Taking the tablets

May 19, 1995

Paul Bompard reports on the most amazing archaeological discovery since the second world war, the lost city of Ebla.

In 1962 a 22-year-old graduate student from Rome University might have been observed gazing across the red sands of northern Syria towards a curious pattern of hillocks rising up from the level ground. Paolo Matthiae returned to Rome and persuaded his university's department of archaeology to back an expedition. In 1964 he was once more in Syria, this time as head of an archaeological mission. Soon afterwards, in the hilly area today known as Toll Mardikh, he brushed away the soil of millennia and saw the first traces of what was to prove one of the most extraordinary archaeological revelations of the century: the ancient, lost city of Ebla.

Today, after three decades working at Ebla and as head of the archaeology department of Rome's La Sapienza University, he is curator of an exhibition which for the first time presents to Europe a comprehensive overview of what is considered the most amazing archaeological discovery since the second world war. The exhibition, which will be in the Palazzo Venezia until June 30 and will then begin a long tour of Europe and North America, includes more than 600 archaeological items.

Thirty years of painstaking research have revealed an ancient civilisation, the oldest Semitic language yet known, the oldest "secondary'' urban society discovered to date, and the oldest example of a political treaty between kingdoms. "In this century there have been amazing archaeological triumphs,'' explained Professor Matthiae. "Egypt, for instance, has given us fantastic treasures. But nothing compares with Ebla for the rich and detailed account of what everyday life was like in a lost civilisation 4,500 years ago. And after 30 years in which Ebla has given us untold wealth in knowledge and artefacts, we have still only excavated 10 per cent of the 60 hectares of the site of the ancient city.

"The discovery of the lost city of Ebla,'' according to Matthiae, "has forced the world's archaeologists to largely rethink their vision of that part of the world. When we arrived in 1964 it was generally believed that nothing of much archaeological interest was to be found there. Today we know that Ebla was the capital of a civilisation at least 4,500 years old. In 1975 we found 17,000 cuneiform tablets in what is the oldest known Semitic language, pre-dating old Akkadian by a few decades and ancient Hebrew by more than 1,000 years. We have also found beautifully crafted artefacts of all kinds. Among those presumably made in Ebla itself, also some which were probably gifts from Pepi I, the third Pharaoh of the sixth Egyptian dynasty, suggesting both political and commercial relations."

The tablets, found in the remains of the royal palace of Ebla, are the key with which Professor Matthiae and his fellow archaeologists unlocked the history of this once-great city.

"Most of the texts were about trade and administration. Accounts of goods bought and sold, deliveries of various commodities and raw materials, payments for goods and services, even a list of the employees of the royal administration of Ebla,'' explained Matthiae. "But possibly the most impressive discoveries were a bilingual dictionary of 1,500 words of the Sumerian and Eblaite languages and a copy of a political treaty between Ebla and the city of Abarsal. The treaty sets down trade agreements, rules of commercial conduct, the application of criminal law regarding citizens of one city committing crimes in the other city and a list of which towns came under the political sphere of influence of which city. This is, to our knowledge, the earliest political treaty in the history of humanity."

While the field work used traditional techniques, Matthiae's team decided to apply computers to the texts found on the tablets. The basic problem was giving a chronological order to the 17,000 tablets, which was essential to give a clear view of Ebla's history. The archaeologists found that names and places recurred in many different tablets. There would be a record of shipments of a certain commodity to a Mr X in a certain town. In other tablets similar shipments would be noted as sent to the same town, but to another name. The logical conclusion was the Mr X had died and had been replaced by someone else.

"By feeding thousands of different names, places and types of trade into the computer and cross-referring them,'' said Matthiae, "we finally managed to give a precise or approximate date to most of the tablets.

"This is how we know that Ebla controlled a vast amount of trade in the region, possibly bordering on a virtual monopoly, in particular in the commerce of copper and tin, essential for making bronze. From the tablets we know, for instance, that at one point the royal administration alone had 11,700 employees. The tablets even tell us how much each was paid.

"The years before its destruction around 2300bc show steady economic growth. This could well explain why the legendary King Sargon of the city of Akkad, in Mesopotamia, who by all accounts was less of an entrepreneur but much more of a military man than the Eblan monarchs, decided to attack and destroy the city."

Many of Ebla's inhabitants fled and for hundreds of years Ebla came under the domination of neighbouring cities. But after a few centuries building began again, and between 2000 and 1600bc the city flourished once more. There was a great deal of building of temples and palaces and, perhaps after the experience of its destruction by Sargon, a defensive fortification of earthworks topped by a wall was constructed around the city.

Evidently this was not enough, because around 1600bc an army of Hittites led by Mursilis I destroyed Ebla a second time and the city faded into oblivion.

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