Reconstructing Economic Landscapes from Networks of Practices: An Example from the Delzian Plain (Soran District, Iraqi Kurdistan)

How are socio-economic practices constituting a space for economic decision making? Can a landscape be described archaeologically through networks of practices? In principle, all finds as well as all reconstructed actions can be situated and related spatially. An artefact made of obsidian, a piece of pottery, a copper dagger, a glass bead – they all stem from their raw material sources. Bread is made from grain growing on certain fields while meat and milk, mutton and fish come from other places. Actually, every material object can be related in space – is there a way of recording the spatial relationships in analytical terms of network science?


The joint project “From Mound to Cave/MTC” (Institute of Ancient Studies JGU Mainz/ROOTS Cluster of Excellence CAU Kiel) aims at exploring the economic archaeology of the Delzian plain, a fertile valley located just west of the main ridge of the Zagros (fig. 1). The focus is on the identification of past economic practices, which can be related to  the landscape. Here, we understand landscapes first and foremost as networks between people, places and practices. A landscape can be conceptualized as the result and ultimately as the sum of economic activities operating under changing natural and social constraints and historical specific factors. The project’s purpose is to describe the working area as a sequence of changing networks and to explore the heuristic value of conceptualizing landscapes from a network-analysis perspective.

Fig. 1 : Study area with principal sites and its location in south-western Asia (H. Backhaus, © MTC-Project; map section in the background: google maps, 2021)

Given the state of archaeological research in the northwestern Zagros, the establishment of a reliable chronostratigraphic sequence is essential. Excavations at the cave of Ashkawta Rash (fig. 2), the tell site Girda Dasht (fig. 3), and data from the village of Jafrakani Kon, which was previously explored in the context of a rescue excavation (fig. 4), will establish a stratigraphic sequence for dating archaeological material from the region. Furthermore, archaeological finds provide the opportunity to identify economic practices related to and beyond the working area. The project covers all periods between the Late Glacial Maximum (c. 20,000 BCE) and the post-Ottoman period (early 20th century CE). The excavations and the survey fieldwork are supplemented by a systematic collection of ethno-historical data on agricultural practices from published sources and ethno-archaeological fieldwork

Fig. 2 : The Ashkawta Rash cave (B. Waszk, © MTC-Project)
Fig. 3 : The mounded site of Girda Dasht with the Bradost Mountains in the background
(Ph. Serba, © MTC-Project)

The program is carried out in close cooperation with the Scientific Research Centre (SRC) of the University of Soran and the Soran Directorate of Antiquities. With both institutions we are developing a PhD program and a Geographical Information System (GIS) of the Soran area. In his PhD thesis, Mr. Abdulwahab Suleiman is currently surveying the working area and setting up a GIS, both in close cooperation with the authors and Prof. K. Kolo, Dr. R. Hamad and Dr. O. Mahmoud from Soran University, Dr. Jutta Lechterbeck (University of Stavanger) and  Dr. Claudia Beuger (University Halle). Mr. Suleiman’s thesis is supervised by PD Dr. T. Kerig (CAU Kiel). Generous support for our project comes from the General Directorate of Antiquities at Hawler/Erbil, headed by Mr. K. Ali.

Fig. 4 : Excavated terrace at the site of Jafrakani Kon (A. Tamm, © MTC-Project)
From landscape to networks

The Delzian Plain or Dasht-i-Diana is a fertile agricultural valley-widening in the northwestern Zagros Mountains (fig. 1). To the south, our immediate working area is delineated by the Rawanduz gorge, to the east and west by mountain ranges and badlands. The northern limit is defined by the northeast-southwest course of the river Balakian. On a larger scale, the working area occupies a space between the Transtigris Region and Greater Mesopotamia to the west and southwest, Anatolia to the north, and the Iranian Plateau to the east. When agriculture and early state-level societies emerged, the Delzian Plain gained growing importance as the region formed a gateway for crossing important mountain passes of the Zagros (Kelishin, Gawre Shinke). During the Iron Age, the area constituted a contested border between the Assyrian and Urartian Empires and possibly lay within the territory of the buffer state of Muṣaṣir (e.g. Boehmer 1973; Danti 2014; Radner 2012). Important sites for an understanding of the settlement history of the wider region lie within the Delzian Plain (e.g. Gird Banahilk; Gómez-Bach et al. 2019) and in immediately adjacent areas: Shanidar Cave, Zawi Chemi Shanidar, Bastoon Cave. In the neighbouring Khalifan area, numerous sites were recently discovered during a survey under the direction of C. Beuger (2016; 2018). Yet, data from stratified archaeological contexts are still sparse, given that the archaeological exploration of the Soran district nearly came to a halt due to conflicts that gripped the region in the second half of the 20th century (Marf 2016).

Places and practices: from mound to cave 

Jafrakani Kon: Prior to our project on the Delzian plain, we conducted a rescue excavation at the village of Jafrakani Kon, where we recorded contexts (primarily) dating to the (post-) Ottoman period (Beuger 2016; Helms/Kerig 2018). At the site we could archaeologically investigate the construction of terraces (fig. 4), which constitute an important element of the region’s landscape. We gathered stratigraphic evidence for dating a handmade and coarse pottery ware, which shows up frequently in ceramic assemblages of the working area. The material can be associated with the activities of village potters of quite recent times. The exploration of Jafrakani Kon also launched our survey of landscape-forming practices, of which some can be observed up to the present day. Here, coppicing, an important practice in animal husbandry, can be referred to as an example: virtually every oak tree in the landscape is cut, mainly for producing fodder which is then kept in heaps (fig. 5; Kerig/Helms 2017).

Fig. 5 : Coppiced tree and stock of cut branches near the site of Jafrakani Kon (T. Helms & O. Kromberg, © MTC-Project)

Video 1 : The cave of Ashkawta Rash overlooking the entrance of the Balakian gorge
(Ph. Serba, © MTC-Project)

Ashakawta Rash (fig. 2): The Ashkawta Rash cave reaches 35 metres into the Cretaceous limestone of the Bradost Mountain range, which limits the Delzian plain to the West (video_1). The cave is located at the entrance of the Balakian gorge (Zar Gali). Not only does it control a main access to the Delzian plain, it also opens onto the mountain sphere for seasonal husbandry and transhumance. The cave is well-suited for occupation and is still used as temporary shelter for herders and hunters. Excavations in 2018 allowed to document architectural elements as well as hundreds of late Holocene occupation layers (Kerig et al. 2019). We aim to excavate deeper layers in protected situations, i.e. layers which are presumably undisturbed. We will also investigate a possible fortification of the cave entrance. Two large pits, one of which has been radiocarbon-dated to the Middle-Late Islamic Period (fig. 6), can be interpreted as cool storage installations, a practice well attested in the ethno-archaeological record. Several seasonal occupations of the cave have been evidenced through finds indicating food processing (e.g. quern fragment) and consumption (e.g. animal bones). We also conducted interviews on the recent use of the cave.

Fig. 6 : West section of the trial trench in the Ashkawta Rash cave (photogrammetric documentation); a section through a large pit is visible in the section (T. Rünger & T. Kerig, © MTC-Project)

Video 2 : Girda Dasht on the Delzian plain (Ph. Serba, © MTC-Project)

Girda Dasht (fig. 3): the mounded site of Girda Dasht dominates the Delzian plain, where most of the time the main agricultural production had to take place (video_2). The mound is the principal tell site of the plain, it has a height of about 20m and covers an area of roughly 1.8ha. It shows fortifications and overlooks a lower town of at least 1.25ha. First excavations carried out within the Rowanduz Archaeological Project (Danti 2014; Kaercher 2016) and the range of  surface material attest to an occupational sequence from prehistoric (Late Chalcolithic, possibly Neolithic) to post-Ottoman times (fig. 7; Kerig et al. 2019). Like so many mounded sites in the wider region, Girda Dasht also features remains of 20th century CE military installations.

Fig. 7 : Archaeological Investigations at Girda Dasht (T. Helms, T. Kerig & Ph. Serba, © MTC-Project)

Scheduled in autumn 2021, a step trench will be cut into the Western flank of the tell to produce a stratigraphic sequence for the Delzian plain and to collect data related to past economic activities. Parts of the lower town have already been investigated by geophysical methods (J. Fassbinder, LMU Munich; pers. comm.). We initiated survey work in the immediate surroundings of the mound. It is planned to expand the site-focused survey and carry out test trenching within the framework of our program. Craft production is well attested: surface finds substantiate iron working in the lower town. From the slopes of the tell comes evidence for flint processing. The raw materials of the lithic industry attest to the exploitation of local materials (sources have yet to be identified) as well as obsidian, which demonstrates the integration of the Delzian plain in trans-regional exchange networks.


By simultaneously investigating very different sites (village, suburbium, tell and cave), the project will establish a deep typo-stratigraphical sequence of the region’s material culture. The archaeological approach iscombined with ethno-historical and ethno-archaeological work to improve our understanding of economic practices associated with gardening, agriculture, and husbandry, some of which are still taking place within particular parts of the landscape today. The project also builds on the archaeological work of local authorities and incorporates published survey and excavation data of other teams working in the region. It offers new theoretical as well as practical pathways in a key area of Eurasia that has not been accessible for archaeological research for a long period. The project is part of a wider attempt to establish an analytical framework for an archaeology of evolving practices and social inequalities using network approaches: the Delzian plain will be described as a formal network of evolving practices.

Project support

So far, the internal research funding of Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz (JGU), the ROOTS Cluster of Excellence CAU Kiel and Enki e.V. (Frankfurt am Main) have financed our research on the sites of Ashkawta Rash and Girda Dasht. Trial trenching in the surroundings of the central mound (scheduled for the next field season) will be possible thanks to a DFG grant (HE 8711/2-1).


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Beuger C., Heitmann R., Schlüter S., Schulz J.G., Suleiman A., Dlshad M. A., Rashid H., Hussein H. 2018. Archäologische Forschungen im nordwestlichen Zagros. Bericht zum Khalifan-Survey 2016-2017, Mitteilungen der Deutschen Orient-Gesellschaft 150, 45–88.

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Dr. Tobias Helms, research assistant at the Institute of Ancient Studies at JGU Mainz (Department of Near Eastern Archaeology). He is a trained prehistorian and holds a PhD in Near Eastern Archaeology. Tobias Helms is specialized in the social and economic Archaeology of the Early Bronze Age period in South-West Asia and the settlement history of the northwestern Zagros. Aside from his research in Iraqi Kurdistan, he is currently carrying out research on the relationship between conflicts, fortification and the sociopolitical organization of early urban societies.

Dr. Tim Kerig, Post-Doctoral Fellow at ROOTS center of excellence at CAU Kiel and Adjunct Professor (Privatdozent) at Leipzig University. He is specialized in European and Near Eastern Neolithic archaeology and interested in theoretical and empirical studies into economic archaeology and past social inequalities, agricultural choices and practices. He has published widely on the theory and history of the discipline, on European Neolithic typo-chronology, demography, agrarian practices and economics as well as on quantitative approaches to environmental and economic archaeology.

Citer ce billet
Tobias Helms and Tim Kerig (2021, 28 mai). Reconstructing Economic Landscapes from Networks of Practices: An Example from the Delzian Plain (Soran District, Iraqi Kurdistan). ArchéOrient - Le Blog. Consulté le 22 mai 2024, à l’adresse

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