obsidian

Syria’s ancient tools traced to volcano in Turkey

U. SHEFFIELD (UK) — Archeologists have uncovered the origin and trading routes of razor-sharp tools used in Syria 4,200 years ago.

Researchers hope the new discovery, which has major implications for understanding the world’s first empire, will help to highlight the importance of protecting Syria’s heritage and ancient sites, under threat due to the current 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. Obsidian blades are still used today as scalpels in specialized medical procedures.


Researchers 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 techniques, including a portable X-ray analyzer and instruments that measure weak magnetic signals within rocks. (Credit: U. Sheffield)

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By studying obsidian tools excavated from the archaeological site of Tell Mozan, located in Syria near the borders with Turkey and Iraq, researchers have uncovered the previously unknown origins and movements of the coveted raw material during the Bronze Age.

The work is detailed in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

Most of the obsidian at Tell Mozan (and surrounding archaeological sites) originated from volcanoes 200 km 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 artifacts originating from a volcano in central Turkey, three times farther away.

Just as important as their distant origin is where the artifacts were found: a royal palace courtyard. The artifacts 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, says Ellery Frahm, research fellow at the University of Sheffield’s Department of Archeology, who led the research.

“This is a rare, if not unique, discovery in Northern Mesopotamia that enables new insights into changing Bronze-Age economics and geopolitics,” he says. “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.”

Not only did Frahm and his collaborators identify the particular volcano where the artifacts 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 techniques, including a portable X-ray analyzer and instruments that measure weak magnetic signals within rocks.

The earliest techniques of matching Middle East obsidian artifacts to their volcanic origins were developed partly at the University of Sheffield by archeologist 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,” Frahm says.

“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.”

His next study with Syrian obsidian artifacts 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.

The study was funded in part by the Marie Curie Network “New Archaeological Research Network for Integrating Approaches to Ancient Material Studies” (NARNIA), which focuses on archaeological science in the Eastern Mediterranean region.

Source: University of Sheffield

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