It’s sharper than a scalpel, paved the way for one of the world’s earliest empires - and is now at the heart of pioneering research. Rachael Clegg talks to Dr Ellery Frahm about his discoveries.
DR ELLERY Frahm is on a mission. It’s a mission that involves a much-coveted natural material, Middle Eastern conflict, and world-leading research on the development of the globe’s very first civilisation.
Indiana Jones, eat your heart out. Ellery, aged 35, is an archaeologist from The University of Sheffield, and embarked on a trip to the Middle East that changed his understanding of human history.
His team’s research took them to Syria, where they found objects made from ‘obsidian’ - a naturally-occurring, blackish-coloured, volcanic glass that is sharper than a surgeon’s scalpel.
So sharp is this material that it was used as a tool in large-scale agriculture in what was then ancient Mesopotamia. This, in turn, allowed populations to grow - and civilisation, as we know it, to develop.
“It was at that time, 2600BC, that societies were expanding,” says Ellery. “They were reaching a new level of complexity and states were starting to form in Southern Mesopotamia, which is now Iraq, and Northern Mesopotamia, which is now Syria.”
The glass objects are evidence of the very first trade networks that helped to define and develop the first civilisation - the Akkadian empire.
The dates of this glass - which would have been transported up to 1,000km - are from the height of the Akkadian empire.
“This is effectively the start of ancient globalisation, and this is material evidence that these states were trading with other parts of the world,” says Ellery.
The type of obsidian the objects were made from presented Ellery - from Broomhill - with a conundrum. Up to now, the last 50 years’ worth of research into obsidian suggested this type of glass shouldn’t be where Ellery found it - in Tell Mozan, Syria, near the Iraqi Turkish border.
No-one believed the ancient civilisations there had the means or knowledge to transport a material from central Turkey to modern day Syria. But they did.
And, better still, these unexpected objects were found at the site of a royal palace.
“They could have been presented as a gift or as a manifestation of a new ruler’s decision to establish authority in the area by surrounding themselves with symbols of status,” says Ellery.
“This is a rare, if not unique, discovery in Northern Mesopotamia that enables new insights into changing Bronze Age economics and geopolitics. We can identify where an obsidian artefact originated because each volcanic source has a distinctive ‘fingerprint’.
“This is why obsidian sourcing is a powerful means of reconstructing past trade routes, social boundaries, and other information that allows us to engage in major social science debates.”
But the importance of obsidian is underrated.
“Obsidian is overlooked as a material for a tool in times when there are metals,” said Ellery. But his findings haven’t just highlighted the importance of one of ancient civilisation’s most important materials - they’ve also made him realise how inaccurate our perceptions of Syria are.
“I went to Syria after the US called Syria part of the ‘Axis of Evil’, and I only had positive experiences there! The degree of hospitality I encountered was extraordinary. Perfect strangers took me into their homes , I was welcomed, fed, offered a shower and change of clothes, introduced to family and friends, and shown around town. Family members argued over whose house had the better accommodation for me to spend the night.”
But conflict in Syria has had an effect on his career.
“It’s an extraordinary place,” he says, “but work has basically stopped there because of what’s happening.
“Archaeologists with ongoing projects and excavations - some lasting decades - are unable to return for the foreseeable future.
“The current situation in Syria is tragic and precarious. Because of both professional and personal interests, I follow developments in Syria closely.
“It can be so overwhelming and heartbreaking that I have to take a break from it - unlike the people who are living through the fighting.
“Whatever the future holds, there will be a lot of work to do there, both humanitarian and archaeological, and I’m very much interested in the interfaces between them.”
Ellery’s keen to go back to Syria as soon as he can.
“It’s an extraordinary place,” he says. “But our thoughts and concerns are, first and foremost, for our Syrian friends and their families.
“The sites are important - if they weren’t, we wouldn’t devote so much to their study - but they’re not people.”