Rocking the Cradle of Civilization; a ROM Archaeologist Is Unearthing the Story of One of the Earliest Cities in the Ancient near East

Article excerpt

ROM archaeologist Clemens Reichel's choice of career was decided, quite literally, by the flip of a coin--prehistory of the Roman provinces? Or the Near East? The coin said Near East. Reichel's mother was initially less than excited about archaeology, although she had taken Clemens to Rome as a boy, where he was fascinated not just by the architecture of the Forum, but by the piles of dirt--archaeological layers yet to be dug up.

He dutifully signed up for theoretical physics as a back-up plan. But in his first archaeology class, the Freiburg, Germany, native was instantly seduced by the "foreign magnificence" of the names of Babylonian and Assyrian kings. For the last 10 years, Reichel, who came to the ROM from the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute, has been digging at Hamoukar, a large site in northeastern Syria (and his mother is now very proud). As the project's director, he oversees 100 workers each field season, excavating the remains of a surprising discovery: one of the earliest cities in the ancient Near East dating to between 4000 and 3500 BCE. The site challenges the long-held opinion that the earliest cities were those of southern Mesopotamia (now southern Iraq).

Finding clues to solve mysteries is a critical skill in the field, and Reichel sifts through artifacts and potsherds, trying to decipher exactly how this city operated. Thousands of stamp seals tell him that two of the buildings were administrative centres. "Bureaucracy as we know it was around long before computers, before paper, even before writing," he says. The artistry and technology on the stamp seals are surprisingly advanced, showing design concepts not elsewhere in evidence for another 3,000 years.

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But these discoveries raised a larger question: why did this large urban centre arise here, far from any known river? Reichel's conclusion? That the site was an industrial base--"an ancient Pittsburgh," rich in raw materials. …