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6 October 2012
New insight into ancient Mesopotamian trade routes

A team of social and earth science researchers, led by Dr Ellery Frahm, Marie Curie Experienced Research Fellow at the University of Sheffield (UK) Department of archaeology, have been making some remarkable discoveries in war torn Syria.
     The research has centred around a study of samples of volcanic glass (commonly known as obsidian). By using modern scientific methods, in particular X-ray analysis, the team has been able to accurately identify the point of origin of several artefacts made from the obsidian. The level of accuracy has been such that the precise location on a specific volcano can be determined. The techniques employed also included measuring the weak magnetic signals of each piece and comparing it to a known and recorded site.
     Because it is very hard and extremely sharp (when fractured) obsidian was widely used in the Middle east for stone tools right up to and beyond the discovery and use of metals. So finding and tracking the source of the raw materials is highly significant when mapping the trade and social networking of the time.
     Dr Ellery Frahm is quoted as saying "This is a rare, if not unique, discovery in Northern Mesopotamia that enables new insights into changing Bronze age economics and geopolitics. We can identify where an obsidian artefact originated because each volcanic source has a distinctive fingerprint. This is why obsidian sourcing is a powerful means of reconstructing past trade routes, social boundaries and other information that allows us to engage in major social science debates".
     The big fear, however, is the continuing conflict in Syria, which threatens the very existence of these priceless sites and it is hoped that, by raising the profile of the importance of the discoveries, the government of Syria might take serious measures to protect them.

Edited from The University of Sheffield News (3 September 2012)

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