Mapping early human settlements in Syria, Iraq
This mound at Tell Brak, northeastern Syria, is entirely artificial. It formed as a result of 6,000 years of human occupation.
March 19th, 2012
04:08 PM ET

Mapping early human settlements in Syria, Iraq

Archaeology is a delicate trade, requiring discipline, dedication and, most of all, patience. Groundbreaking discoveries can take years to come to fruition.

Unless, of course, you manage to streamline the discovery process by teaching a computer to do your work for you.

At Harvard University, anthropologist Jason Ur and his colleague Bjoern Menze have programmed a computer to recognize traces of long-term human activity from satellite images, especially in ranges of the electromagnetic spectrum that are invisible to the human eye. Their new study is published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“We found thousands of previously undocumented ancient places, including many small sites that are routinely overlooked by archaeologists,” Ur told CNN Light Years.

To be exact, Ur and Menze used a complex algorithm to detect in satellite images traces of anthrosol, soil that has been modified as a result of humans inhabiting a place for long periods of time. During millennia of human occupation, anthrosols formed from organic waste and the decay of mud-brick architecture. These anthrosols are finer, lighter in color and richer in organic matter than other soil.

In addition to providing a glimpse into the lives of some of the world’s earliest civilizations, the data could help provide the first comprehensive map of human settlements in the area.

Already, the algorithm has allowed them to map more than 14,000 sites spanning 8,000 years of human settlement in northern Mesopotamia, including parts of modern-day Syria and Iraq.

The duo also used digital elevation models - a kind of 3-D representation of a terrain’s surface - to quantify a site’s attractiveness to its inhabitants over the centuries. Factors like proximity to water or the site’s relevance within a regional network played a major role, and because new structures were often simply built atop existing ones as settlements expanded, areas that were more heavily populated have higher elevations due to mounding.

For instance, in some areas of northeastern Syria, small hills exist that are entirely artificial, accumulations from more than six millennia of human occupation resembling bubbles in an otherwise flat landscape.

Ur is optimistic that the findings will persuade policymakers to protect the sites from encroaching modernization, which, as he put it, “takes an inevitable toll on the record of the past.”

The results also demonstrated a preponderance of smaller rural settlements, the kind of agricultural communities that represent the backbone of any society but that are generally ignored by archaeologists who flock to the largest ancient city they can find.

“For every archaeological site we know about, there are 10 or more that remain undocumented,” Ur said. “Our work helps put them back on the map.”

soundoff (8 Responses)
  1. Raven

    The artical doesnt say they found the first sites or the oldest sites. It is talking about a new tech being used to find the sites.

    March 19, 2012 at 8:24 pm |
  2. Alfred the Great


    March 19, 2012 at 5:56 pm |
  3. MLeRoy

    The headline is absurd. These are NOT the "first human settlements in Syria [and] Iraq". They may be among the oldest agricultural settlements, but humans and their ancestors have been present in the Middle East for at least 1.8 million years. [The Dmanisi site in the former Soviet republic of Georgia is dated from that time.] The oldest settlements referred to in the article are from the MUCH more recent Neolithic period, beginning some ten thousand years ago.

    March 19, 2012 at 5:52 pm |
    • lathebiosas

      Agreed, don't know what they weren't thinking........

      March 19, 2012 at 5:58 pm |
      • MLeRoy

        I notice that they have now changed the headline to the much more accurate "Mapping Early Settlements..."

        Maybe they read my comment...

        March 20, 2012 at 2:00 pm |
  4. Els

    A Middle East archeologist with the name "Ur"? Would that be Ur of the Chaldeans? With that name, I guess his vocation was set from birth.

    March 19, 2012 at 5:48 pm |
    • elandau

      That is an interesting suggestion of nominative determinism!

      Elizabeth Landau, CNN

      March 20, 2012 at 1:18 pm |
  5. sorl

    ??? ancient "biblical" finds ???

    March 19, 2012 at 5:43 pm |


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