Technology has come a long way, but sometimes new inventions can tell us even more about the past than the future. Modern satellites have picked up images of one of the world’s oldest cities: Tell Brak. Although the area has been excavated for decades, the snapshots provide a much clearer view of the way the landscape changed over time, and how the town was laid out.
In the 1920s, French archaeologist Antoine Poidebard took the first aerial photographs of the region, located in the Upper Khabur Plain of northeastern Syria. The first excavation, however, did not occur until a decade later, in 1937, led by archaeologist Max Mallowan. Interestingly, Mallowan was the husband of mystery writer Agatha Christie, and she joined him on many excavations in Iraq and Syria. In her book Come Tell Me How You Lived, she described some of the work they were doing at Tell Brak and other sites.
The tell (an artificial mound created by generations building and re-building on the same location) is one of the largest that has been found, and it dates back at least as early as 6000 BC. The site was considered an international city and was home to several civilizations over the centuries. Some of the peoples who lived there included the Akkadians, Babylonians, Mittani, and Sumerians.
Before congregating into a city, the inhabitants roamed the land as hunter-gatherers. As the landscape shifted with climate change, it became apparent the ground was fertile enough to grow crops. The people gravitated towards agriculture, and, as time marched on, the new society of farmers began to construct buildings and roads. Eventually, urban life developed.
Modern researchers discovered what they term “eye idols” in the ancient city. While hand-carved statues with circular eyes are not unique to the area, these particular items were unusual because they were smaller but had much larger eyes than those found at other sites. The figurines date to between 3700-3500 BC and were made of stone with large eyes chiseled into them. Many had multiple sets of eyes while others were given jewelry. Some seemed to represent parents with children, showing a smaller body and set of eyes carved on a larger body. Thousands of these little treasures were found in a building which is now appropriately called the Eye Temple. Archeologists suggest the objects were probably dedicated to gods as offerings.
Satellite images from decades ago offer a unique insight into Tell Brak and other ancient sites because they captured the data before certain cities were overshadowed by other archaeological sites in the vicinity, or steamrolled by modern warfare and new infrastructure. There were already about 4,500 known archaeological sites across the Middle East, but satellite images have revealed another 10,000 additional unknown sites. It’s good and daunting news for researchers: good because it reveals a lot more ancient civilizations to explore, but also overwhelming due to the sheer number of new places and hundreds of acres to cover. As satellite and other ground-measuring technologies grow more sophisticated, who knows what insights we will gain into Earth’s ancient past?