Ancient data, modern math and the hunt for 11 lost cities of the Bronze Age

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Using numbers scrawled by Bronze Age merchants on 4,000-year-old clay tablets, a historian and three economists have developed a novel way to pinpoint the locations of lost cities of the ancient world.

The ancient city of Kanesh, located in the middle of modern-day Turkey, was a hub of trade in the Anatolian region four millennia ago. Modern-day archaeologists have unearthed artifacts from the city, including more than 23,000 cuneiform texts, inscribed in clay by ancient Assyrian merchants.

The texts themselves are mostly “business letters, shipment documents, accounting records, seals and contracts,” according to the working paper by Gojko Barjamovic, Thomas Chaney, Kerem A. Cosar and Ali Hortacsu. Barjamovic is an expert in the history of Assyria, the ancient Middle Eastern kingdom founded near the Tigris River in what is present-day Iraq. His co-authors are economists from, respectively, the Paris Institute of Political Studies, the University of Virginia and the University of Chicago.

Most tantalizing to archaeologists are the mentions in the tablets of ancient cities and settlements — some of which have been located, others of which remain unknown. In the record above, for instance, while Kaneš (Kanesh) has been located and excavated. Durhumit is, at present, lost to history.

Traditionally, historians and archaeologists have analyzed texts like these for bits of qualitative information that might locate a site — descriptions of landscape features, for instance, or indications of distance or direction from other, known cities.

But Barjamovic and his co-authors had a different idea: What if they analyzed the quantitative data contained in the tablets instead? In the passage above, for instance, you have a record of three separate cargo shipments: Durhumit to Kanesh, Kanesh to Wahshushana, and Durhumit to Wahshushana.

If you analyze thousands of tablets and tally up each record of a cargo shipment contained therein, you end up with a remarkably comprehensive picture of trade among the cities around Kanesh 4,000 years ago. Barjamovic did exactly that, translating and parsing 12,000 clay tablets, extracting information on merchants’ trade itineraries.

What they had, in the end, was a record of hundreds of trade interactions among a total of 26 ancient cities: 15 whose locations were known and 11 that remain lost.

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