New obsidian source points to ancient control of resources
As ancient sites and cultural heritage are under threat in Syria during the increasingly destructive conflict, an interdisciplinary research team hopes this new discovery, which has major implications for understanding the world’s first empire, will help highlight the importance of protecting Syria’s heritage.
The obsidian trail
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 specialised medical procedures.
Researchers from social and earth sciences studied obsidian tools excavated from the archaeological site of Tell Mozan, located in Syria near the borders with Turkey and Iraq. The team successfully uncovered the previously unknown origins and movement of the coveted material during the Bronze Age, more than four millennia ago.
An exotic new source
Most of the obsidian at Tell Mozan (and surrounding archaeological sites) originated from volcanoes 200km away in what is now eastern Turkey, as expected from models of ancient trade developed by archaeologists over the last five decades. However, the team discovered a set of exotic obsidian artefacts originating from a volcano in central Turkey, three times farther away. Just as important as their distant origin is where the artefacts were found: a royal palace courtyard. The artefacts were left there during the height of the world’s first empire, the Akkadian Empire, which invaded Syria in the Bronze Age. The find has exciting implications for understanding links between resources and empires in the Middle East.
Dr Ellery Frahm, Marie Curie Experienced Research Fellow at the University of Sheffield’s Department of Archaeology, led the research. He said: “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 artefact 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.”
Not only did Frahm and his collaborators identify the particular volcano where the artefacts originated, they were able to pinpoint the exact flank of the volcano where the obsidian was collected and determine that the raw material was gathered from two different spots on its slopes. Such specificity was possible using a combination of scientific techniques, including a portable XRF analyser (X-Ray Florescence) that can be brought to archaeological sites and instruments that measure weak magnetic signals within rocks.
The first matching of Middle East obsidian artefacts to their volcanic origins were developed partly by Colin Renfrew, but now, Frahm said: “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.”
Control of resources
Frahm points out: “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 colonisers 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.”
Dr Frahm is also interested in the relationship between humanitarian and archaeological work in the region. He added: “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?”
His next study with Syrian obsidian artefacts explores what happened to trade and social networks when Bronze-Age cities were abandoned in the wake of a regional government collapse and increasing droughts due to climate changes.
Source: University of Sheffield
Ellery Frahm,Joshua M. Feinberg (2012) Empires and resources: Central Anatolian obsidian at Urkesh (Tell Mozan, Syria) during the Akkadian period, Journal of Archaeological Science, 14th August 2012#
Tell Mozan (Urkesh) website
Ellery Frahm (2012) Distinguishing Nemrut Dağ and Bingöl A obsidians: geochemical and landscape differences and the archaeological implications Journal of Archaeological Science Volume 39, Issue 5, May 2012, Pages 1436–1444
Archaeobotany at Tell Mozan (Tübingen University)
To find out more about the Department of Archaeology at the University of Sheffield, visit: Archaeology