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New discoveries in an old collection. Archaeologists can learn as much by applying modern techniques to items discovered long ago as they can from new finds, according to Christine Bedore and Chris Dixon, Ph.D. candidates in the CAS department of archaeology. In their case, a metallurgical analysis of artifacts excavated in the 1920s is causing archaeologists to reevaluate the entire timeline of a Late Bronze Age site in the Near East called Nuzi.

From about 1500 to 1350 b.c.e., Nuzi was located on the outskirts of the Kingdom of Mitannia, a major power in northern Mesopotamia. Bronze, an alloy of copper mixed with tin or arsenic, was the chief metal of the day, appearing in both weapons and jewelry. "Bronze Age metallurgy is still the subject of disagreement," says Bedore. "One new discovery we made is that in contrast to the established idea that Nuzi arrowheads were cast from simple molds, they actually had been worked in a complex and labor-intensive process."

More important, the team found that some Nuzi jewelry was made from a different copper alloy altogether -- brass. "Finding brass at Nuzi is incredibly important," explains Dixon. "It's generally thought that brass wasn't regularly produced until the first millennium b.c.e. Our results push the history of brass-making back a thousand years."

Redating an archaeological discovery has a ripple effect, according to Associate Professor of Archaeology Julie Hansen. "It forces us to reevaluate many things about this time," she says. "Brass-making was a technological leap for the Nuzi, and it causes us to look at other aspects of their society much more carefully."

Hansen gives an example of this ripple effect: brass is an alloy of copper and zinc, and the use of zinc raises questions. "We don't know where they got zinc. If they traded for it, that would obviously affect their interactions with other societies of their era. This is the start of a very exciting investigation."

"Research Briefs" is written by Joan Schwartz in the Office of the Provost. To read more about BU research, visit


15 May 2003
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