Cuneiform tablets may illuminate a dark age

A University of Toronto archaeological team excavating a 2,700-year old Turkish temple near the border with Syria have uncovered thousands of artifacts, including a cache of cuneiform tablets dating to between 1200 and 600 BC, suggesting that a period considered to be a “dark age” between Bronze and Iron may not have been quite as dark as we thought.

“We think that these tablets actually have significant historical information in them that we don’t have available anywhere else,” [University of Toronto archeologist Timothy] Harrison said in an interview from the dig site at Reyhanli, Turkey.

“We may begin to fill in political history, some of the local kingdoms, maybe more understanding about how the Assyrians were administrating and ruling and controlling their empire.”

The professor of near eastern archeology said little is known about the “dark age,” a 300-year transitional time period between the collapse of the Bronze Age and the rise of the Iron Age, but it was thought to be a violent period when little writing was done. But the tablets he and his team have found may challenge that assumption, he suggested.

The tablets haven’t been deciphered yet, so archaeologists don’t know what information they’ll eventually glean. Since it was a temple, Harrison suspects the tablets are archives or documents pertaining to the local rituals.

Many are fragile, some falling apart. They’ll need careful conservation before the transcription and translation can even begin.¬†Other tablets are still in fairly sturdy shape. We can expect translations of those tablets within just a few weeks.

The UoT team actually discovered the temple building last year, but the dig went on hiatus before they could get inside of it. This summer they made it through to the inner sanctum and found a huge treasure trove of ceramics, jewelry, gold foil, chalices, lamps, silver and bronze objects as well as the cuneiform tablets.

They estimate they’ve found something in the neighborhood of 100,000 artifacts in that one room.


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Comment by Jonathan
2009-08-08 22:30:07

I love when experts of Antiquity declare a period “unproductive” considering the very small amount of sources we have to affirm anything. As for that period in Assyrian/Babylonian Mesopotamia, we simply haven’t found enough yet. The same thing happened in the Medieval Ages until we gradually uncovered art, poetry, literature… Historians must be careful when extrapolating.

Comment by livius drusus
2009-08-08 22:39:10

I don’t think the archaeologist cited made a blanket statement quite that egregious regarding the period. It’s certainly true that in times of constant war, less art/writing/building gets done.

There were entire centuries in Medieval Rome, for example, where not a single major building was erected.

I agree, though, that often these so-called “dark ages” are more a function of historiography rather than history per se.

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