- Press Release
- Mar 20, 2023
Satellite photographs reveal ancient road system
Archaeologists at the University of Chicago’s Oriental
Institute have used recently declassified satellite
surveillance images to show that subtle land depressions —
which had gone largely unnoticed by scholars — are actually
the remnants of ancient roadways that knitted together the
fabric of emerging civilizations in the ancient Near East.
These 5,000-year-old roadways were important thoroughfares
for agricultural exchange and other commerce in an area of
Syria and Iraq. It was here that expanding local settlements
were coming into contact with cultures from southern
Mesopotamia as urban civilization developed in the third
millennium B.C., according to Tony Wilkinson, Research
Associate at the institute, and Jason Ur, a researcher at
The ancient roads went out of service when better routes
emerged late in the first millennium B.C. Because the old
roads were in slight depressions, they became locations
where local people gathered moist clay for mud bricks.
Over the years, the roadways faded and they largely
escaped the attention of archaeologists.
Although research by the Oriental Institute team focuses
on the northern reaches of Mesopotamia, the roads probably
were common throughout the region, the scholars said.
The roadways were 200 to 400 feet wide and 20 to 24 inches
deep. They were made by early people who herded their
livestock to fields for pasture and between towns as part
of the emerging economic system. Continual traffic by
people, animals and vehicles hardened the surface and
caused the roadway to sink into the landscape.
These inter-site routes are more than connections between
towns and nearby settlements, the scholars said. “When
considered at a regional level, these routes emerge as
segments of larger ‘highways’ that run from site to site
on a generally east-west axis,” wrote Ur in his paper,
“CORONA Satellite Photography and Ancient Road Networks:
A Northern Mesopotamian Case Study,” to be published in
the spring issue of the journal Antiquity.
Previously, archaeologists had drawn straight lines
between major settlements, supposing a road system
connected them, but not knowing its exact location. Now,
rather than connecting the dots in an abstract way, they
are able to see where the roads were and how they
meandered between settlements.
The information also shows that the most important towns
were those with the most roadways leading to them. The
recent Oriental Institute work in northeastern Syria is
based on two sites, Tell Brak and Tell Hamoukar, both of
which emerge as communities of some importance in the
third millennium B.C.
The satellite images show that Tell Hamoukar?the site of
a continuing Oriental Institute expedition — was a more
important site than scholars had previously thought.
Wilkinson and Ur agree it probably was on a road system
that stretched from Nineveh, in what is now northern
Iraq, to possibly Aleppo in western Syria near the
“For the Early Bronze Age, new conclusions can be drawn
about the underlying economy, which had a large role in
producing this pattern of settlements and roads,” Ur
said. “The agricultural backbone of these towns is
vividly illustrated by the abundant radial system of
roads, although the interconnectedness of these systems
suggests a far more integrated agricultural economy
than originally recognized.”
High-value luxury goods, such as textiles and metals,
also traveled on these routes. Now with a better picture
of how communities were connected, scholars will be able
to further document trade using ancient texts.
Ancient roads, clearly visible in a CORONA satellite
surveillance photograph, extends from the ancient city
of Tell Hamoukar, site of Oriental Institute excavations
in Syria. One road goes to the southwest and forms a
fork. The road connected the ancient settlement with
another several miles away. Photo courtesy USGS.
Roads radiate from Tell Brak, an ancient site in Syria.
The ancient roads, which are clearly seen in CORONA
satellite surveillance photographs, indicate that the
settlement was an important city. Photo courtesy USGS.
A road, visible on CORONA satellite photography, leaves
the ancient settlement of Tell Beydar in Syria, and goes
through a plowed field into nearby hills. Photo courtesy
CORONA satellite imagery permits archaeologists to measure
the size of ancient sites with great precision because it
enables measurement of uneven, irregular walls such as the
site of ancient Nineveh in Iraq, across the Tigris river
from modern day Mosul. Photo courtesy USGS.