Radial routes ran outside Mesopotamia

Cold War–era imagery reveals transportation networks extended throughout Middle East

Spoke-like dirt paths extend as far as five kilometers from several ancient Mesopotamian cities that have been excavated in what’s now northeastern Syria. Although often regarded as transportation features unique to these more than 5,000-year-old sites, new evidence reveals similar radial paths in western Syria and southwestern Iran that date to as recently as 1,200 years ago.

REDISCOVERED ROADS A satellite image from the late 1960s reveals long dirt paths radiating from an Iron Age settlement in western Syria called Tell Rifaa’at. Center for Advanced Spatial Technologies/University of Arkansas, U.S. Geological Survey

Archaeologist Jesse Casana of the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville made these discoveries by analyzing declassified, Cold War–era satellite images that show Middle Eastern landscapes before intensive farming erased all traces of ancient dirt roads. Some researchers think that Mesopotamia’s radial routes were created by herding sheep and goats to and from grazing lands through narrow strips that separated cultivated fields next to city centers.

That same path-breaking process occurred over the next four millennia at cities across the Middle East, Casana proposes February 13 in the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology

Bruce Bower

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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