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Economists Develop Model to Look for Ancient Cities

Friday, November 17, 2017

CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS—According to a Washington Post report, historian Gojko Barjamovic and an international team of economists created an algorithm to process quantitative trade data recorded on more than 12,000 cuneiform texts written by Assyrian merchants some 4,000 years ago. The texts contained prices, population sizes, and data on cargo shipments among 26 ancient cities. Only the locations of 15 of those cities are known. The other 11 remain lost. Assuming that traders sent goods more often to cities that were closer to home, the researchers were able to estimate the distances between trade partners, and therefore estimate the locations of the 11 lost cities. They then checked their guesses against those of other historians, who had based their work upon descriptions of the landscape, or records of distances and directions. In most of the cases, the researchers concluded, their quantitative estimates were close to the sites suggested by historians. When historians disagreed on a possible location, the researchers found that the mathematical model could offer additional evidence. The team also checked their estimates against the locations of three known ancient cities, and found they were correct just twice. The third city was farther from the center of the Assyrian trade network, making the tool less precise, they explained. To read in-depth about cuneiform tablets, go to “The World's Oldest Writing.”

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