University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

Dispatches from Iraqi Kurdistan: Survey Far Beyond the Hilly Flanks


August 29, 2014

Survey in the newly opened archaeological frontier of Iraqi Kurdistan comes with many challenges. Other reports from University of Pennsylvania graduate students on the project about various aspects of our work have been put up on the Beyond the Museum Walls blog but my own work deals specifically with the survey in our area. This season of the Rowanduz Archaeological Project (RAP) included excavations at Banahilk, Gird-i Dasht, Sidekan Bank and Gund-i Topzawa as well as survey in the area of Sidekan. These excavations uncovered material spanning from the Neolithic to the Ottoman periods and make up a large area. Simultaneously, we conducted a survey of the area of the Soran district of Iraqi Kurdistan, but with particular attention on the Sidekan district. In addition to participating in the excavations at Gird-i Dasht and Gund-i Topzawa, my role on the project is to conduct the survey, which has its own challenges and rewards.

Map of RAP 2013 survey area, with sites noted on the bottom
Map of RAP 2013 survey area, with sites noted on the bottom

Survey, in general, consists of traveling the landscape looking for evidence of human occupation and interaction. A great number of posts on this blog have also dealt with this aspect of archaeology. One of the most commonly used methods for survey is walking straight transects along fields and other flat areas to locate and document the presence of pottery on the surface. The amount and location of the pottery sherds is noted and an overall picture of the density of pottery can be seen. This information can then be used to show areas where humans in the past spent time and presumably participated in activities. I performed field transects in areas around known sites and encountered a challenge to survey in the area— dense vegetation covering much of the surface. While it yielded some results, the low visibility of the surface led to imperfect results.

View across the Topzawa Valley. Most of the area has thick vegetation except for the small plowed field.
View across the Topzawa Valley. Most of the area has thick vegetation except for the small plowed field.

Prospection, on the other hand, is a method that usually takes place over large areas and attempts to find sites and features. One can travel by foot, car or anything in between noting areas that look modified by humans or that have artifacts on the surface. GPS points are taken at points of interest and sites and their corresponding characteristics are noted. This became the most productive ways in which to locate sites and gather valuable data. Two major factors make this possible. One is the scarcity of archaeological survey taken in the area. Only one foreign survey by Rainer Boehmer, in 1973, occurred in this area, and it was merely a few days. The second is a massive road cut running parallel to the Topzawa River which cut a number of sites and burials. It was this construction and destruction that first alerted us to the presence of the site of Gund-i Topzawa. Walking this road cut is a special type of archaeological survey; massive walls, complete stratigraphy, burnt layers, complete pottery vessels and even complete rooms with ceilings are visible in the cut. It was my job to record the location of these sites along the cut which will help lead to finding similar sites buried below the surface.

Survey along the road-cut (left) with the highest peaks of the Zagros in the background
Survey along the road-cut (left) with the highest peaks of the Zagros in the background

This season the survey took place almost exclusively in the area around Sidekan, a mountainous valley that extends to the Iran-Iraq border. While the areas under governance of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) have been experiencing rapid growth and development, Sidekan remains a rural village of only a few thousand people.

The main commercial area of the village of Sidekan
The main commercial area of the village of Sidekan

Soran’s population, in contrast, swelled over the last few years to nearly 200,000.

View of the city of Soran at dusk
View of the city of Soran at dusk

Most of the population in the Sidekan area lives along the rivers of Topzawa and Senne that wind their way down from the peaks of the Zagros Mountains that form the border. This border was not only an important division in antiquity but throughout recent history. Remnants of the massive destruction during the Iran-Iraq war are minefields that were placed along this frontier, a number of which still remain. With regards to archaeological survey this creates difficulties as these areas obviously must be avoided. They are, of course, also a danger to the many people who live in this area.

Mountains are the defining feature of the terrain in the survey. Sidekan rests in a valley system that forms the last set of peaks before the chaine magistrale, the highest peaks of the Zagros Mountains that form the modern border between Iran and Iraq. Our site of Gund-i Topzawa was at about 4,000 feet above sea level and during a day of survey, our car reached an altitude of 10,000 feet.

View down into the Topzawa Valley. Hiked to current point surveying hill for archaeological remains. Steep way down!
View down into the Topzawa Valley. Hiked to current point surveying hill for archaeological remains. Steep way down!

These high elevations manifest themselves in steep slopes and limited flat areas which make walking many of the areas difficult, many times impossible. Sometimes a moderately difficult hike up the hill can become frightening descent down the mountain. Archaeologically, it also changes the types of occupation compared to the vast flat plains of Mesopotamia. Massive mounds which characterize much of Near Eastern archaeology are near absent from the landscape. Rather, settlement seems to take place in terraces along the rivers into the hills, as the excavation at Gund-i Topzawa has begun to reveal.

This season’s survey revealed a number of sites along this cut with pottery dating to the Iron Age (approximately 1000 BC -300BC), large stone walls and thick layers of burning. These seem to be part of a larger settlement pattern of villages that interacted with each other and were struck by a massive destruction event. The nature of this destruction and the identity of the attackers still must be solved, but it gives a fascinating beginning for the survey to begin.

Penn graduates students: (left to right) Myself, Darren Ashby and Katherine Burge. Sitting in a room at Gund-i Topzawa, likely typical of the type of sites surveyed.
Penn graduates students: (left to right) Myself, Darren Ashby and Katherine Burge. Sitting in a room at Gund-i Topzawa, likely typical of the type of sites surveyed.

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