilkinson et al 2014).
Exploitation Route Simply by adding new survey data and employing our methods (see reference below) other teams can undertake and refine population estimates.

Lawrence, D., Bradbury, J. and Dunford, R. (2012) Chronology, Uncertainty and GIS: A Methodology for Characterising and Understanding Landscapes of the Ancient Near East, in Bebermeier, W., Hebenstreit, R., Kaiser, E. and Krause, J., (eds.), Landscape Archaeology. Proceedings of the International Conference Held in Berlin, 6th-8th June 2012. Berlin: Excellence Cluster Topoi. Special Volume 3: 353-359
Sectors Agriculture, Food and Drink,Environment,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections,Other

Description Cultural Protection Fund
Amount £1,610,000 (GBP)
Organisation British Council 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United Kingdom
Start 12/2016 
End 11/2019
Description Endangered Archaeology in the Middle East and North Africa
Amount £2,100,000 (GBP)
Organisation Arcadia Fund 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United Kingdom
Start 01/2017 
End 12/2019
Description SSHRC International Collaborative Awards
Amount £1,200,000 (GBP)
Organisation Government of Canada 
Department SSHRC - Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council
Sector Public
Country Canada
Start 03/2012 
End 04/2018
Title Fragile Crescent Project (FCP) database 
Description Database of archaeological sites in northern Iraq, and north and west Syria, compiled from regional survey records. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2017 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact This database will provide the basis of Historic Environment Records for Syria and Iraq that are currently being created through the EAMENA and CPF projects. 
Description Training Session 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Training Session on remote sensing for identification of archaeological sites, provided for group of Iraqi archaeologists being trained at the British Museum.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
Description Workshop on GIS and Remote Sensing in Archaeology - Amman, Jordan 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Training workshop on use of satellite imagery and remote sensing for staff of Department of Antiquities, Jordan, took place at CBRL office, Amman.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2013