Mesopotamia from the Sky: Urban and Rural Trackways

Some trackways connect with neighboring sites, but most end without connecting to other tells. This radial pattern of trackways around Tell Brak in Northern Syria (right) suggests that they were created by herds. Source: USGS/Jason Ur., 1967.
Hollow ways, like these from the ancient city of Hamoukar, are easily visible in CORONA satellite images. The soil of trackways collect moisture, resulting in denser plant growth and darker coloration. Source: USGS/Jason Ur, 1969.
Hamoukar, Ground View. The trackwayas of the previous image are nearly impossible to distinguish at ground level. Source: Jason Ur, photographer, 2000.
Though most trackways end in a tell's hinterland, a few run between neighboring sites. This photograph shows five tells connected by trackways. Source: USGS/Jason Ur, 1967.
Over the past fifty years many trackways have been damaged by nature and modern development (right). CORONA images (left) allow the archaeological study of trackways that have been destroyed. Sources: USGS/Jason Ur, 1967; Google, 2005-2006.

Trackways, revealed by CORONA images, have much to teach us about society in the Early Bronze Age (2600-2000 BC), during which time Mesopotamia saw the rise of densely populated settlements featuring elaborate structures such as palaces and temples—the first cities.                    

The extensive network of over 6,025 kilometers (3,744 miles) of trackways shows the vibrant movement in the landscapes between and around these cities. These trackways formed around ancient settlements as the result of continuous human and animal traffic between the central settlement and the fields and pastures lying beyond it. Thus, trackways illustrate the new importance and intensity of agriculture and animal husbandry in the Early Bronze Age.

Visible now are not the roads themselves, but rather surviving traces of ancient pathways—hollow ways, which are shallow, linear depressions in the land. They can be distinguished on CORONA photographs by their dark, banded appearance, as millennia of disuse have transformed them into shallow troughs that absorb light differently than the surrounding terrain.  In recent decades, many hollow ways have been destroyed by plowing and irrigation, and they survive only in these photographs.