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In theory, archaeologists set out on their digs with specific goals in mind. They want to find out when a site was occupied and what people were doing at that time. They also want to know the bigger picture: how did people at the site they are digging interact with those living elsewhere?
In practice this does not always mean that they know what they will unearth.  In that regard, I have often compared archaeology to fishing; people tend to go where they think they will catch (or, in the case of archaeologists, find) something.  The discovery described below is a good example of this.

Creative Commons License photo credit: procsilas

Cambridge University  professor John MacGinnis recently commented on one of his finds, a small clay tablet with cuneiform writing on it. The tablet, which dates back to the final years of the Assyrian Empire, was found at the site of Tushan in Southeast Turkey. This site is known today as Ziyaret Tepe; several archaeological teams have undertaken excavations there.

 The tablet contains a message written by an Assyrian army commander facing imminent danger from invading Babylonian forces.  His message is a raw plea for help. “Death will come out of it! No one will escape! I am done!” 
What is this all about?
The year is 630 BC and Tushan, considered to have been the administrative capital of the northern province of the Assyrian Empire, is threatened by the Babylonians. From the brief cuneiform text, it appears that the citizens knew all too well this was happening. Many fled, among those specialists in weapons manufacturing. This is what caused the commander to lament: “Nobody mentioned in this letter, not one of them is here! How can I command?”  His premonitions proved to be correct: the city fell.

Assyrian door gaurd
Creative Commons License photo credit: glyn_nelson

Yet the Assyrians had had a great run for a long time. Centered on the capital city of Ashur (Assur), located on the west bank of the river Tigris in northern Mesopotamia, the Empire’s roots date back to 1800 BC. Its zenith occurred during the 13th century BC, during the reign of king Tukulti-Ninurta I (1244–1208 B.C.). As with all empires, decline eventually set in and by the time we reach 630 BC, the Assyrian Empire was but a shadow of its former self.  The Babylonians were systematically conquering them.

Through this tablet, we get a glimpse of what people experienced at that time. Archaeologists  value this highly: when we read history, we often forget that real people were part of these events and that to them these developments were more than just of academic interest. To me, this cry for help still packs a punch, even after more than two and a half millennia have gone by.

Looking Back…

In case you were wondering about notable science events that happened the week of June 13th…

This round is on the house! On June 14th of 1789 the Reverend Elijah Craig used his distillery to age corn whiskey in charred oak barrels, successfully making Bourbon. Reverend Craig named the new liquor after his home county, Bourboun County, Kentucky. On a related note, Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith founded Alcholics Anonymous on June 10th, 1935.

Red Strip
Creative Commons License photo credit: steelight

Does anybody really know what time it is? On June 15th, 763 B.C. the ancient culture known as the Assyrians recorded a solar eclipse. Using modern technology astronomers can calculate the exact day the eclipse happened. Using this date historians can calculate the time of other events that the Assyrians and other cultures wrote about.

On June 15th, 1667, Dr. Jean Baptiste Denys attempted the first human blood transfusion. After several doctors had drained a 15 year old boy with fever of blood, Dr. Denys tried a transfusion using nine ounces of lamb’s blood. The attempt was unsuccessful.

rayo 3
Creative Commons License photo credit: El Garza

On June 15th, 1752, Benjamin Franklin performed his famous lightening experiment. Using a kite, a key, and a silk thread, Franklin proved that lightening was electric. However, Franklin was not the first scientist to try this experiment. The French scientist Thomas-Francois Dalibard conducted a similar test just a few weeks before.

The first Father’s day was celerated on June 19th, 1910, in Spokane, Washington. It was started by Sonara Smart Dodd, whose father was a single parent of six. Historians believe she was also inspired by Anna Jarvis, who had started the tradition of Mother’s Day just three years before.