Formation and Destruction of Pastoral and Irrigation Landscapes on the Mughan Steppe, North-Western Iran

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The palimpsest model of archaeological landscapes describes how natural and cultural processes will damage or erase some early features but allow others to survive to some degree (Crawford 1953: 51). In a brief statement, Christopher Taylor observed that in the case of Britain, these processes are not random but patterned into what he called 'Zones of Survival and Zones of Destruction', roughly divided into the preserved uplands, where post-Saxon settlement and cultivation were uncommon, and the heavily damaged lowlands, which had been the locus of most medieval and later activities (Taylor 1972). Tom Williamson expanded Taylor's concept, demonstrating that the 'complex kaleidoscope of patterned creation and structured destruction' could be related to soil conditions and potential agricultural productivity within regionally specific historical trajectories (Williamson 1998: 6). The pattern of Roman sites in marginal chalk downland and upland moors tells us less about settlement and land use in the Roman period than it does about the archaeological consequences of later agricultural expansion.

The palimpsest model is particularly appropriate in the Near East, where settlement histories extending back eight millennia or more make the unravelling of the surviving features an imposing task. In an authoritative synthesis of landscape processes and histories throughout the region, T.J. Wilkinson (2003) has extended the work of Taylor and Williamson. Wilkinson's landscape taphonomy concept (2003: 41-3) describes the processes by which ancient landscapes are erased, recycled, or retained; in particular, he demonstrates that patterns of survival and destruction can be generally associated with certain environments and 'signature landscapes'. Features in desert and highland environments, for example, are less likely to be effaced because the marginality of these regions does not encourage human resettlement. On the other hand, due to their inherent agricultural productivity, lowlands are likely to be the focus of long-term settlement which will remove earlier landscapes. Wilkinson's 'signature landscapes' concept (Wilkinson 2003:11, 214-15) emphasises the human aspect of landscape taphonomy, referring to general classes of cultural landscapes that were so profoundly inscribed, through either large-scale intentional action or via long-term persistence, that they structured subsequent landscapes and were more likely to remain visible to the present.

Signature landscapes are the most likely to survive and to continue to structure the landscape, but they also remove more lightly inscribed features. The signature landscape par excellence for lowland areas of the Near East is composed of nucleated settlements and associated irrigation canals. Irrigation is an intensive land use strategy designed to increase agricultural yields and reduce risk, and is particularly associated with urban settlement patterns and high population densities (Wilkinson 2003:71-2). At the opposite end of the continuum of land-use-intensity resides another classic Near Eastern pattern: pastoral nomadism. This economic adaptation stresses resilience over maximisation of yields and is successful under conditions of low population densities; it uses mobility as a response to economic adversity (Salzman 2004; Abdi 2003). The landscape history of the Near East is to a great extent the cyclical waning of one of these strategies and the corresponding waxing of the other.

Under the often antagonistic relationships between pastoral nomads and sedentary agriculturalists, the former will have their phases of political dominance, but in the larger sweep of landscape evolution, it is the remains of the latter that persevere. Nomad campsites are notoriously difficult to identify (Cribb 1991); more often, what we know of them is derived from the written accounts of their sedentary neighbours, and these can reflect the mistrust and prejudices that exist between farmers and pastoralists (Buccellati 1966). …