Aslıhan Yener did not expect to challenge one of the tenets of academic archeology some nine years ago when she hiked into Turkey's Taurus Mountains in search of Bronze Age mines.
As a graduate student in archeology at Columbia University, Yener was attempting to map the metals trade between Bronze Age Turkey and Iraq by analyzing ores from ancient sites in Anatolia. Traditional teachings claimed that there was no source of tin in Turkey and that the metal, used with copper to forge bronze tools and artifacts - and thus Bronze Age civilization itself - was imported by Assyrian traders who brought it from the distant Hindu Kush of Afghanistan.
Yet Yener found traces of tin and natural bronze in her first field trips, and she questioned the Assyrians' claim that they were the sole suppliers of tin to Anatolia. She set out in 1983 to uncover a source of tin ore that could support her own theory: that the critical Bronze Age metal had been mined in Turkey, and not exclusively imported.
At the same time, she knew, such a find could change the perception of Turkey's role in history. The prospect pleased the 44-year-old Turkish-born archeologist, since 1988 a research collaborator at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. Because Bronze Age Anatolian civilizations left few written records to challenge the Assyrian accounts, "there would be poetic justice in discovering that tin had been mined in Anatolia," she says.
Yener was well prepared for her search. Her solid background of study and research includes degrees from Istanbul's Bogazigi University and from Columbia, teaching experience at Bogazici, and impressive awards that include a Getty grant and a postdoctoral fellowship with the Metropolitan Museum or Art.
In pursuit of information that others in the field did not believe existed, Yener traveled a long road through exhilarating discoveries and harsh disappointments. Skeptics labeled her first find too insignificant to be accepted as proof of her theory. Undaunted, Yener obtained further funding for her project, organized an international team of archeologists and, in 1990, discovered and excavated a substantial Bronze Age mining city, partly underground, high in the Taurus Mountains of Anatolia.
Her most compelling find at the site was tin-mining crucibles, which she feels will persuade even the most skeptical critics of her theory. Bubbles in the crucibles were found to contain tin in high concentrations, showing indisputably that the metal was not only mined at the site, but also processed there.
But the find has weightier implications. "In the Bronze Age, tin was very much in importance like oil is to us today," she explains. It follows, she says, that a tin-mining society could have parlayed its supplies into substantial economic influence. "So, this becomes more than just a sterile search for sources."
Yener was not the first archeologist to set out on the trail of tin in Turkey, but she was the first to persist and find it. "I like to finish something thoroughly," she says simply of her single-minded dedication to her goal.
Yener appears characteristically unfazed by those who continue to doubt her findings. "I have a whole army of skeptics who are attempting to debunk the findings, but archeologists are a contentious lot," she says. "When the crucible findings are published, the savage breasts will be soothed."
Lynne Jobe free-lances from Houston, often on technical subjects.