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Ancient Hittite Farmers

A team of archaeologists from the United Kingdom and Germany has carried out an archaeobotanical analysis of plant remains recovered from the 3,500-year-old royal storage complex at the site of the ancient Hittite capital city of Hattusha.

During its zenith, the Hittite empire rivaled and threatened ancient Egypt.

During its zenith, the Hittite empire rivaled and threatened ancient Egypt.

Hattusha, also known as Hattusa, Hattusas or Hattush, is situated on the north-central Anatolian plateau, approximately 210 km east of Ankara, Turkey. It was established by Hattusili I, a king of the Hittite Old Kingdom, in 1650 BCE.

The site was rediscovered during the late 19th century CE, and excavations — undertaken by archaeologists from the Deutsches Archäologisches Institut — began in the 1930s.

In 1999, they unearthed a massive subterranean grain storage complex, or silo, measuring 118 m in length and 33-40 m in width.

“The total capacity of the complex was between 7,000 and 9,000 m3 — sufficient to store between 5,512 and 7,087 tons of cereal grain, which is enough to feed a population of 20,000-30,000 for one year,” University of Oxford’s Professor Amy Bogaard and colleagues wrote in their paper.

“Internally, the silo was divided into 32 individual storage chambers that were hermetically sealed and could be filled and emptied independently.”

“It was partially destroyed by fire during the early 16th century BCE, not long after its construction.”

“Upon excavation, the most spectacular feature of this discovery was that some of the silo’s chambers were full, containing hundreds of tons of intact charred cereal grain.”

(A) Plan of Hattusha, with the silo in red; (B) plan of the silo complex, with the five excavated chambers indicated by color. Image credit: Deutsches Archäologisches Institut / Diffey et al., doi: 10.15184/aqy.2020.172.

(A) Plan of Hattusha, with the silo in red; (B) plan of the silo complex, with the five excavated chambers indicated by color. Image credit: Deutsches Archäologisches Institut / Diffey et al., doi: 10.15184/aqy.2020.172.

Professor Bogaard and her team analyzed 45 samples from the five excavated chambers of the ancient silo.

The samples contained a mixture of well-preserved cereal grains, cereal chaff, pulse and weed seeds.

“Of these groups, grains of hulled barley (Hordeum vulgare) and grains or whole spikelets of the hulled wheats, emmer (Triticum dicoccum) and einkorn (Triticum monococcum), dominated the assemblage,” the researchers wrote.

“Hulled barley was the most frequently identified cereal, a preference that may be attributed to the drought tolerance of this species.”

“The predominance of cereal grains throughout the assemblage accords with use of the silo as a storage depot for taxed produce.”

The scientists were also surprised to find the large quantity of weed seeds within every sample. Of the 100 species identified, 17 were found in over 50% of samples, and seven were found in over 80% of samples.

“Frequently occurring species include wild bishop (Bifora radians), corn buttercup (Ranunculus arvensis) and cow herb (Vaccaria pyramidata), all of which are native to the central Anatolian plateau and associated with modern arable agriculture,” they wrote.

“Other plant species identified from the silo include potential cultivars: free-threshing wheat (Triticum aestivum/durum), bitter vetch (Vicia ervilia), lentil (Lens culinaris), grass pea (Lathyrus sativus/cicera) and a variety of small-seeded broad bean (Vicia faba var. minuta).”

Carbonized crop and weed material from Hattusha’s silo complex: (A) spikelets and grains of hulled wheats, and associated weed seeds; (B) hulled barley grain; (C) seeds of corn buttercup; (D) seeds of wild bishop. Image credit: R. Neef / Diffey et al., doi: 10.15184/aqy.2020.172.

Carbonized crop and weed material from Hattusha’s silo complex: (A) spikelets and grains of hulled wheats, and associated weed seeds; (B) hulled barley grain; (C) seeds of corn buttercup; (D) seeds of wild bishop. Image credit: R. Neef / Diffey et al., doi: 10.15184/aqy.2020.172.

The team’s findings revealed a detailed snapshot of Hittite agriculture in the early 16th century BCE.

“Hittite farmers fulfilled their tax obligations by engaging in low-input production of cereals that provided reasonable yields even under marginal growing conditions,” the authors wrote.

“The separation of results by silo chamber, however, has also highlighted the level of variation that existed within this relatively extensive system, and has revealed the existence of multiple, distinct farming regimes.”

“This range of crop-husbandry regimes, as denoted by crop stable isotope analysis and functional ecological analysis of associated weed flora, indicates appreciable agroecological variability, suggesting that some farmers had access to better watered soils and supplies of manure, as well as animal and human labor.”

“Crops from the silo appear to have had distinct origins, demonstrating that the royal administration was able to tax the production of a varied agricultural economy across its rural hinterland,” they added.

“The detailed reconstruction of Hittite agroecology suggests that large-scale, extensive cereal production was a key state-sponsored economic strategy, with implications for the promotion of land-based wealth inequality and the territorial expansionism of many ancient states.”

The results were published in the journal Antiquity.

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Charlotte Diffey et al. 2020. The agroecology of an early state: new results from Hattusha. Antiquity 94 (377): 1204-1223; doi: 10.15184/aqy.2020.172

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