Rivers of the Levant

The Levant is drained by some of the world’s most renowned rivers – notably the twin rivers of Mesopotamia, the Euphrates and the Tigris, but also the Orontes, which flows northwards along the Dead Sea Fault Zone from Lebanon and across Syria to enter the Mediterranean Sea in Hatay Province, southern Turkey. These and other major rivers in the area have well developed Quaternary sedimentary archives, mostly, but not entirely, disposed as depositional (aggradational) terraces. As in NW Europe, these are important repositories for Lower and Middle Palaeolithic artefacts: stone tools and the waste from their manufacture. They also contain, in a few places, fossils of plants and animals, which can provide evidence of past environments (at the time of deposition).

There are several means of dating the deposits, ranging from luminescence techniques (these can date the last exposure to daylight of sands sealed in the fluvial deposits) to the use of uranium and related isotopes to measure the age of the cement in calcreted gravels (clearly this can provide only a minimum age). In some systems the river deposits are interbedded with Quaternary volcanic rocks that can readily be dated, using isotopes of argon produced by radioactive decay of potassium. Once well dated, the gravel terraces can provide a framework for understanding the development of stone-tool technologies, as recorded in the artefact assemblages from the different valleys.

The findings from research of this type can perhaps address fundamental questions in Quaternary science and in Palaeolithic archaeology, such as how and by which routes humans colonised the globe. The Fertile Crescent of northern Syria and southern Turkey provides the palaeogeographic context for early human migrations from Africa to Eurasia. This research programme aims to improve the three-dimensional mapping of the river terraces as well as to date them. It promises to provide the chronological framework for human migrations as well as a long-term record of fluvial and landscape history for the area that subsequently witnessed the agricultural and urban revolutions.

The key research questions to be addressed are:

  • the history of early human activity in this region, as documented by the archaeological record from the river terrace sequences
  • the history of crustal deformation and landscape evolution in this region, which is straddled by structural boundaries and active fault zones