Road Map: Thousands of Ancient Assyrian Tablets Reveal Clues to Locations of Lost Cities

Scientists have proposed a way to use 4,000-year-old cuneiform tablets as a map to the world’s ancient lost cities.

More than 20,000 Assyrian clay tablets from the Bronze Age have been recovered in what we know today as Turkey, describing the economy and daily lives of Assyrian merchants at the time, including shipping expenses, trade contracts, and so forth. Three economists and a historian analyzed them and found not just a “flourishing market economy, based on free enterprise and private initiative, profit-seeking and risk-taking merchants,” but a road map to 11 ancient cities. They presented the findings in a new working paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research

As the authors explain in the paper, large metropolitan cities tend to crop up organically along existing trade routes. By extrapolating day-to-day itineraries of Assyria’s merchants, the researchers teased out a portrait of the networks between more than two dozen major cities of the time, 11 of which haven’t yet been located. Since cities are more likely to trade frequently with the cities they’re closest to, these 4,000-year-old receipts make for extremely promising clues about just where those 11 lost cities might be. We might be able to find them using algorithms based on the cuneiform data. The authors have already tested their model on known locations, concluding that while for peripheral cities it may be inaccurate, it’s consistently held up when applied to central cities.

50795992 An Archaemenian clay tablet, in the Elamite scripts, which were written in cuneiform writing, is shown at Iran's National Museum in Tehran, on May 1, 2004. BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images

“In a rare example of collaboration across disciplines, we use a theory-based quantitative method from economics to inform this quest in the field of history,” the authors wrote in the paper. “The structural gravity model delivers estimates for the coordinates of the lost cities. For a majority of cases, our quantitative estimates are remarkably close to qualitative proposals made by historians. In some cases where historians disagree on the likely site of lost cities, our quantitative method supports the suggestions of some historians and rejects that of others.”

They’ve also already given their best guesses as to the locations of the 11 lost cities, and hope that their work will be a valuable tool in future research expeditions.

“In four cases…our gravity estimates for the location of lost cities are extremely close to the conjecture of at least one of the two historians,” the authors wrote. “We view these cases where our structural gravity estimates agree with at least one historian’s proposal as an endorsement that the true location of those cities is indeed at or very near those sites…those converging views are unlikely to be coincidental.”

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