Thursday, July 22, 2010


Artifacts from 3,000-year-old ruins in Turkey's Amuq Plain show evidence of an empire that crumbled as inexplicably as it appeared.

Stephen Batiuk and his 30 or so colleagues are a University Toronto team working on one of the world's richest digs: 100,000 artifacts a year emerge from Tel Tayinat. But the shards, bits of gold, even the monumental palace and temple, only hint of the power and complexity that this ancient city once held.

Every day, the puzzle for the University of Toronto team is the same: who were these people? How did they think? Who came through as traders, and who came waging war? Most intriguing: why did they simply walk away one day and vanish into history?

Last year, the temple surrendered a cache of nine tablets from its "Holy of Holies," or most sacred area. One tablet, dating to about 670 BC, outlines a treaty between the powerful Assyrian king and a weaker vassal state, with highly formulaic language recalling the style and pattern of Abraham's covenant with God in the Hebrew Bible. This tablet offers biblical scholars some new evidence that the authors of the Old Testament may have borrowed their narrative techniques from other cultures.One of the most important tasks this summer is to restore the fragile tablet and continue with translation.

Tim Harrison, the University of Toronto professor who directs the dig, and who supervised Batiuk's doctoral thesis, is even more effusive about the yield here. "Square metre per metre, (this) probably has the richest or densest amount of cultural or archeological material anywhere in the world.

"Tayinat was the precursor to Antioch, which was second only to Rome as the greatest city of the classical world in the Mediterranean," says Harrison.

Last year, a pre-eminent scholar suggested this may have been the seat of a powerful and extensive kingdom, ruled by a King Taita somewhere around the 10th century BC. This is unlikely to be related to today's Palestine, but it might be tied to the Biblical Philistines. If this proves to be correct, it will shed light on what is now called the Dark Ages that began about 1200 BC when all the most advanced empires inexplicably crumbled.

Tel Tayinat is at the northern most tip of what was once the Levant, what most people think of as the ancient Holy Land, extending up from Jerusalem along the Mediterranean coast. It is at one corner of the Amuq, a plain shaped like a triangle, each side about 35 kilometres, bound by the Mediterranean on the west, and the Syrian border on the east and south. Mankind has lived on this fertile plain for millennia, but most of the archeological remains date from the early Bronze Age (3000 BC), up to the Iron Age (1200 to 550 BC.)

In the 1930s, the legendary archeologist Robert Braidwood and his equally remarkable wife, Linda, worked with the British archeologist Sir Leonard Woolley to find 178 archeological sites in the plain. Braidwood, a luminary of the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute and a model for Steven Spielberg's Indiana Jones, began excavations at Tel Tayinat. Woolley took on Tel Atchana, just a few hundred metres away, often welcoming Agatha Christie and her archeologist husband as guests at his humble "dig house" that still stands today. Braidwood found pottery and other artifacts that provide one of the longest and most reliable chronological sequences in the entire Near East. Archaeologists still use it to date other sites in the Levant.

But the digs were abandoned as political tensions mounted in the years preceding the Second World War. Afterwards, the University of Chicago no longer focused on the area as its signature project and the Turkish government was hesitant to allow outside interests to excavate their patrimony. As late as the 1990s, Doug Esse, Harrison's mentor at the University of Toronto, tried for four years to get a permit to dig. By the time he finally got it, it was too late -- he was dying of cancer.

Finally, in 1995 a Turkish archeologist teaching at the University of Chicago was permitted to dig. Aslihan Yener took on Atchana and asked Harrison to develop the Tayinat site. Batiuk came on board as a graduate student working with Harrison, an assignment he had dreamed of since he was a teen.

On Monday, Citizen reporter Jennifer Green (author of this article) will join Stephen Batiuk and Tim Harrison at their dig for 10 days. There, she'll look at how modern technology, developed in Canada, helps archeologists decide where to dig. She'll follow a conservator who is painstakingly stabilizing that important tablet found last year. She will delve further into the known history of the area, and look into the enduring romance of archeology.

Follow Green's blog, Unearthing a Forgotten Kingdom, at

© Copyright (c) The Ottawa Citizen


Anonymous Anonymous said...

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