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Messages from the Dead Volume 60 Number 1, January/February 2007
by Marco Merola

Tablets fired in the crucible of a burning city reveal the last days of a Bronze Age kingdom.

Among the ruins of Qatna's royal palace, archaeologists found a collection of tablets that documents military correspondence between the king of Qatna and other local rulers. (©Pasquale Sorrentino) The multinational team also found an undisturbed set of burial chambers. (©Konrad Wita)

Inscribed on the small, pillow-shaped tablet is a 3,000-year-old warning to Idanda, king of Qatna, from the Hittite general Hanutti, telling him to prepare for war. A small Bronze Age Syrian city-state, Qatna was once under Hittite control, but had been conquered by the Mitanni people from the north. The clay tablet, like others found with it, was fired twice--once just after it was written, to preserve it, and again when the ancient city was sacked and burned to the ground in 1340 B.C. by the Hittites, who ruled an empire that stretched from northern Turkey to Mesopotamia and Syria.

According to scholars still translating and studying it, the letter is full of anxiety and pathos. "Reading that letter today still makes you shiver," says archaeologist Daniele Morandi Bonacossi of the University of Udine in Italy. Bonacossi is part of a multinational team that excavated the remains of the royal palace of Qatna, where they found intact burial chambers and, in a stone corridor leading to the tombs, a collection of 73 tablets describing the royal life and business of one of the wealthiest and most famous cities in Middle and Late Bronze Age (2000 to 1200 B.C.) Syria. The tablets are inscribed in script that is a hybrid of Akkadian, a Mesopotamian language, and Hurrian, which was probably the original language of what is today eastern Turkey and the Caucasus. They betray--especially in the diplomatic messages from other minor Syrian kings to Idanda--the moods, fears, and hopes of a people anticipating their own end.

In the dawn light, Qatna today is a study in stillness, forgotten by all but the archaeologists. But one can easily imagine the bustling city, once a productive center of pottery manufacture and a key trading center, as well as its heated, violent end. Amid the fragments of walls, a royal palace takes shape. Then, just as quickly, it catches fire.

Marco Merola is ARCHAEOLOGY's Naples correspondent.

© 2007 by the Archaeological Institute of America