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Straightforward interpretation of the results of archaeological surveys is impossible. Many studies
have highlighted the difficulties of interpreting archaeological surface collections in terms of site
numbers, sizes, and occupations of sites (e.g. Ammerman 1981; Redman 1982; Wilkinson 2000a;
Banning 2002). These difficulties stem partly from the acknowledgement that the composition of
particular surface collections is shaped by a large variety of socio-cultural processes and that sur-
face collections as perceived by archaeologists are the result of very complex taphonomical proc-
esses. Any attempt to interpret archaeological surface collections must therefore take into account
the possibility that (a) the sites and landscape features that are recognized do not represent the
whole spectrum of sites and features that existed in the past; (b) the surface collection does not
reflect the true diversity of materials and periods that is present at a surveyed location; and (c) the
surface collection does not necessarily provide insight into the socio-cultural processes leading up
to the deposition.
Early surveys focused on tell-sites that are easily identified from the ground, often from the
seat of a car, and on aerial/satellite imagery and stand out as major foci of human activity. The
most important consequence of this strategy is that smaller, non-mounded sites, such as pastoral
campsites, will invariably be underrepresented. Several survey projects have included an off-site
transect-walking component to assess the degree to which the landscape between tells is filled with
archaeological remains (e.g. Wilkinson and Tucker 1995; Ur 2004; Wilkinson 2004). Apart from the
recognition of many non-habitation features, and in fact a continuous archaeological landscape,
such intensive surveys have also resulted in the recognition of low settlement sites that would not
have been found by less intensive surveys (Redman 1982: 377). A further bias toward large sites
can be introduced by the geomorphology of a region. In river valleys, alluvial sedimentation can
for example easily cover entire flat sites and even smaller tells. Heavy erosion may result in the
complete removal of entire occupation layers from the flanks of settlement mounds (Postgate
1994: 50). The inclusion of geomorphological research in survey methodology has allowed the
25 Examples are the Wadi Ağiğ survey (Bernbeck 1993), the surveys in the area between the Euphrates and Balikh Valleys
(Einwag 1993; Danti 1997), the Western Khabur survey (Hole 1997a), the survey of the Jebel Bishri to the south of
the Euphrates (Lönnqvist 2006), and the Wadi Hamar Survey around Tell Chuera and Kharab Sayyar (http://web.
uni-frankfurt.de/fb09/vorderasarch/survey.htm (Accessed 16 November, 2007)).
methods for the reconstruction of regional settlement trends
reconstruction of anthropogenic influence on the landscape through time, and the evaluation of
problems of site preservation and visibility. A further step is the recognition of landscapes of sur-
vival and landscapes of destruction, resulting in an apparently uneven distribution and survival of
sites and periods across space (Wilkinson 2000a: 229).
It was recently noted that there is a large discrepancy between the results of field surveys con-
ducted in Greece and Italy, and in the Near East (Wilkinson et al. 2004). A review of multiple re-
cent surveys in both areas showed that the number of recorded sites per square kilometre for Near
Eastern surveys is far below that for modern surveys in the Mediterranean, mainly Greece. At first
sight, this discrepancy appeared to result from the relatively low intensity of Near Eastern surveys,
as compared to surveys elsewhere. However, comparison of the results and strategies of several
northern Mesopotamian surveys suggested that other factors than post-depositional processes or
survey biases may have been responsible for this discrepancy. Firstly, the northern Mesopotamian
surveys that included a fieldwalking component found relatively few sites that would not other-
wise have been found with less intensive strategies. Secondly, investigation of sections resulting
from modern digging activities suggested that alluviation was not or barely obscuring sites out-
side river valleys. Finally, it was suggested that it is more efficient to make new mudbricks than
to reuse old ones, resulting in relatively minor destruction of old sites in the search for building
materials. These points suggest that a survey that combines intensive field-walking with satellite/
aerial imagery analysis can assemble a relatively good record of archaeological features in a region
(Wilkinson et al. 2004: 196).
On the level of the individual site, tell formation processes will likely cover early periods with
the overburden of later occupations. As a result, pottery from the earlier periods will be less rep-
resented in the surface assemblage, and any interpretation based on the number of sherds and
their occurrence on the surface may be biased. However, there is some reason to believe that this
overburdening may be less problematic for Early/Middle Bronze Age sites than for earlier periods.
Wilkinson (2000a) has plotted the ratio of occupations on tells versus occupations at low sites of
less than 5 m high through time for the Tell Beydar Survey area, and found that particularly the
third millennium bc represents a period during which settlement nucleated on high tells. After that
period, the significance of tell-based settlement decreased, in favour of lower and smaller sites.
This development suggests that third millennium bc occupations in particular will be highly vis-
ibly in the Jezirah. Evidence from rescue excavations in the Birecik-Euphrates Dam area suggests
that there, too, third millennium occupation is particularly well represented on tells and therefore
highly visible (see Section 5.2.1). The discrepancy of tell-based versus low site occupation is less
pronounced during the Middle Bronze Age, suggesting lower visibility for this period, but with the
caveat that overburden from later periods is also relatively limited.26
There is also discussion about the degree to which the archaeological surface assemblage re-
flects the chronological components of a site. Surveys usually assume that there is a positive cor-
relation between the surface assemblage and the archaeological contents of a site. Yet it cannot be
ascertained that all periods present in a tell will be equally represented on the surface. For example,
surface assemblages may be subjected to stronger erosion than buried artefacts, meaning that large
or high-fired sherds will dominate the record (Postgate 1994: 50). The preference of individual
surveyors to pick up highly visible sherds may leave certain unremarkable types underrepresented.
Furthermore, re-use of mudbricks, or construction of mudbricks from earth taken from tells, may
result in the displacement of archaeological material. However, research at sites that are surveyed
as well as excavated seems to suggest that there is some agreement between later ceramic periods
inferred from survey, and those actually excavated. Pre-pottery periods, on the other hand, often
go unnoticed and their presence can only be ascertained through excavation. Similarly, the on-site
distribution of sherds on the surface is correlated to past settlement and activity areas of the site.
26 A similar transition from nucleated, tell-based occupation to dispersed occupation on non-mounded sites has been
noted for the Amuq Valley, but there the transition occurred between the Iron Age and the Seleucid periods (Casana
challenging climate change
In both cases, the correlation is not very strong, but sufficient to use it as an indication of site size
(Lyonnet 2000: 7, cf. Redman and Watson 1970 and Flannery 1976, but see Kohlmeyer 1981 and
Schiffer 1987: 126, 353).
The results from archaeological surveys are thus nothing more than a sample. Just how repre-
sentative this sample is, and how much of the total assemblage is actually recovered, are the main
issues that researchers have to address to correctly interpret their data. The comments made above
suggest that the site recovery rate for Near Eastern surveys can be relatively good, depending on
the methodology that has been adopted. There is furthermore reason to believe that the presence
of material on the surface dating to a specific period reflects use of the site during that period.
Additionally, the surface assemblage seems to reflect, if anything, the minimal occupation of a
site. Therefore, when the surface assemblage is combined with information on site morphology,
site sizes may be reasonably estimated. Based on these considerations, it can be suggested that re-
gional surveys that include off-site field-walking and/or analysis of aerial/satellite imagery have
the highest probability of recording archaeological features. Furthermore, in order to achieve reli-
able site-size estimates per period, the surface of the site has to have been divided into sub-areas
during surveying to allow recognition of shifting patterns of occupation through time. As regards
the problem of interpreting artefact densities and distributions, it will here be assumed, as is actu-
ally done by all surveys analysed here, that the recorded sites are settlements rather than special-
purpose sites, unless there are strong indications to the contrary.27
This assumption may, and in
fact likely will, introduce a major bias in the present reconstruction, but unless more fieldwork is
undertaken there is no way of correcting it. The present analysis is therefore undertaken in the full
awareness that it can only reconstruct very crude trends that are subject to many biases and that
will likely be corrected as new evidence becomes available.
However, it must also be realized that for some regions, archaeological surveys remain the
single most important source of information and provide a much-needed contextualization of
the few excavations carried out in these regions. Despite its evident limitations, survey evidence
is too valuable to be completely excluded from any regional analysis. Concluding, then, it seems
that combining evidence from surveys and excavations has the greatest potential of highlighting
regional trends through time.
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