Sirwan Regional Project – Khani Masi Excavations

The Sirwan Regional Project (SRP) explores the archaeological landscape in and around the river known in Kurdish as the Sirwan and in Arabic as the Diyala in the Kurdish Region of Iraq. Flowing from its headwaters in the mountains of western Iran to its ultimate confluence with the Tigris River just south of Baghdad, the Sirwan/Diyala is a key corridor connecting the Zagros highlands to the lowland plains of Mesopotamia.  The SRP, an international collaboration among Claudia Glatz (University of Glasgow, UK) and Jesse Casana (Dartmouth College, USA) and the Garmian Directorate of Antiquities and Heritage is dedicated to uncovering the rich but still poorly known archaeological heritage of this region.

1. Project Overview

The Sirwan Regional Project research area comprises ca. 4,000km2 and stretches from the town of Darbandikhan at the base of the Qara Dagh massif in the north, to the plains surrounding the town of Kalar in the south.


Situated in a transitional environmental zone, which connects the piedmont and uplands of the western Zagros range to the north and east with the alluvial plains and marshlands to the south, the region is home to a variety of agricultural (incl. dry-farming and intensive irrigation) and pastoral traditions. The region also formed a cultural watershed from the Neolithic onwards and a political one in later periods. Historical records from the third and second millennium BC suggest that it was repeatedly sought after by expansive Mesopotamian polities and that it fluctuated in and out of effective external control, as illustrated by the famous Victory Stele of the Akkadian king Naram Sîn (r. 2254–2218 BC).


The region retains this borderland status in the first millennium BC and throughout its history, forming the border between the Ottoman and Safavid empires and skirting the modern national boundary between Iraq and Iran. At the same time, the Sirwan constitutes an important communication and transport corridor, whose north-south course connects the fertile Sharezor high-plateau with southern Mesopotamia. It is also cross-cut by the Khorasan Highway, a branch of the later Silk Route, leading into the Iranian highlands. The importance of these routes in antiquity is illustrated by the presence of numerous third and second millennium BC rock monuments and inscriptions, as well as by a large number of Parthian, Sasanian, and medieval forts and caravanserais.


As a result of its strategic location at the Zagros-Mesopotamian interface, the Sirwan region offers a unique topographic, environmental and geopolitical laboratory for the investigation of highland-lowland relationships, which underwrite many of the key themes of human history in the region, often the first of their kind. This includes, for instance, the spread of settled agricultural lifestyles from the ‘Hilly Flanks’ to the social and economic relationships that fuelled the emergence early complex societies and motivated the expansion of the first empires.

In order to investigate these themes and to explore more broadly the relationships between human societies and the Sirwan landscapes, SRP employs a nested, multi-scalar and inter-disciplinary research strategy that integrates data derived from a wide variety of methods, including:

  • regional-scale archaeological survey supported by satellite-based remote sensing in order to document the distribution of settlement and changing systems of land use; 
  • geomorphological investigations to reconstruct the development of floodplains and river terraces, and to better understand their hydrology; 
  • geophysical survey, aerial thermography, and controlled surface collection at many sites to reveal spatial patterning of settlement and its development over time; 
  • targeted excavations of key sites and radiometric dating of samples to produce a robust absolute chronology and material culture sequence;
  • analysis of faunal and botanical remains collected during excavations to reveal changing patterns of plant and animal exploitation
  • isotopic analyses of human and animal bones to investigate changing pastoral strategies and examine human mobility, diet, and differential access to particular foods as potential markers of social differentiation 
  • a range artefact-based analyses including chemical, petrographic and residue analyses of ceramics and other materials to investigate patterns of movement and aspects of local craft production

2. Methods and Preliminary Results

Remote Sensing and Regional Archaeological Survey

sceneryMuch of our survey work is guided by the analysis of satellite imagery, including both modern high-resolution images and CORONA satellite photographs from the 1960s. We have located more than 500 potential archaeological sites in this manner, about 150 of which have been ground-truthed to date. These sites discovered in this manner range in date from the pre-pottery Neolithic to the late 20th century AD and include tall, multi-period mounded settlements, low-mounds, watch-towers and fortress sites as well as ancient water management and irrigation works.

Late 3rd/early 2nd millennium BC rock-relief of Darband-i-BalulaMost of our work to date has concentrated in the Khani Masi plain south-east of Kalar. This area with plentiful water from perennial springs has a very large number of archaeological sites, including a surprising number of early prehistoric settlements. In 2013, we also surveyed prominent sites, including a series of Ottoman-period watchtowers, along the Sirwan to the north of Kalar. In 2015, we dedicated much of our time to exploring the northern, mountainous part of our research region. ‌This includes the late 3rd/early 2nd millennium BC rock-relief of Darband-i-Balula, which we are now able to place into a wider landscape and settlement context.‌

Aerial Imaging and Geophysical Survey

During the 2014 season, we implemented a systematic programme of drone-based aerial imaging and geophysical investigations at key sties. Using a magnetic gradiometer, we have mapped six sites to date in the Sozbulaq and Khani Masi plains near the modern town of Kalar, dating from the 6th to the late 2nd millennium BC. Geophysical surveys reveal much regarding the internal architectural organisation of the sites and provide context for test excavations. We have also conducted drone and kite-based aerial surveys of 10 sites, including numerous ruin fields in the Abbassan Valley.

aerial view 2 researchers‌ 

‌Test Excavations

‌Guided by the results of the magnetic survey, we subsequently undertook 1x4m test excavations at three sites, one dating to the Neolithic, one which is late Chalcolithic/Early Bronze Age in date and a third, large Late Bronze Age site in order to collect stratified artefact, faunal and environmental data as well as radiocarbon samples.


3. Khani Masi Excavations

‌‌The site of Khani Masi, discovered by the SRP in 2013, is comprised of a dozen, low mounds clustered along a relict levee of the Sirwan/Diyala River. Translating as "spring of the fishes," the site of Khani Masi and the nearby modern village are named after the spring-fed creek that flows along the eastern side of the site. Surface survey shows that several mounds of the Khani Masi site cluster date as far back as the Halaf period, while others date as late as the Sasanian and early medieval period. However, during the second millennium BC, occupation at Khani Masi reached its largest extent, covering an area of more than 30-hectares. The site therefore offers a unique opportunity to explore this poorly understood period, as well as the longer-term settlement history of the Upper Sirwan/Diyala region.

Figure 1: The Khani Masi site cluster


Magnetic gradiometry has been carried out in several parts of the Khani Masi site cluster, and results from SRP 46, an expansive, 10-hectare low mound, are particularly informative. Magnetic data indicate the presence of a monumental building complex, probably burned in a destruction during the site's terminal occupation in the 12th or 13th century BC. Surface survey and excavation data suggest that SRP 46 was the elite core of a large urban centre with cultural links to Kassite-period/Late Bronze Age (1450-1150 BC) Babylonia.

Figure 2 Top: Results of magnetic gradiometry survey


The Late Bronze Age is a textually well-attested era of Mesopotamian history during which Babylonian kings of the Kassite dynasty exchanged diplomatic letters and gifts with the Pharaoh of Egypt and stood in military and political competition with the Middle Assyrian realm in Upper Mesopotamia and Elam in western Iran. Archaeologically, however, we know very little about this period in Babylonia. We know even less about surrounding regions, in particular the Upper Diyala River valley and the wider Zagros-Mesopotamian interface.

Figure 3 Figure 4

Mesopotamian textual sources suggest that the Kassites, who took control of Babylon following its conquest by the Hittite king Mursili I in 1499 (short chronology), may have originated from the Upper Diyala region. The region appears subsequently to have been incorporated into the expanding political realm of Kassite-Babylonia, while Assyria and Elam too appear to have at times exerted control over it. ‌

As with almost all periods of human occupation in the Upper Diyala region, we know the least about the local communities of the area, their cultural traditions and relationships with outside powers. The investigation of the local communities of the Zagros-Mesopotamian interface, their material culture traditions and identities as well as the intensity and nature of their relationships with neighbouring regions form the central research question of the Khani Masi Excavations.

Figure 5: Drinking goblets and ‘faience bucket’ after clean-up and reconstruction. Figure 6: Glasgow student Francesca Chelazzi and her team excavating in trench Y88.

During the first season of large-scale excavations at Khani Masi in 2016, we opened six 5x5m trenches in four different areas of the site. Trench placement was guided by the results of the magnetic gradiometry survey. Our aim was to learn more about the site’s settlement history and function through the investigation of a series of distinct occupation contexts and activity areas. Excavations unearthed two industrial areas in the northern part of the site, where we uncovered several large kiln structures and a food storage and preparation area. Three trenches placed at the centre of the site revealed an outdoor area and a series of rooms inside a monumental compound with evidence for burial-related ritual activities and the consumption of alcohol. Figure 7: A series of so-called ‘Kassite goblets’ cut in half with a tile saw to learn more about the methods and sequence of pottery production at Khani Masi.

A further four seasons of excavation and analysis are planned at Khani Masi, with the aim of exposing more fully the well-preserved terminal occupation of the site, and to broaden our investigation to other aspects of urban life in the Late Bronze Age Zagros-Mesopotamian interface. A series of material analyses, including organic residue and ceramic chaînes opératories (production sequence) analyses are under way to gain a more detailed understanding of local cultural traditions and the wider networks of local craft and other communities of practice.‌‌

4. Project Publications and Financial Support



  • Glatz, C. and Casana, J. 2016. Of highland-lowland borderlands: Local societies and foreign power in the Zagros-Mesopotamian interface. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 44: 127-147.
  • Glatz, C. 2014. Monuments and landscape - exploring issues of place, distance and scale in early political contest. In J. Osborne (ed.). Approaching Monumentality in the Archaeological Record. Buffalo: SUNY Press: 109-134.
  • Şerifoğlu, T.E., Casana, J., Glatz, C. and Haydar, S.M. Initial Results of the Sirwan (Upper Diyala) Regional Project. In Proceedings of the 9th International Congress on the Archaeology of the Ancient Near East (forthcoming).

Lectures and Conference Presentations

  • In the Shadow of The Hilly Flanks – The Sirwan/Upper Diyala Regional Project 2014-15. 10th International Congress on the Archaeology of the Ancient Near East, Vienna (April 2016). Jesse Casana and Claudia Glatz.
  • Peaks and Valleys: Alterity, Identity and Connectivity in Mesopotamia’s Highland Borderlands. 10th International Congress on the Archaeology of the Ancient Near East, Vienna (April 2016). Claudia Glatz and Jesse Casana.
  • Alterity, Identity and Connectivity in Mesopotamia’s Vertical Borderlands. Annual Meeting of the American Schools of Oriental Research, Atlanta (November 2015). Claudia Glatz
  • Thinking Through Mountains: A Perspective from the ancient Near East. Annual Meeting of the Society for American Archaeology, San Francisco (April 2015). Claudia Glatz.
  • Climbing Mountains and Moving Molehills – Highland Communities and Lowland Encounters in the Near East. Anthropology, Columbia University (research seminar, April 2015). Claudia Glatz.
  • Climbing Mountains and Moving Molehills – Highland Communities and Lowland Encounters in the Near East. Joukowsky Institute, Brown University (lecture, March 2015). Claudia Glatz.
  • Climbing Mountains and Moving Molehills – Highland Communities and Lowland Encounters in Anatolia and the Near East. Oriental Institute, University of Chicago (lecture, February 2015). Claudia Glatz.
  • Investigating Early Social Complexity between the Mountains and the Plains: The Upper Diyala River Valley, Iraqi Kurdistan. Annual Meeting of the AmericanSchools of Oriental Research, San Diego (November 2014). Claudia Glatz and Jesse Casana.
  • Between the Plains and the Mountains: The Sirwan (Upper Diyala) Regional Project – First Results and Ideas for the Future. Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre (SUERC) (research seminar, January 2014). Claudia Glatz.
  • Between the Plains and the Mountains: The Sirwan (Upper Diyala) Regional Project – First Results. Archaeological Research in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq and Adjacent Areas, Athens (invited participant, November 2013). Claudia Glatz, T.E. Emre Serifoglu and Jesse Casana.

5. Meet the Team



  • Claudia Glatz, University of Glasgow, UK
  • Jesse Casana, Dartmouth College, USA
  • T. Emre Şerifoğlu, Bitlis Eren University, Turkey (2013)


  • Dr. Robin Bendrey, University of Edinburgh - Zooarchaeology
  • Mette Marie Hald, National Museum of Denmark - Paleoethnobotany
  • Kathleen Nicoll, University of Utah - Geomorphology
  • Jessica Pearson, University of Liverpool - Bioarchaeology
  • Kathryn Twiss, Stony Brook University - Zooarchaeology


  • Francesca Chelazzi, University of Glasgow - Survey, excavation, illustration
  • Autumn Cool, University of Arkansas - Geophysical survey
  • Christopher Fletcher, University of Arkansas - Geophysical survey
  • Elise Jakoby Laugier, University of Arkansas - Geophysical survey
  • Eric Jensen, University of Arkansas - Survey, excavation
  • Mitra Panahipour, University of Arkansas - Survey
  • Evrim Nazli Şerifoğlu - Illustrator
  • Elsa Perruchini, University of Glasgow - excavation, organic residue analysis
  • Neil Erskine, University of Glasgow - excavation
  • Daniel Calderbank, University of Manchester - excavation, ceramics


  • Awat Baban, Garmian Directorate of Antiquities and Heritage