Research finds crisis in Syria has Mesopotamian precedent

December 18, 2012

Research carried out at the University of Sheffield has revealed intriguing parallels between modern day and Bronze-Age Syria as the Mesopotamian region underwent urban decline, government collapse, and drought.

Dr Ellery Frahm from the University of Sheffield's Department of Archaeology made the discoveries by studying stone tools of obsidian, razor-sharp volcanic glass, crafted in the region about 4,200 years ago.

Dr Frahm used artefacts unearthed from the archaeological site of Tell Mozan, known as Urkesh in antiquity, to trace what happened to trade and social networks when Bronze-Age Syrian cities were abandoned in the wake of a regional government collapse and increasing drought due to climate shifts.

"Unfortunately," explained Dr Frahm, "the situation four thousand years ago has striking similarities to today. Much like the fall of the Akkadian Empire, a governmental collapse is a real possibility in Syria after nearly two years of fighting. Some archaeologists and historians contend that the Akkadian Empire was brought down by militarism and that violence ended its central economic role in the region.

"Additionally, farming in north-eastern Syria today relies principally on rainfall rather than irrigation, just as in the Bronze Age, and climate change has already stressed farming there. But it isn't just climate change that is the problem. Farming, rather than herding, has been encouraged at unsustainable levels by the state through land-use policies, and as occurred during urbanisation four millennia ago, populations have dramatically increased in the area."

The diverse origins of the obsidian tools, which date from the rise of the Akkadian Empire in Mesopotamia to several centuries after its fall, revealed how social networks and trading routes evolved during this period.

Dr Frahm explained the motivation behind the research: "This time of transition in Mesopotamia has received great attention for the concurrence of aridification, de-urbanisation, and the decline of the Akkadian Empire about 4,200 years ago. However, our current understanding of this 'crisis' has been almost exclusively shaped by ceramic styles, estimated sizes of archaeological sites, and evidence of changing farming practices. Trade and the associated social networks have been largely neglected in prior studies about this time, and we decided obsidian was an ideal way to investigate them."

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.

"Our discovery that obsidian in Urkesh came from six different volcanoes before the crisis, whereas they normally came from just two or three at surrounding sites, implies that Urkesh was an unusually cosmopolitan city with diverse visitors, or visitors with diverse itineraries. During the crisis, however, obsidian only came from two nearby sources, suggesting that certain trade or social networks collapsed. It was two or three centuries before diverse obsidian appeared again at this city, and even then, it came from different quarries, signalling the impact the crisis had on trade and mobility throughout the wider region.

"One compelling interpretation of our findings is that the regional government of the Akkadian Empire shaped Urkesh's local economy. This city might have specialised its economy in response to demand from the Akkadians for certain commodities, such as metals from the nearby mountains. With climate shifts and the end of the empire, Urkesh's inhabitants might have had to refocus their economy on local production and consumption, covering their own needs rather than engaging in specialised long-distance trade.

"By drawing these parallels to the current situation in Syria, we are not making light of it," explains Dr Frahm. "Quite the opposite. The situation in Syria is heartbreaking, horrifying even when I see the images from Syria via social media. As an archaeologist, there is nothing that I can do to help the situation right now. But those of us who study people and the past are in a unique position to consider what could happen after the immediate crisis ends. What happens to cities when a state falls? How do the residents sustain themselves if that infrastructure collapses? Will they move to another area? Droughts are known to increase wars. As climate change increases, could fighting start again over scarce water resources? This is the type of contribution that archaeology can make towards improving the future."

Dr Frahm's team used a variety of scientific techniques to analyse the obsidian artefacts, including an electron microscope outfitted for chemical analyses, a handheld chemical analyser that can be used at archaeological sites, and a series of sophisticated magnetic analyses at one of the world's best facilities for studying rock magnetism, the Institute for Rock Magnetism at the University of Minnesota.
-end-
The paper, entitled Environment and Collapse: Eastern Anatolian Obsidians at Urkesh (Tell Mozan, Syria) and the Third-Millennium Mesopotamian Urban Crisis, has been published online by the Journal of Archaeological Science and is available here: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0305440312005213

Additional information


To find out more about the Department of Archaeology at the University of Sheffield, visit: www.shef.ac.uk/archaeology

The University of Sheffield

With nearly 25,000 students from 125 countries, the University of Sheffield is one of the UK's leading and largest universities. A member of the Russell Group, it has a reputation for world-class teaching and research excellence across a wide range of disciplines. The University of Sheffield was named University of the Year in the Times Higher Education Awards 2011 for its exceptional performance in research, teaching, access and business performance. In addition, the University has won four Queen's Anniversary Prizes (1998, 2000, 2002, and 2007).

These prestigious awards recognise outstanding contributions by universities and colleges to the United Kingdom's intellectual, economic, cultural and social life. Sheffield also boasts five Nobel Prize winners among former staff and students and many of its alumni have gone on to hold positions of great responsibility and influence around the world. The University's research partners and clients include Boeing, Rolls-Royce, Unilever, Boots, AstraZeneca, GSK, ICI, Slazenger, and many more household names, as well as UK and overseas government agencies and charitable foundations.

The University has well-established partnerships with a number of universities and major corporations, both in the UK and abroad. Its partnership with Leeds and York Universities in the White Rose Consortium has a combined research power greater than that of either Oxford or Cambridge.

Contact

For further information please contact:
Amy Stone
Media Relations Officer
The University of Sheffield
0114 222 1046
a.f.stone@sheffield.ac.uk

University of Sheffield

Related Climate Change Articles from Brightsurf:

Are climate scientists being too cautious when linking extreme weather to climate change?
Climate science has focused on avoiding false alarms when linking extreme events to climate change.

Mysterious climate change
New research findings underline the crucial role that sea ice throughout the Southern Ocean played for atmospheric CO2 in times of rapid climate change in the past.

Mapping the path of climate change
Predicting a major transition, such as climate change, is extremely difficult, but the probabilistic framework developed by the authors is the first step in identifying the path between a shift in two environmental states.

Small change for climate change: Time to increase research funding to save the world
A new study shows that there is a huge disproportion in the level of funding for social science research into the greatest challenge in combating global warming -- how to get individuals and societies to overcome ingrained human habits to make the changes necessary to mitigate climate change.

Sub-national 'climate clubs' could offer key to combating climate change
'Climate clubs' offering membership for sub-national states, in addition to just countries, could speed up progress towards a globally harmonized climate change policy, which in turn offers a way to achieve stronger climate policies in all countries.

Review of Chinese atmospheric science research over the past 70 years: Climate and climate change
Over the past 70 years since the foundation of the People's Republic of China, Chinese scientists have made great contributions to various fields in the research of atmospheric sciences, which attracted worldwide attention.

A CERN for climate change
In a Perspective article appearing in this week's Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Tim Palmer (Oxford University), and Bjorn Stevens (Max Planck Society), critically reflect on the present state of Earth system modelling.

Fairy-wrens change breeding habits to cope with climate change
Warmer temperatures linked to climate change are having a big impact on the breeding habits of one of Australia's most recognisable bird species, according to researchers at The Australian National University (ANU).

Believing in climate change doesn't mean you are preparing for climate change, study finds
Notre Dame researchers found that although coastal homeowners may perceive a worsening of climate change-related hazards, these attitudes are largely unrelated to a homeowner's expectations of actual home damage.

Older forests resist change -- climate change, that is
Older forests in eastern North America are less vulnerable to climate change than younger forests, particularly for carbon storage, timber production, and biodiversity, new research finds.

Read More: Climate Change News and Climate Change Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.