In the Field: The Survey of Koya

Cinzia Pappi brings news from the field: her survey of Koya in Iraqi Kurdistan has uncovered many interesting possibilities in a region previously thought to be ‘an empty frontier between empires’. Not only that, but her survey project includes also a teaching program at the University of Koya, where students learn basic archaeological methods and the use of GIS.

The Archaeological Survey of Koi Sanjaq/Koya (Iraqi Kurdistan): Scientific Investigations and Teaching Programs

By Cinzia Pappi

Roughly two hours southeast of Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan, nestled between the modern districts of Sulaimaniya, Erbil, and Kirkuk, lies the region of Koi Sanjaq/Koya. This rough triangle of about twelve hundred square kilometers is hemmed in from the east by the rising chains of the Zagros piedmont, on the south by the Lower Zab as it descends from the Raniya plateau towards the Tigris and the Assyrian plains.

Since antiquity, the area has been known as a cultural crossroads of imperial powers, from the Assyrians, Achaemenids, and Parthians to the Ottomans empire, between southern and northern Iraq and between the valley of the Tigris and western Iran. This is partly mirrored in the historical archives of neighboring Shemshara for the Middle Bronze Age and in the Middle and Neo-Assyrian archives for the Late Bronze and Early Iron Age.

Since 2015, the Leopold-Franzens University of Innsbruck (Austria), with the support of the University of Koya (Kurdish Regional Government of Iraq) and the General Directorate of Antiquities of the Kurdish Regional Government of Iraq, has been conducting an archaeological survey of Koi Sanjaq/Koya (ASK) to investigate the evolution of this cultural and historical landscape.

Fig 1_ Map of the Research Area
Map of the research area (edited by S. Bonzano)

The Project

The rich archaeological potential of the Koya region had long been known from the Archaeological Atlas of Iraq (1975), which had already recorded 113 sites dated from the Palaeolithic to the Islamic Era. Previous excavations at Satu Qala, not only confirmed this long settlement history at a stratified site from the Epipaleolithic to the Sassanian Period, but further highlighted the role of the region as an important economic and cultural node between Mesopotamia and Western Iran.

The first job was then to integrate the existing data provided by the Archaeological Atlas of Iraq with a preliminary spatial analysis based on satellite imagery. This work already showed several topographic anomalies, consisting of a number of medium to small-sized tells and a large number of archeological settlements on flat hills. Both a short pilot season in 2015 and fieldwork in 2016 show the challenges in matching data from remote sensing with evidence on the ground. The physical morphology of the region is defined by hilly plains throughout, broken by numerous mountain areas in the north as well as the northern bank of the valley of the Lower Zab. Added to this are the continuing urbanization combined with the intensive exploitation of the hinterland through agriculture, the exploitation of water resources, and oil fields as Kurdish Iraq continues to flourish. Systematic interviews with the inhabitants about the history of region have thus proved to be an indispensable aid to fieldwork.

Daily fieldwork has so far been focused on testing the satellite and Atlas data at selected sites, confirming the Atlas data and removing some false positives. The basic work of collecting and processing the pottery and surface finds is certainly made much easier through the logistic support of the local office of the Directorate of Antiquities of Erbil, housed in the restored Qishlah which overlooks the city of Koya, an Ottoman citadel built at the end of the 18th century AD, which also serves as a storage for much of the material collected so far.

Fig 2_Qishlah of Koya
Ottoman Qishla of Koya (photo by C. Pappi)


A teaching partnership with Koya

An important adjunct to the scientific project is also provided by a teaching program in field archaeology, begun in the Fall of 2016 in collaboration with the Departments of History and Geography of the University of Koya (Iraqi Kurdistan). Prof. Robert Rollinger, director of the Institute of Ancient History and Ancient Near Eastern Studies of the University of Innsbruck, Dr. Wali M. Hamad, president of the University of Koya, Dr. Haidar Lashkry, vice-president for scientific and post-graduate studies, and Abubaker Othman Zendin, general director of Antiquities of Iraqi Kurdistan, have given their eager support to integrating knowledge of field archaeology into the curriculum of the Faculty of Education. Students and colleagues gain the opportunity to observe the fieldwork in progress and learn the basics of archaeological methods and the application of Geographical Information System (GIS). This close collaboration among colleagues in the Departments of History and Geography will help to develop awareness of cultural heritage for future generations of teachers in primary and secondary schools. In a long-term perspective, it aims to create an academic infrastructure for a new study program in Ancient History and Archeology.

Fig 3_ Training
Colleagues and students of the Koya University during the training program (photo by C. Pappi)

The first training sessions during the field season 2016 were addressed to a small group consisting of four students and four colleagues. Members of the ASK project team began by giving introductions to the methodology of archeological survey fieldwork, and in the following, to post-processing of the data with Geographic Information System for members of the Geography Department. A second group, consisting of teachers and student belonging to the History Department, has been trained in processing and analyzing the surface collections. The training for the latter group has been focused on investigating the role of ceramic artifacts in their archaeological contexts as primary sources for the diachronic reconstruction of historical landscapes.

Fig 4_Pedestrian Survey at Ashti
Pedestrian survey at Ashti (photo by C. Pappi)

First Results

The pilot season of 2015 was mainly aimed at checking sampled anomalies of different type and size on sampled areas on the ground. Particular interest was initially devoted to the area of the valley of the Lower Zab, one of the main communication routes in antiquity. The following season in September 2016 expanded the survey first to specific nodal points in the plain of Koya and moved on to the fertile hilly plains located north-east of Satu Qala at the feet of the Hab-es-Sultan Dagh, the chain dividing Koya from the Raniya plain. With the exception of individual sites in the valley of the Lower Zab, the western part of the region as well most part of the northern one remains largely unexplored.

Fig 5_ Map of Surveyed Sites
Map of surveyed sites (edited by S. Bonzano)

Preliminary results following the two short seasons of fieldwork have already been promising. Considerable data have already been collected and analyzed for some 39 sites of different sizes in detail. Preliminary results of the ongoing work on the surface collections attest to a great variety of materials ranging from the Neolithic to the Late Sassanian/ Early Islamic Period. Prof. Karel Nováček of the Palacky University, Olomouc (Czech Republic) joined the team in 2016 to provide his expertise on Sassanian and Early Islamic materials. As expected, the information in the Atlas can already be adjusted in many cases. The fieldwork highlighted several tells of similar or larger size to Satu Qala, including Qala Sartik, Ashti, both located directly on the Lower Zab, and Qala Shila, located in the hinterland close to the city of Koya itself.

Fig 6 Ashti Suveyed areas
Satellite image of the site of Ashti with surveyed areas (edited by S. Bonzano)

Qala Sartik, located at the conjunction of the river Shalga with the Lower Zab, is a multiphase mound presenting a very rich surface ceramic collection, dating to the Middle Bronze Age onwards. Ashti is an archaeological mound on a flat plateau, located in fertile plain about 10 km northeast of Satu Qala and about 5 km from the bank of the river. The ancient site has an abandoned modern mud brick village on the top and a small urban center extending northeast. The materials dates back to the Middle Bronze Age onwards. Similarities with stratified materials from Satu Qala already prove that the site was not as isolated as current maps suggest. Indeed, further investigations conducted in the surroundings revealed a cluster of agricultural centers connected to a system of karez, underground irrigation tunnels.

Fig 7 Modern Karez
Example of a modern karez in the region of Koya (photo by C. Pappi)

Qala Shila, in contrast, gives some sense of what the hinterlands in the plain of Koya, further from the river, looked like in antiquity. The site consists of two mounds joined by a low hump. Previous investigations on the northern mound by the Department of Antiquities of Iraq had focused on the remains of a Sassanian structure on the surface. However, the site, by far the largest in the immediate area, also expands to the northwest into a lower town. While the Atlas indicates “Cassite” and “Assyrian” settlement, our preliminary analysis of the consistent surface collections revealed a much wider range of materials from the Chalcolithic to the Sassanian and Early Islamic Period.

Fig 8 Qala Shila
Qala Shila from northwest (photo by C. Pappi)

Further Perspectives

The ongoing fieldwork is too preliminary to provide a more detailed picture of diachronic settlement patterns for the region. However, the fieldwork at Satu Qala combined with the surface investigations in the region of Koi Sanjaq/Koya is slowly giving shape to the cultural landscape of a region usually viewed as an empty frontier between empires. The next campaigns will add considerable information on the ceramic typology and the history of the region, as surface investigations extend to the western and northern areas. One of the main goals for further research is also to check the typological data through soundings on selected sites. We also plan to continue the systematic interviews with people in the region, conducted in cooperation with the History Department of the University of Koya, in order to better understand the cultural landscape of the recent past and to pinpoint archeological sites as places of memory. A cooperation between the ASK project and Michael Thevenin (IFPO Erbil), who is currently investigating the seasonal transhumance of some Kurdish groups in the region of Koya, will expand these efforts considerably.

With the data from the next few years in hand, we hope to return both to the historical questions about the regional and transregional communication network, and to the definition of Koya as an archeological landscape in its own right. The parallels to the post-Assyrian materials from Satu Qala will also add information on the developments of peripheral centers within the new consolidated Assyrian Empire and how they developed after the fall of Nineveh. Building on previous excavation work in the area, particularly at the Middle Assyrian provincial capital at Satu Qala, the survey will finally add new puzzle pieces to the question of the eastern territories Assyria and the later kingdom of Adiabene as well as to the multicultural and multi-religious periphery of the Sassanian Empire.