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UPTON, NY - A new archaeological find may show that the ancient Mesopotamians were more advanced - and resourceful - than scientists thought.
Though they lived 4,000 years ago in a river delta with no rocks, metal ores or trees, they made their own hard surfaces by turning river silt into artificial rock, the discovery shows. To do so, they built giant furnaces that melted the silt at about 1,200 degrees Celsius, and then gradually cooled it for more than a day until it hardened into rock.
Those findings, which shed light on how ancient people made technological advances, are reported today in the journal Science by researchers from the State University of New York at Stony Brook, the U.S. Department of Energy's Brookhaven National Laboratory, the University of Pennsylvania and Alfred University.
The discovery was made by looking closely at the microscopic structure of hard slabs found at an ancient site called Mashkan-shapir, located south of modern-day Baghdad, Iraq. The Mesopotamian region, located at the intersection of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, is widely accepted to be the birthplace of civilization.
The slabs studied by the researchers were once thought to be basalt rock hauled from a source many hundreds of miles away. But upon further inspection, they showed microscopic structures that were different from natural basalt.
The researchers, led by Elizabeth Stone of Stony Brook's Anthropology Department, suspect that the Mesopotamians deliberately made the slabs for grinding grain and other uses.
The development of such advanced techniques, Stone said, would have required the ancients to conceive of melting silt into rock, then to build large furnaces that could burn at high temperatures, and experiment with approaches that would yield a consistent product.
Stone obtained samples of the "synthetic basalt" rocks on a dig in 1990 before the Gulf War restricted access to the site. Stony Brook geologist Donald Lindsley analyzed their microscopic composition. BNL chemist Garman Harbottle contributed to the study through his extensive knowledge of archaeological analysis.