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Drone photos have uncovered an early Mesopotamian city that was built on marshy islands

By: April Carson

A new study has revealed that an ancient city in Mesopotamia was much more watery than previously thought, with canals and waterways similar to those found in Venice. The findings could shed light on how urban life flourished nearly 5,000 years ago between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

Based on remote-sensing data--mostly gathered through a drone with special equipment--Lagash appears to have been large urban settlement that consisted of four marsh islands connected by waterways,' says Emily Hammer, an anthropological archaeologist from University of Pennsylvania. Hammer's findings, published in the December Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, contribute significant details to an evolving perspective that contradicts the long-standing belief that southern Mesopotamian cities expanded from their temples and administrative districts into farmlands that were surrounded by a single city wall.

"What we see at Lagash is a city that was built on marshy islands in a landscape that was actively managed--the people of Lagash were manipulating their environment to make it habitable," Hammer says. "This tells us something new about the development of early cities and urbanism in the Middle East."

Hammer says that, over time and due to human occupation and environmental change, there were many ways that Lagash could have become a city of marsh islands.

Dr. Stein suspects that, much like the later Italian city of Venice, each city sector in Lagash developed distinctive economic practices on an individual marsh island because Lagash had no geographical or ritual center. For instance, Dr. Stein found that waterways or canals crisscrossed one marsh island and theorizes fishing and collection of reeds for construction may have predominated there.

Lagash's two other marsh islands show evidence of gated walls that enclosed city streets and areas with large kilns, hinting that these sectors were built in stages and might have been the first to be settled. It is possible that crop growing and pottery making occured there as well.

The drone photographs showed what were probably harbors located on each marsh island, which suggests that the ancient people who lived there used boats to travel between city sectors. There are also remains of what may have been footbridges in and around the waterways between marsh islands. This is something that future excavations can explore further.

The city, which has not yet been named, was built sometime between the late 4th and early 3rd millennium BCE. It is located in the Mesopotamian marshes, which are now mostly drained and located in southern Iraq.

The ancient city of Lagash, one the world's first states, was founded between 4,900 and 4,600 years ago. However, Tell al-Hiba shows that its residents abandoned the site around 3 600 years ago. Past excavations also reveal that it was first dug up more than 40 years ago.

Analysis of when ancient wetlands expanded in southern Iraq, conducted by anthropological archaeologist Jennifer Pournelle of the University of South Carolina in Columbia, showed that Lagash and other cities were built on mounds in marshes.

After analyzing satellite images, Elizabeth Stone of Stony Brook University in New York believes that Lagash was once made up of 33 marsh islands.

By using drones to take high-resolution pictures, Hammer says that they were able to get a more detailed look at Lagash’s buried structures than what satellite images would allow. After gathering initial remote-sensing data from ground level, the drone spent six weeks in 2019 taking photographs of most of the site’s surface. The drone's technology detected remnants of buildings, walls, streets, waterways and other city features buried near ground level due to the soil moisture and salt absorption from recent heavy rains.

Lagash was first settled around 4,200 BCE and was at its peak between 3,500 and 3,000 BCE. The city was known for its many canals used for irrigation.

According to Hammer, drone data led her to discover three heavily populated islands in the ancient city. It's possible that these areas were once part of delta channels which have since dried up and extended towards the Persian Gulf. The fourth and smallest island appeared to be primarily occupied by a large temple complex.

Excavations at Lagash have been ongoing, and University of Chicago archaeologist Augusta McMahon is one of three co-field directors. Recently, Hammer's drone probe confirmed that the site was settled on interconnected islands with watercourses running between them.

Dr. McMahon suggests that the physical evidence of different neighborhoods- some looking planned and others more haphazardly arranged- on different marsh islands reflect waves of immigration into Lagash between around 4,600 and 4,350 years ago.

The excavated material indicates that new arrivals included residents of nearby and distant villages, mobile herders looking to settle down and slave laborers captured from neighboring city-states.

"The city was growing so rapidly that it couldn't keep up with its own infrastructure," Dr. McMahon said. "It's an amazing example of how quickly cities can grow in the right circumstances."

Thousands of people lived in Lagash during its height, with buildings and residences clustered close together, Hammer says. The city was approximately the size of Chicago, spanning 4 to 6 square kilometers.

The city's close quarters may have been a response to the fact that its watery surroundings were teeming with crocodiles and venomous snakes, as well as diseases like malaria. Living in such a marshy environment would have required constant maintenance to keep houses from flooding and to prevent the spread of disease, she says.

There is no clear evidence that northern Mesopotamian cities from around 6,000 years ago had separate city sectors. But southern Mesopotamian cities likely prospered by taking advantage of water transport and trade among nearby settlements, says archaeologist Guillermo Algaze of the University of California, San Diego. This would have allowed for unprecedented growth in these ancient civilizations.

Lagash is an ancient Mesopotamian city that was frozen in time, Hammer says. Although other nearby cities were still inhabited for thousands of years after Lagash was abandoned, the area had become less inhabitable due to a lack of water. Hammer says that at Lagash, "we have a unique chance to explore how other cities looked in this region thousands of years ago."

This is an incredible discovery that will help us understand the rise of early civilizations in Mesopotamia. The city of Lagash was built on marshy islands and was able to take advantage of water transport and trade with other nearby settlements.

This allowed for unprecedented growth in these ancient civilizations. However, as the climate changed and the water became more scarce, Lagash was abandoned. This city provides us with a rare glimpse into how these early civilizations lived and how they adapted to a changing environment.

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About the Blogger:

April Carson is the daughter of Billy Carson. She received her bachelor's degree in Social Sciences from Jacksonville University, where she was also on the Women's Basketball team. She now has a successful clothing company that specializes in organic baby clothes and other items. Take a look at their most popular fall fashions on

To read more of April's blogs, check out her website! She publishes new blogs on a daily basis, including the most helpful mommy advice and baby care tips! Follow on IG @bossbabymav



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