Possibly inhabited continuously from the Chalcolithic to Roman times, the city of Kanesh (or Kaneš) was located in what now constitutes the Kayseri province in central Turkey. And while the settlement thrived under both the Hurrians and Hittites, a significant portion of its ruins pertains to the large kārum (merchant colony) of the Old Assyrian Empire, dating from circa 21st to 18th century BC. And it is this period of history that has once again come back under focus, by virtue of the recent analysis of 4,000-year old clay tablets. Inscribed in cuneiform script by Bronze Age merchants, the deciphered artifacts inadvertently also provide clues to the location of 26 ancient Assyrian cities, 11 of which are now lost to the rigors of time.
The researchers, comprising Harvard University lecturer Gojko Barjamovic and three economists, were painstakingly able to decipher over 1,200 clay tablet from the region. Now objectively, these cuneiform-inscribed objects documented business and shipment transactions, along with personal contracts, including marriage certificates. However, the researchers were successful in formulating an analytical system that determined the names and locations of the settlements that were gleaned from many such trade shipments.
It should be noted that the Assyrian tablets do not actually confirm the exact coordinates of the cities, lost or known. But based on the logic and data of land-traveled trade distance and how cities in proximity used to trade more frequently, Barjamovic was able to establish a ‘map’ signifying such ancient networks. Dubbed as the ‘structural gravity model’, this analytical system provides an approximation of the location of aforementioned 26 cities, including the 11 ones that are lost to historians.
Interestingly enough, their quantitative model was compared and matched with the various hypotheses regarding the lost cities, and the majority of the results tended to favor existing conjectures. As the researchers wrote –
For a majority of the lost cities, our quantitative estimates come remarkably close to the qualitative conjectures produced by historians, corroborating both such historical models and our purely quantitative method. Moreover, in some cases where historians disagree on the likely location of a lost city, our quantitative method supports the conjecture of some historians and rejects that of others.
The study was originally published as a working paper in the National Bureau of Economic Research.