Dynamics of Land Use, Environment, and Social Organization in the Sasanian Landscape of Eastern Iraq—Western Iran

Mitra Panahipour, University of Arkansas, Fayetteville


Understanding human-environment interactions has been one of the main challenges in archaeological studies over recent years. Past research on the Near Eastern territorial empires in general, and the Sasanian Empire in particular, primarily emphasized the dominant role of human on landscape transformation. In addition, politically centralized schemes such as agricultural intensification and expansion of water supply systems have been at the center of most of the discussions and remained the main hypothesis of the Sasanian land use practices.

This dissertation investigates population’s diverse responses to environmental variability during the Sasanian period (224-651 CE) across a landscape in eastern Iraq—western Iran. Two coping mechanisms of mobility and intensification, and how they shaped settlement and land use patterns are explored. Intensification is defined as a strategy to increase land productivity and to buffer against production failure risks, while mobility is as an adaptive strategy that takes advantage of spatial and temporal variation in environment and resource availability. Situated between the arid alluvial lowlands of southern Mesopotamia and highlands of the Zagros Mountains, the study area is comprised of a patchwork of microenvironmental zones, where its dynamic and often fluctuating climate can, on one hand, create uncertainties in land use, and on the other hand, create a zone of connection between different lifeways.

With an interdisciplinary approach, I apply remote sensing and geospatial techniques, in conjunction with archaeological field survey, ethnoarchaeological data, and environmental records to reconstruct the past landscape and its anthropogenic and natural elements. Results of this research argue that we need to move beyond the exclusive model of intensification in describing settlement and land use systems of the time. This research takes a critical position against the dichotomized perspective that separates sedentary agriculturalists from mobile agropastoralists. Results show that the study area was home to an intertwined lifeway consisting of both populations and show an integrated land use based on both intensification and mobility practices.

Finally, although this study only focuses on the Sasanian period, it presents a base to further research on the long-term history of human interactions with the environment.