Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 640:
TIN IN TURKEY

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 640.

Today, a woman finds her birthright. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Bronze is a hard, useful metal. We make it by mixing tin with copper. By 2000 BC, bronze was the metal of choice in the Middle East. So the region was doing a brisk trade in tin.

Assyrian traders wrote about that trade on clay tablets. They claimed that the only tin came from the mines of Hindu Kush -- in present-day Afghanistan. The Assyrians ridiculed the Anatolians to the North, in present-day Turkey. They have no tin and they're easy to cheat. That's what the tablets tell us. But it sounds like only one side of a story.

Enter now Turkish-born archeologist Aslihan Yener. Yener moved to New York when she was only six months old. She studied chemistry in America. Then she continued college in Istanbul. There she realized her Turkish birthright lay in the ruins of ancient Anatolia. She was drawn to them.

She also saw that her atomic-age chemistry could sort out bronze-age commerce. She began with lead. Each mine leaves its fingerprint in objects that contain lead. Each mine yields its own distinct fraction of lead isotopes.

The Anatolians didn't leave clay tablets, but isotopes speak with greater accuracy than Assyrian tablets. She reminds us that we wouldn't try to read America's commercial history in vouchers from one trucking company in Brooklyn.

At first Yener used traces of lead in silver to locate the origin of ancient treasures. That in turn sent her into the mountains above Tarsus in southern Turkey.

Old legends told about the "Silver Mountains of the Akkadians." Yener suspected those might be the Tarsus Mountains. She led a team up to 8500 feet, higher than any archeologist had ever gone. Sure enough, she found a huge complex of ancient mines.

They were mined out. No metallic ores remained. But she found traces of tin. Forget silver and lead. Yener was on to bigger game. Tin was a foundation stone of our civilization.

The trouble was, she'd found traces of tin, but she couldn't find virgin tin ore. She searched for five years before she found ore in a neighboring valley. It seems that tin ore in Turkey is the wrong color. It's burgundy instead of the usual black.

Aslihan Yener had found her birthright at last. And we gaze with her at old Anatolian bronzes. Two wild bulls have great curving horns. A comic bird adorns a percussion instrument. We see gods and beasts. They are beautiful -- far more than clay tablets. The old Turkish miners didn't tell stories. They gave us the goods. They gave us art and civilization. They gave Yener the stuff of her dreams.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Bass, T., Land of Bronze. Discover, December, 1991, pp. 62-66.


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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