On Faculty: Glenn Schwartz Heading Back to Syria to Dig Through Antiquity Emil Venere -------------------------------------- Homewood News and Information Glenn Schwartz has uncovered tantalizing gems about ancient Syria over the past decade, but many questions remain. When he returns to Syria this week, he and his colleagues will begin an archaeological survey of a mysterious place called the Jabbul Plain, a 900-square-mile region south of Syria's border with Turkey that was intersected by two major trade routes thousands of years ago. "The Jabbul is an area that has had very little work done in it so far," said Schwartz, an associate professor in the Department of Near Eastern Studies. "We have almost virgin territory to deal with, which is very exciting for an archaeologist." Scholars had thought that ancient Syria was culturally trivial, compared with the two well-known centers of complex Near Eastern society, Egypt and Mesopotamia. But archaeological findings in the 1970s shed new light on Syria, suggesting that it once contained a thriving urban vortex. Schwartz's work has provided insights into that largely mysterious locus of complex society. This summer Schwartz, who is collaborating with archaeologist Hans Curvers from the University of Amsterdam, plans to begin identifying and mapping sites that dot the sprawling Jabbul Plain. Graduate students John Nichols and Alice Petty also will work on the project. By collecting shards of broken pottery from the surface of those sites, archaeologists will be able to piece together a rough history of the once-strategic plain, located near the modern city of Aleppo in northern Syria. The region's ancient history is marked by a baffling event; its largest city, known as Tuba, ceased to exist around 4,100 years ago. For reasons as mysterious as the city's collapse, Tuba was resurrected not long afterward, again thriving for hundreds of years. To learn more about the environmental fabric of the region, Schwartz will work with Grace Brush, a professor of environmental engineering. Brush specializes in palynology, the study of pollen. She plans to take core samples from lakes in the area, collecting ancient pollen deposits to learn what types of plants were growing there at various times. That information could lead to clues about why Tuba collapsed. Scientists know that there was a major change in worldwide climate about 5,000 years ago, resulting in agricultural crises that caused many societies to decline. A good way to tell whether such climate change might have contributed to Tuba's collapse is to study any changes in the types of vegetation growing in the region at the time, Brush said. Tuba's remains are believed to be buried under the ruins of a place called Umm el-Marra, located about 25 miles east of Aleppo. Schwartz has made two expeditions to the region in as many years, spending two months each time. Last year he discovered evidence that the economic and cultural center was thriving much more recently than previously believed. Archaeologists had known that Umm el-Marra was occupied in the early and middle Bronze Ages, dating back to 2600 bce. But Schwartz and his team of archaeologists have discovered that the city also was occupied during the Late Bronze Age, 1600 to 1200 bce, a time when Syria was dominated by great empires for the first time. "Here we have an opportunity to examine what an urban center was like in this period when Syria was undergoing a kind of tug-of-war between these major empires," Schwartz said. The finding is especially important because Tuba was noted in an ancient Egyptian listing of cities that apparently were defeated or destroyed in the empire's north Syrian campaign. Adding to the intrigue, the archaeologist also found evidence that the city suffered a catastrophe early in the Late Bronze Age: many dwellings were burned, suggesting that the city was pillaged. "It might be tempting to suggest that the destruction of Umm el-Marra in the Late Bronze Age was linked to Egyptian imperialism," Schwartz said. "But I have to stress that we have no definitive evidence of this." In 1994, he made an intriguing discovery that may offer clues about ancient Syrian society when he found ruins from the Late Bronze Age that could be the remains of government-built apartments for lower-class workers. Ancient texts often refer to low-status citizens who labored for society's great institutions in return for rations. "We know a lot about the system from the texts, but we have very few, if any, archaeological reflections of this system," Schwartz said. Using physical artifacts to back up textual accounts of the distant past is not a role that many archaeologists have relished, and it's a relatively new experience for Schwartz. "Up until now I've been primarily concentrating on periods where urban civilization first begins," he said. "In those periods there isn't very much textual evidence available." But after the second millennium bce urban societies were well-established, leaving many written records--thousands of clay tablets containing cuneiform texts. That means archaeologists have competition in their efforts to define the history of that time; the artifacts unearthed in painstaking excavations of ancient sites do not represent the only reflection of those societies, since written accounts also have survived. Because many archaeologists are not well-versed in archaic languages, their view of ancient society is limited to physical artifacts. Historians, or philologists, interpret the texts, independently providing a window into the past. But, Schwartz said, he welcomes an opportunity to study the Syrian sites on both levels, since, unlike the average archaeologist, he is trained in the languages of the ancient Near East. No matter how many texts survived the millennia, however, archaeology will remain essential to the understanding of ancient society, he said. "Texts typically are produced by the urban elites, so they are written from the perspectives of urban elites," Schwartz said. The ancient written records do not provide intimate details about lower social strata--indeed, the vast majority of the people. "Archaeology has the capacity to investigate a society holistically," he said. "We can retrieve the physical remains of the lower classes as well as the upper classes and provide a view of what's going on politically, economically and socially in all levels of society."
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