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Jennifer Pournelle

Ancient cities sprang from marshes, researcher finds

For more than a century, archaeologists have believed that ancient Mesopotamian cities – places like Uruk and Ur – were born along the banks of the great rivers of the Middle East and depended mainly on irrigation of surrounding deserts for their survival.

Dr. Jennifer Pournelle, a research assistant professor in the School of the Environment at the University of South Carolina, has a different theory. She believes that the great cities of southern Iraq grew and thrived in vast lowland marshes fed by those rivers, not along the banks of rivers themselves.

Last fall, Pournelle led the first American research team of archaeologists to visit Iraq in more than 25 years. And what she and her colleagues found has caused the start of a shift in thinking about how ancient urban landscapes evolved.

“Clearly, the earliest cities were not strung out along rivers like pearls on a strand. Rather, they were spread across the river delta within and along the margins of marshlands,” said Pournelle, who combines excavation records and archaeological site maps with aerial and satellite imagery, in order to reconstruct ancient environments.

The research team, which included archaeologist Carrie Hritz (Pennsylvania State University) and geologist Jennifer Smith (Washington University in St. Louis), explored the lowlands of the Tigris-Euphrates river system in southern Iraq. Pournelle’s work pieces together the contribution of wetland resources to the emergence, growth and reproduction of cities in the earliest, longest-lived urban heartland in the world.

Most of the previous archaeological data in Iraq was collected from 1900 through the 1950s, when little attention was paid to plants and animals, she said. The environmental contexts for museum objects and architecture were largely undocumented. When recorded at all, they emphasized grain agriculture and domesticated livestock.

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