We use cookies to ensure that we give you the best experience on our website. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Otherwise, we'll assume you're OK to continue.

Durham University

Department of Archaeology

All Research Projects

The Fragile Crescent Project (Middle East): Settlement Change during the Urban Transition

A research project of the Department of Archaeology.


For many years the rain-fed steppe lands of Syria, northern Iraq and southern Turkey have been regarded as archaeologically less rich than southern Mesopotamia. The archaeological mounds (tells) are not as large as those in the irrigated south and the region has never produced as many cuneiform tablets. However, the last thirty years have witnessed a considerable surge in archaeological research in the northern Fertile Crescent and we now have a wealth of information that underscores its importance to our understanding of the development of farming communities and early civilizations. Today we are in a position to bring together the evidence from ancient landscapes, settlement patterns and archaeology within this large region through a single project: The Fragile Crescent Project.

With the help of a 4-year AHRC research grant of £407,799 the “Fragile Crescent Project” has been able to chart the rise and fall of Bronze Age settlement within the Fertile Crescent in a way that is comparable with the so-called heartland of urban development in southern Mesopotamia. For many years, PI T.J. Wilkinson and co-PI Graham Philip have been assembling a data base from numerous archaeological surveys over a vast area from the Tigris River to the Mediterranean Sea. These data have now been brought together within the same analytical framework by Research Associate Nikolaos Galiatsatos and several PhD students, including Jennie Bradbury and Dan Lawrence (now both post-docs on related programmes) under the oversight of co-PI Daniel N.M. Donoghue (Durham Dept. of Geography). The primary data sources have been high resolution satellite images together with the original "legacy" surveys conducted over the last thirty years. The improved data quality, and the ability to carry-out GIS analysis at scales ranging from individual survey regions to sub-continental, has enabled us to understand more clearly the development of early towns and cities, the ebb and flow of population, and the fluctuations between sedentary and nomadic ways of life, over some 2,500 years from ca. 3500 – 1000 BC.

We are currently in discussion with UNESCO regarding ways in which project’s database might contribute to the protection and management of Syria’s endangered heritage.


Bradbury, J. & Philip, G. (2011). The World Beyond Tells: Pre-classical activity in the basalt landscape of the Homs region, Syria. In Pierres levées, stèles anthropomorphes et dolmens. Standing stones, anthropomorphic stelae and dolmens. Steimer-Herbert, T. & Maison de l'Orient et de la Méditerranée Jean Pouilloux (Lyon, France) Oxford: Archaeopress. 2317: 169-180

Cunliffe, E. (2012). Modernity, Monumentality and the Moment: A Syrian Case Study. In:Furholt, M., Hinz, M., and Mischka, D. (eds). “As time goes by?” Monumentality, Landscapes and the Temporal Perspective. Proceedings of the International Workshop Socio- Environmental Dynamics over the Last 12,000 Years: The Creation of Landscapes II (14th-18th March 2011)” in Kiel Volume 2. Human development in landscapes, Graduate School at the Christian-Albrechts Universität, University of Kiel / Habelt: Bonn: 61-72

Cunliffe, E. (2012). Satellites, Surveys and Site Destruction: Using Satellite Imagery to Monitor Damage to Archaeological Sites in Syria. In: Borrell, F., Bouso, M., Gómez, A., Tornero, C,. and Vicente, O. (eds), Broadening Horizons 3. 3rd Conference of Young Researchers Working in the Ancient Near East. Universitat Autònoma De Barcelona. Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona: Servei de Publicacions: 183-202

Cunliffe, E. (2012). Syria: Destroying the Past for the Future. Antiquity 86 (333): Project Gallery

Cunliffe, E. (in press). The Archaeological Landscape of the Tell Beydar Region: Satellite Imagery and its Implications for Settlement Patterning. In: Milano, L., and Lebeau, M. (ed). Subartu XXXIII: Tell Beydar Environmental and Technical Studies Volume II Brepols: Turnhout, 89-108.
Cunliffe, E. (in press). "The Ways of Living". Syria’s Past in an Uncertain Future. ArcheoMed: Mediterranean Archaeology between Crisis and Conflicts. Chianciano erme, Italy.

Lawrence, D., Bradbury, J. and Dunford, R. (2012) Chronology, Uncertainty and GIS: A Methodology for Characterising and Understanding Landscapes of the Ancient Near East in Bebermeier, W., Hebenstreit, R., Kaiser, E. and Krause, J., (eds.). Landscape Archaeology. Proceedings of the International Conference Held in Berlin, 6th-8th June 2012. Berlin, Excellence Cluster Topoi. Special Volume 3: 353-359

Philip, G. & Bradbury, J. (2010). Pre-classical activity in the basalt landscape of the Homs region, Syria: the implications for the development of “sub-optimal” zones in the Levant during the Chalcolithic and Early Bronze Age. Levant 42(2): 136-169.

Philip, G., Bradbury, J. & Jabbur, F. (2011). The Archaeology of the Homs Basalt, Syria: the main site types. Studia Orontica 9: 38-55.

Wilkinson, T. J. (2010). The Tell: Social Archaeology and Territorial Space. in Bolger, Diane & Maguire, Louise (eds). The Development of Pre-state Communities in the Ancient Near East: Studies in Honour of Edgar Peltenburg. Oxbow, Oxford. 55-62

Wilkinson,T.J., French, C., Ur, J.A., Semple M. 2010. The Geoarchaeology of Route Systems in Northern Syria. Geoarchaeology Vol. 25, No. 6, 745–771

Wilkinson T.J., Galiatsatos N., Lawrence D., Ricci A., Dunford R., Philip G. (2012), Late Chalcolithic and Early Bronze Age Landscapes of Settlement and Mobility in the Middle Euphrates: A Reassessment, Levant 44/2: 139-185

Wilkinson, T.J. & Cunliffe, E. (2012). The Archaeological Landscape Of The Tell Beydar Region: An Update Using Satellite Imagery. In Boiy,T., Bretschneider,J., Goddeeris,A. Jans, G. & Tavernier, J. (eds). The Ancient Near East,a Life! Festschrift for Karel Van Lerberghe. Peeters: OLO Leuven. 665-679

Wilkinson, T. J., Philip, G., Bradbury, J., Dunford, R., Donoghue, D., Galiatsatos, N., Lawrence, D., Ricci, A., and Smith, S., (2014). Contextualizing Early Urbanization: Settlement Cores, Early States and Agro-Pastoral Strategies in the Fertile Crescent during the Fourth and Third millennia BC, Journal of World Prehistory 27/1: 43-109.

Lawrence, D., and Wilkinson, T. J. in press. Hubs and Upstarts: Pathways to Urbanism in the Northern Fertile Crescent. Antiquity


From the Department of Archaeology

From other departments

Scottish Soldiers Project

Cooperating with the Palace Museum in China