Drone photos reveal ancient Mesopotamian island suburbs.

The discovery, as Science News explains, is rewriting the evolution of the first cities. Instead of gradually growing inside walled enclosures around a temple, the Mesopotamian cities included culturally distinct settlements – basically, suburbs from 3,000 BCE – connected by bridges:

Remote-sensing data, mostly gathered by a specially equipped drone, indicate that a vast urban settlement called Lagash largely consisted of four marsh islands connected by waterways, says anthropological archaeologist Emily Hammer of the University of Pennsylvania.

Because Lagash had no geographical or ritual center, each city sector developed distinctive economic practices on an individual marsh island, much like the later Italian city of Venice, she suspects. For instance, waterways or canals crisscrossed one marsh island, where fishing and collection of reeds for construction may have predominated.

Two other Lagash marsh islands display evidence of having been bordered by gated walls that enclosed carefully laid out city streets and areas with large kilns, suggesting these sectors were built in stages and may have been the first to be settled. Crop growing and activities such as pottery making may have occurred there.

Drone photographs of what were probably harbors on each marsh island suggest that boat travel connected city sectors. Remains of what may have been footbridges appear in and adjacent to waterways between marsh islands, a possibility that further excavations can explore.

Drone data enabled Hammer to narrow down densely inhabited parts of the ancient city to three islands, she says. A possibility exists that those islands were part of delta channels extending toward the Persian Gulf. A smaller, fourth island was dominated by a large temple.

Hammer’s drone probe of Lagash “confirms the idea of settled islands interconnected by watercourses,” says University of Chicago archaeologist Augusta McMahon, one of three co–field directors of ongoing excavations at the site.

Drone evidence of contrasting neighborhoods on different marsh islands, some looking planned and others more haphazardly arranged, reflect waves of immigration into Lagash between around 4,600 and 4,350 years ago, McMahon suggests. Excavated material indicates that new arrivals included residents of nearby and distant villages, mobile herders looking to settle down and slave laborers captured from neighboring city-states.

You can read more of Hammer’s work here, in the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology.