Ancient Tablets Decoded; Shed Light on Assyrian Empire

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
December 9, 2009

Meticulous ancient notetakers have given archaeologists a glimpse of what life was like 3,000 years ago in the Assyrian Empire, which controlled much of the region between the Mediterranean Sea and the Persian Gulf.

Clay tablets inscribed with cuneiform, an ancient script once common in the Middle East, were unearthed in summer 2009 in an ancient palace in present-day southeastern Turkey.

(Related: "Ancient Assyrian Treasures Found Intact in Baghdad.")

Palace scribes jotted down seemingly mundane state affairs on the tablets during the Late Iron Age—which lasted from roughly the end of the ninth century B.C. until the mid-seventh century B.C.

But these everyday details, now in the early stages of decoding, may open up some of the inner workings of the Assyrian government—and the people who toiled in the empire, experts say.

"You're really getting at the nitty gritty of the management of the empire through these kind of records," said Melinda Zeder, director of the archaeobiology program at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., who was not involved in the research.

"And that does what history really should do—creates a connection between our lives and the lives of people [many] years ago," added Zeder, a member of the National Geographic Society's Committee for Research and Exploration. (The National Geographic Society owns National Geographic News.)

Fortified City

A team led by University of Akron archaeologist Timothy Matney has been excavating the massive mud brick palace, once inhabited by the governor of the empire's Tushhan Province, for more than a decade.

The palace is located in Ziyaret Tepe, one of three fortified cities that the Assyrians built in the northern reach of their empire on the banks of the Tigris River.

These urban administrative centers allowed Assyrians to exploit timber, stone, and metal resources from the mountains of eastern Turkey, materials that were relatively scarce in the empire's heartland near present-day Al Mawsil (Mosul), Iraq, Matney said.

Mystery Women

Continued on Next Page >>




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