Unraveling the Secrets of Earth’s Magnetic Field: Insights from Ancient Mesopotamian Bricks

by Manuel Costa

An ancient brick, dating back to the reign of King Nebuchadnezzar II (circa 604 to 562 BCE), was found with an inscription that helped identify its age. This artifact, initially taken from its original location, is now housed in the Slemani Museum, thanks to an agreement with the central government. The museum provided an image of the brick, credited to the Slemani Museum.

Recent research has employed bricks from ancient Mesopotamia to study shifts in the Earth’s magnetic field that occurred around 3,000 years ago. This method, known as archaeomagnetism, offers a refined technique for dating historical objects and understanding the historical variances in the magnetic field.

A groundbreaking study, which includes contributions from researchers at UCL, has used bricks bearing the names of Mesopotamian monarchs to investigate a peculiar anomaly in the Earth’s magnetic field from 3,000 years ago. Published on December 18 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), the study details how the Earth’s magnetic field influenced the iron oxide particles in these ancient clay bricks, allowing scientists to reconstruct past magnetic field changes.

Archaeomagnetic Dating: A Novel Tool for Chronology

The research team is optimistic that this new method, archaeomagnetism, which detects Earth’s magnetic field in archaeological objects, can enhance the understanding of the magnetic field’s history and assist in accurately dating artifacts that were previously difficult to date.

Professor Mark Altaweel of the UCL Institute of Archaeology commented: “Radiocarbon dating is a common method for establishing chronology in ancient Mesopotamia. However, it is challenging to date bricks and ceramics, which are frequent cultural artifacts, as they lack organic material. This study provides a crucial baseline for absolute dating using archaeomagnetism.”

The Earth’s magnetic field experiences fluctuations in strength, leaving distinct imprints on thermally sensitive minerals. The team analyzed the residual magnetic signatures in iron oxide particles found in 32 clay bricks from Mesopotamian archaeological sites, now part of modern Iraq. The magnetic strength of the planet was recorded in these minerals when the bricks were originally fired thousands of years ago.

The bricks were inscribed with the names of the ruling kings at the time of their creation, which archaeologists have dated to specific periods. The combination of the inscribed names and the measured magnetic strength in the iron oxide particles provides a historical representation of the Earth’s magnetic field changes.

Revealing the Levantine Iron Age Geomagnetic Anomaly

The researchers confirmed the existence of the “Levantine Iron Age geomagnetic Anomaly,” a phase of unusually strong magnetic field around modern Iraq from about 1050 to 550 BCE, the reasons for which are unclear. This anomaly has been detected as far as China, Bulgaria, and the Azores, but there was a lack of data from the southern Middle East.

Lead author Professor Matthew Howland of Wichita State University stated: “By comparing ancient artifacts to the known ancient conditions of the magnetic field, we can estimate the dates of artifacts that were heated in ancient times.”

Advanced Techniques and Historical Significance

To analyze the iron oxide grains, the team extracted small fragments from the bricks and used a magnetometer for precise measurement.

This data, mapping Earth’s magnetic field changes, provides archaeologists with a new dating tool for ancient artifacts. The magnetic strength of the iron oxide grains within fired objects can be matched to the known historical magnetic field strengths. The reigns of kings, lasting from several years to decades, offer a more precise timeline compared to radiocarbon dating.

Additionally, this archaeomagnetic dating method helps historians pinpoint the reigns of ancient kings more accurately. While the sequence and duration of their reigns are well-established, there have been debates regarding the exact years of their ascensions due to incomplete historical records. The researchers found that their findings align with the known chronology of the kings’ reigns, known as the “Low Chronology”.

The team also noted that during Nebuchadnezzar II’s reign (604 to 562 BCE), the Earth’s magnetic field underwent significant changes over a short period, supporting the theory that rapid intensity spikes are plausible.

Reference: “Exploring geomagnetic variations in ancient Mesopotamia: Archaeomagnetic study of inscribed bricks from the 3rd–1st millennia BCE” by Matthew D. Howland, Lisa Tauxe, Shai Gordin, Mark Altaweel, Brendan Cych, and Erez Ben-Yosef, 18 December 2023, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2313361120

Co-author Professor Lisa Tauxe of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography (US) remarked: “The geomagnetic field is a deeply intriguing phenomenon in earth sciences. The well-dated archaeological remains of the rich Mesopotamian cultures, particularly bricks

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about archaeomagnetism

What is the significance of the ancient Mesopotamian bricks in recent research?

The ancient Mesopotamian bricks, dating back to the reign of Nebuchadnezzar II, are significant in recent research for studying changes in the Earth’s magnetic field around 3,000 years ago. This method, known as archaeomagnetism, provides a more accurate way to date historical artifacts and understand fluctuations in the historical magnetic field.

How does archaeomagnetic dating improve the understanding of Earth’s magnetic field?

Archaeomagnetic dating, which looks for signatures of Earth’s magnetic field in archaeological items, improves the understanding of the magnetic field’s history. It helps in accurately dating artifacts that previously couldn’t be dated easily, such as bricks and ceramics that don’t contain organic material.

What was the Levantine Iron Age Geomagnetic Anomaly?

The Levantine Iron Age geomagnetic anomaly was a period of unusually strong magnetic field around modern Iraq, lasting from about 1050 to 550 BCE. The reasons for this anomaly are unclear, but evidence of it has been detected as far away as China, Bulgaria, and the Azores.

What are the implications of the study for dating historical artifacts?

The study’s implications for dating historical artifacts are significant. By measuring the magnetic strength of iron oxide grains embedded within fired items and matching them to the known strengths of Earth’s historic magnetic field, archaeologists can date some ancient artifacts more precisely.

How does this research contribute to the historical understanding of ancient kings’ reigns?

This research contributes to a more precise understanding of the reigns of ancient kings, whose exact ascension years were previously debated due to incomplete historical records. The archaeomagnetic dating method aligns with known chronologies, helping to resolve discrepancies in historical records.

More about archaeomagnetism

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Emily Roberts December 20, 2023 - 10:32 am

This is super cool! I’ve always been interested in ancient history and this just adds another layer, who would have thought that old bricks could be so useful in understanding our planet?

Gregory Adams December 20, 2023 - 10:59 am

I think there’s a typo in the paragraph about the Levantine Iron Age Geomagnetic Anomaly – should it be ‘550 BCE’ or ‘550 CE’? But overall, great article.

Sarah O'Connell December 20, 2023 - 11:45 am

I think there might be a small mistake in the dates, isn’t Nebuchadnezzar II’s reign a bit earlier?? But overall, great article and very informative.

Mike Jansen December 20, 2023 - 1:22 pm

wow, this is really fascinating stuff, never knew bricks could tell us so much about the earth’s magnetic field, history is truly amazing!

John Smith December 20, 2023 - 7:33 pm

really interesting read, but the article could use a bit more clarity on how exactly the magnetic field affects the bricks, got a bit confused there.


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