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Harvard lights up ‘richest archaeological landscape in the Middle East’

01 Dec 2012
Jason Ur, the John L. Loeb Associate Professor of the Social Sciences, is breaking new ground with a Harvard-led archaeological project in the war-torn nation of Iraq. He is concentrating on a 3,200-square-kilometer region around Irbil, the capital of the Kurdish locality in northern Iraq, for signs of ancient cities and towns, channels and roads. After near about a century away, Harvard archaeology has come back to Iraq now. Jason Ur, the John L. Loeb Associate Professor of the Social Sciences, in earlier this year launched a five-year archaeological project- the first such Harvard-led endeavor in the war-torn nation since the early 1930s – to scour a 3,200-square-kilometer area around Irbil, the capital of the region Kurdish in northern Iraq, for signs of ancient towns and cities, canals and roads. Already, Ur said, the attempt is paying huge dividends – with some 1,200 potential sites recognized in just few months, and potentially thousands more in the next few years. Ur stated recently that they are looking for the richest archaeological landscape in the Middle East. As a result of the conflict and ethnic trouble in that zone, there was no work done in that place at all, so it is really a tabula rasa, so it is a very thrilling time. Though he said, unfortunately that blank slate is quite quickly being wiped out by development. Ur explained that one of many challenges that occur along with this project is that it can only be finished for a limited time. He also said, that he is interested in searching individual places for the type of landscapes work he does. But he also has keen interest in the space between them, the physical traces of agriculture, and the roads and tracks that connect those places – those are the type of ephemeral features that development would clean up. He said that they are coming in now at exactly the appropriate time, because the economy in Kurdistan is booming and improvement is bursting out across the locality. Previously Harvard’s voyage to Iraq concentrated on the excavation and conservation of artifacts from the ancient city of Nuzi, Ur is using aerial images to study the region for signs of ancient settlements and how they are joined. Ur also said that these types of broad studies – and specifically landscape-scale studies – were not done until about the 1950s. The outcome is that they have some bright lights – places they know a great deal about – but often the surrounding area is totally dark. This type of work is not about excavating a particular area, but about trying to come up with a complete map of all these sites in a locality and mainly about being able to break it down by time, so they can see the development and reduction of individual sites. In order to track the history of the settlement, Ur has got faith in an unusual archaeological tool named spy satellites. Using declassified spy satellites images from the 1960s, Ur is capable of recognizing a host of landscape features, which also includes those of ancient towns and cities, as well as ancient trails and irrigation canals. It would take more than a few lifetimes to have a research on an area this large using what they would call pedestrian methods, according to Ur. The actual benefit of using such images, however is that they are old – they predate any development that has taken place, so they are like a time machine. They can come to know about how the historical landscape looked like, by looking at these images. Ur also has his hopes in using a survey technique he found with Bjoern Menze, a research affiliate in MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, which relies on computers to automate the search for ancient sites across hugs swaths of land. Though, already it has become clear that the region Ur is researching is notably rich in ancient sites. Ur also added that using declassified material; they assessed about 3,200 square kilometers and got 1,200 sites with about 90 percent certainly. They have missed one of the most significant loci of early civilization because of historical accidents and because it has been a sector of conflict for quite a few years. Now that they cannot get in there, they are finally starting to understand what has been there all along. Source: [PHYS ORG]
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