Ancient Tablets Decoded; Shed Light on Assyrian Empire

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So far, the team has deciphered lists of names of 144 women on the tablets who were likely employed by the palace as agricultural workers or laborers at its granary.

Yet while the tablets were written in the Late Assyrian language, the women's names are not Assyrian, Matney said.

That means the women may have been from local indigenous populations, or part of a mass relocation of people conquered by the Assyrians in another part of the empire, Matney said.

"The Assyrians deported large numbers of people—hundreds of thousands—from one part of the empire to another in order to break up local power structures and to move agricultural workers where they needed them," he said.

"It's an intriguing possibility that these women may have been one group that was involved in these deportations."

The National Museum of Natural History's Zeder said the Assyrians were one of the very earliest empires to leave behind extensive written records.

The files can help explain how, as a political entity, the empire controlled and administrated their large territories, she said.

"It will be very interesting to see what the role of women in this economy was, and also [perhaps] what the hierarchy was—were there Assyrian overlords, or was it all locally managed?"

Race Against the Clock

But those questions may never be fully answered.

When Matney and colleagues return to Ziyaret Tepe in 2010 to look for more tablets, they'll be racing against the clock: A planned hydroelectric dam project will swamp the region as early as 2013.

Nevertheless, Matney said, the Turkish government is supporting digs at places such as Ziyaret Tepe to discover as much as possible while such sites remain above water.

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