The Darband-i Rania pass from the northeast: the site of Qalatga Darband is the triangular spit of land beyond the bridge on the right

Iraq Scheme: Darband-i Rania

The Darband-i Rania Archaeological Project is the northern of the two field projects conducted by the Iraq Scheme.

Fieldwork began in the autumn of 2016, and will finish in 2020. The aim of the work in the Darband-i Rania is to explore the ancient fortifications at a strategic point controlling a major route from northern Mesopotamia to Iran, with a focus on occupations of the first millennium BC.

The initial focus of the project has been at the site of Qalatga Darband, located 10km southeast of Rania in Iraqi Kurdistan. Qalatga Darband is a large open site with an area of about 60 hectares situated at the north-eastern corner of Lake Dokan, the reservoir formed by the Dokan Dam after it was constructed between 1954 and 1959.

It's a strategic location commanding the Darband-i Rania, the pass which links the Rania plain to the west with the Peshdar plain to the east and is also the location where, prior to the dam, the Lower Zab river flowed through on its way to its confluence with the Tigris. On its western flank the site was protected by a fortification wall with stone footings which ran from the river to south up to the mountain to the north.

Using Corona spy satellite imagery

Using Corona spy satellite imagery

The site of Qalatga Darband initially came to the attention of archaeologists following the identification of apparently ancient remains in declassified imagery from the 1960s Cold War 'Corona' spy satellite programme.

Of particular interest was a large square building which had the appearance of being a fort. A ground inspection at the site revealed the presence of a large number of carved limestone blocks, together with weights and bases of a type associated with presses for olive oil. It was therefore clear that remains of considerable importance lay buried at the site.

Fieldwork begins

Fieldwork begins

Our fieldwork at Qalatga Darband started with topographic mapping and a survey of surface pottery, analysis of which established that the site was primarily occupied in the early Parthian period (mid-second and first centuries BC). 'Ground-truthing' of the square feature in the Corona image by a targeted excavation, combined with analysis of crop marks recorded by drone survey, and followed up geo-physical mapping, has confirmed the presence of a large fortified building in the northern part of the site.

In other areas there's abundant evidence for the adoption of elements from the Greco-Roman architectural tradition. This is particularly evident in the excavation of a large mound at the southern end of the site. This has proved to contain the remains of a monumental building roofed with Mediterranean-style terracotta roof tiles and containing the smashed remains of statues in the Hellenistic tradition.

In conjunction with the work at Qalatga Darband, the project aims to deepen the understanding of the historic sequence of activity in the pass by conducting smaller investigations at two further sites. The first of these is Murad Rasu, a multi-period (Late Chalcolithic through to Late Islamic) site on the southern side of the lake, much damaged by erosion from the water.

The second is Usu Aska, a fort located inside the pass itself. The principal remains here date to the time of the Assyrian Empire (ninth–seventh centuries BC), though there are late Ottoman (probably 18th–19th centuries AD) remains as well.

Together we hope that these investigations will enable us to reconstruct the spatial and temporal dynamics of the landscape of control of this strategic location through the whole span of the first millennium BC.

Finally, the project will aim to highlight the importance of these sites, to devise ways of presenting them to visitors, and to produce educational materials for local schools.