September 5, 2012

Middle Eastern Studies Broadened By Syrian Obsidian Discovery

April Flowers for — Your Universe Online

Ancient sites and cultural heritage are under threat in Syria due to the current conflict. An interdisciplinary team of social and earth science researchers hope that this new discovery, which has major implications for understanding the world's first empire, will help to highlight the importance of protecting Syria's heritage.

The conflict that has them worried is the Syrian Civil War, also known as the Syrian Uprising. This ongoing armed political battle started in March 2011 with public demonstrations that developed into a nationwide civil war in 2012. Syrian army troops were ordered to fire on civilians and executed if they failed to do so.  The UN estimates that between 25,000 and 33,000 people have died so far in the conflict.

Obsidian, naturally occurring volcanic glass, is smooth, hard, and far sharper than a surgical scalpel when fractured, making it a highly desired raw material for crafting stone tools for most of human history. In fact, obsidian tools continued to be used throughout the ancient Middle East for millennia beyond the introduction of metals, and obsidian blades are still used today as scalpels in specialized medical procedures.

Researchers from the University of Sheffield studied obsidian tools excavated from the archaeological site of Tell Mozan, located in Syria near the borders with Turkey and Iraq. Tell Mozan is the site of the ancient city of Urkesh. From 3,000 to 1,500 BC, Urkesh was an important stop on both the north-south trade route between Anatolia and the cities of Syria and Mesopotamia, and the east-west route that linked the Mediterranean with western Iran.

Using novel methods and technologies, the team successfully uncovered the hitherto unknown origins and movements of the coveted raw material during the Bronze Age, more than four millennia ago. Most of the obsidian that can be found at Tell Mozan and surrounding archaeological sites originates from eastern Turkish volcanoes 200 kilometers away. This was expected from models of ancient trade developed by archaeologists over the last fifty years.

The team found a set of exotic obsidian artifacts, however, that originated from a central Turkish volcano closer to 1,500 miles away. Even more important than their place of origin is the place of discovery for these tools. They were found in a royal palace courtyard, left there during the height of the world's first empire, the Akkadian Empire, which invaded Syria in the Bronze Age. This find has exciting implications for understanding the links between resources and empires in the Middle East.

The Akkadian Empire was centered in the city of Akkad in the Mesopotamia region and reached its political peak between the 24th and 22nd centuries, BC.

This is a rare, if not unique, discovery in Northern Mesopotamia that enables new insights into changing Bronze-Age economics and geopolitics. We can identify where an obsidian artifact originated because each volcanic source has a distinctive ℠fingerprint´. This is why obsidian sourcing is a powerful means of reconstructing past trade routes, social boundaries, and other information that allows us to engage in major social science debates," said Dr. Ellery Frahm, Marie Curie Experienced Research Fellow at the University of Sheffield´s Department of Archaeology, who led the research team.

The team was able to pinpoint the exact flank of the volcano where the obsidian was collected and determine that the raw material was gathered in two distinct spots on its slopes. Such specificity was possible using a combination of techniques, including a portable X-ray analyzer used at archaeological sites and instruments that measure weak magnetic signals within rocks.

Earlier techniques for matching Middle East obsidian artifacts to their volcanic origins was developed party by University of Sheffield's famed archaeologist, Colin Renfrew.

“Decades later, we are continuing to refine their original techniques. New technologies allow us to try new approaches. Powerful analytical tools can now be brought with us to sites, and sensitive magnetic instruments enable us to distinguish quarries, a level of specificity not previously possible. Our findings at Tell Mozan reveal that, even in the Middle East, the birthplace of obsidian sourcing, there are still surprises," says Frahm.

“Studying the use and origin of obsidian reveals some compelling parallels with modern-day Middle East and has resonance with issues that the region faces today. For example, we think that invading powers, intent on controlling access to valuable resources, would have faced resistance to occupation from small states across the region ruled by peoples who were ethnic minorities elsewhere in the Middle East.  A mountain insurgency could have resulted in a blockade of natural resources, and the colonizers may have been forced to instead seek resources from more distant sources and forge alliances with other regional powers to raise their status. This was 4,200 years ago during the Bronze Age — the parallels to the recent history of the area are extraordinary.”

The results of this study are published online in the Journal of Archaeological Science, and were funded in part by the Marie Curie Network's NARNIA project, which focuses on archaeological science in the Eastern Mediterranean region.

Dr. Frahm, also interested in the relationship between humanitarian and archaeological work in the region, added, “I went to Syria as an American after the U.S. had called Syria part of the ℠Axis of Evil´, and I only had positive experiences there. The degree of hospitality that I encountered was extraordinary. Perfect strangers took me into their home during my journey from Damascus to the site, which involved a nine-hour bus ride through the Syrian Desert. I was welcomed, fed, offered a shower and change of clothes, introduced to family and friends, and shown around town. Family members argued over whose house had the better accommodations for me to spend the night."

“The current situation in Syria is tragic and precarious. Because of both professional and personal interests, I follow developments in Syria closely. It can be so overwhelming and heartbreaking that I have to take a break from it, which, unlike the people who are living through the fighting, I have the luxury of doing. Whatever the future holds, there will be a lot of work to do there, both humanitarian and archaeological, and I'm very much interested in the interfaces between them. How can archaeology perhaps help Syria recover from this?”

Dr. Frahm's next study will also be concerned with Syrian obsidian artifacts as he attempts to explore what happened to the trade and social networks when Bronze Age cities were abandoned in the wake of governmental collapse and droughts.