early four decades ago, in the Khabur River basin of northeastern Syria, Yale archaeologist Harvey Weiss
uncovered a buried city that over the ensuing years would reveal important new insights
into ancient Mesopotamia and the origins of civilization.
Beginning in 1979, Weiss’s excavation of the site known as Tell Leilan yielded ancient monumental temples containing cuneiform clay tablets kept by the rulers of the city, and more recently a 4,200-year-old palace, once a key center for the lost Akkadian empire. Within these mud-brick buildings researchers also retrieved carbonized grains and animal bones, traces of daily life that offered a glimpse of how this ancient civilization fed itself — and, as Weiss has long argued, evidence of the surprising role of climate change in its ultimate collapse.
While the archaeological site is now effectively closed to researchers, a casualty of Syria’s bloody civil war, Tell Leilan is still giving up its secrets.
In a new paper published in the journal Nature Plants
and co-authored by Weiss, a team of researchers applied new technologies to plant-based remnants collected at Tell Leilan and other sites to show how agricultural practices in northern Mesopotamia were adapted to feed growing urban centers.