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