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Tell sites

In this section, you will learn about 'Tell sites'. These are a common site type across the Middle East, especially where people build in mudbrick.

A ‘tell’ site is a mound that is created by the gradual build-up of construction material and domestic rubbish resulting from continued human occupation in a single location over a long period of time. A classic tell is a large mound, often with steep sides, which may indicate the presence of a defensive wall at the edge of the mound. Most tells are between 1 and 5 ha (10,000–50,000m2) in extent, although some are much larger.

A tell or mounded site is often visible on satellite imagery because it is higher than the surrounding ground level and therefore casts a shadow. The size of the shadow depends on the angle of the sun when the image was collected.

If a tell’s contrast with its surroundings is low and there is no defined shadow, steeper tells often have clear erosional channels which can make them easier to spot. Another indicator is that in agricultural landscapes they might often be bare and unfarmed – especially true of steep-sided tells – or they may have continued occupation. Sometimes the way that infrastructure, like roads, is built around a tell can reveal its location too.

Have a look at some examples of tell sites as we see them on the imagery.

A small town largely arranged along a central road running west to east is seen by satellite, with green space either side. In the right of the image, an ovoid tell is marked out to the north by a thick line of shadow revealing a steep slope, and to the west and east by a track and road respectively that skirt the base.
Fig 1: Kamid-el-Loz, Lebanon as seen from space. Google Earth Image. Image © 2018 DigitalGlobe. (Click to expand)

A coastal agricultural landscape is seen from satellite, with a patchwork of fields bounded to the north-west by a narrow beach. Next to the beach in the left of the image is an ovoid area of bare, brown, unfarmed earth with a narrow ring of shadow around it.
Fig 2: Tell el-Burak, Lebanon as seen from space. Google Earth Image. Image © 2018 DigitalGlobe. (Click to expand)

A bare orange-grey area of earth with a road crossing west to east, with a roughly square area of light earth in the top right of the image. A tell is very faintly marked out by a patch of darker soil. The lighter square falls within this area and the shadows within suggest it is probably a pit dug into the tell.
Fig 3: Tell Hermel, Iraq as seen from space. Google Earth Image. Image © 2018 DigitalGlobe. (Click to expand)

A satellite image shows the Lebanese coast, with significant urban development occupying the land towards the sea, and a major motorway skirting the base of the hills inland. At the base of the hills is a minor road that follows the bottom of a series of terraced fields, before passing a hill marked by concentric circular terraces. While difficult to distinguish from the hilly surroundings, this hill is an ancient tell, revealed on satellite only by the pattern of the terraces and the sharp turn of the road around its base.
Fig 4: Tell el-Heri, Lebanon as seen from space. Google Earth Image. Image © 2018 DigitalGlobe. (Click to expand)

Now that you have seen some examples, look at some tells you know of in your study area. What makes them visible in the satellite imagery?
Can you identify any other tell sites in your study area just by exploring the satellite imagery?
Hint: if you don’t have a study area in mind to look for tells, search “Homs” in the search bar in Google Earth Pro and explore the the countryside surrounding the city of Homs in Syria. There are lots there to find – and you might see some that will come up in the coming weeks!
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