Mar 25, 2010

Assyria: Ohioan Works to Preserve Ancient City

Sample ImageThis is Tim Matney's 14th year at an archaeological dig in Southeast Turkey. He keeps a close eye on the calendar. Time is not on his side. He and fellow archaeologists are hurrying to find and preserve what they can of the ancient Assyrian city of Tushan before a hydroelectric dam floods the area.


Below is an article published by: Dayton Daily News

"This is a pragmatic, conservationist rescue dig," said Matney, an associate professor of archaeology at the University of Akron. In the Turkish bureaucracy, he said, that means he has a "slightly less cumbersome system to work with."

Matney heads a team of archaeologists from Germany, Turkey and the United Kingdom who will return to the site in early April for 10 more weeks of work in 110-plus-degree heat. While Matney, 46, has done archaeological work in Great Britain, Syria, Iraq, India, the United States and Israel, he gravitated to Turkey as a fresh doctoral graduate in 1994 because it enabled him to explore his first love: ancient urban centers, especially those that, once abandoned, had never been built on again. From 1994 to 1999, he co-directed a dig at Titris Hoyuk, a thriving settlement from 2600 to 2100 B.C. on a tributary of the Euphrates River in Mesopotamia.

Then a colleague mentioned an untapped archaeological site about 110 miles away at Ziyaret Tepe, formerly Tushan, an outpost on the northern border of the Assyrian empire from 900 to 600 B.C. The government was opening the area to excavations in the last years before a dam on the Tigris River flooded the area in 2003. For three seasons, Matney worked on both projects. In 2000, he concentrated his field work at Ziyaret Tepe for what he thought would be three more years. As project director, he oversees perhaps 25 archaeologists and other professionals and 30 to 100 local workers on each dig. This season's staff will include two of Matney's former students, Jim Sutter and Chelsea Jalbrzikowski. Their work is so painstaking that they have uncovered just 1 percent of the 80-acre settlement.

As nothing above ground remains — the area has been agricultural fields for centuries — they base their work on topographical maps and subsurface geophysical surveys. The team has uncovered a large mud brick building with the remnants of what Matney calls "high status goods," such as ivory fragments and furniture fittings. The team calls this building the Bronze Palace, although its exact use is unknown. Last summer, the team discovered clay tablets with cuneiform — or wedge-shaped — script in the palace. One tablet was a list of women's names. Because those were not Assyrian names, they might have been women from the local population subjugated by the conquering Assyrians or workers imported to the site.

The team has found several thousand artifacts — pottery, animal bones, tablets, bronze and iron vessels and more. Some artifacts are being cleaned, preserved and assembled into whole pieces for display in a museum 40 miles away in Diyarbakir. One of the most fascinating discoveries reflects the collapse of Ziyaret Tepe when neighboring countries invaded the Assyrian capital of Ninevah. As the supply chain in the sophisticated kingdom fell apart, so did the letter writer's ability to muster a unit of chariots. He complained he didn't have the coppersmiths, blacksmiths and others he needed to fulfill the request. "Death will come out of it," he wrote ominously. "No one (will escape). I am done."

Matney's team has four work seasons to uncover more clues to life in Tushan and why it apparently was peacefully abandoned. Delays in construction of the dam have postponed the final day of reckoning until 2013. It's even unclear now whether waters from the dam will completely submerge the site or if it will become, in essence, lakefront property. Regardless, the team's work will be done. For a permanent work permit, Matney would have to guarantee 10 years of funding. Since it costs about $250,000 a year to fund the field work and related costs of the dig, that means Matney would have to cobble together $2.5 million.

That isn't out of the question, but the weak global economy makes fundraising more challenging. Plus the weak U.S. dollar and the rising costs of doing archaeological work in Turkey are driving expenses to new heights. In 2000, Matney paid local workers $5 a day; this work season, they will receive almost $30. Matney hopes the team's work will show how everyday people lived in the frontiers of ancient Assyria — "how they got their groceries, what they made and traded, what their relationships were like with the other Iron Age peoples they encountered." The goal: to make the ancient Assyrians more accessible to students and scholars alike, he said.