2,900-Year-Old Neo-Assyrian Clay Brick

2,900-Year-Old Neo-Assyrian Clay Brick Offers Glimpse into Ancient Plant Life

Scientists have made a breakthrough, extracting ancient DNA from a 2,900-year-old clay brick, previously belonging to the palace of Neo-Assyrian king Ashurnasirpal II.


Unearthing secrets from the past, researchers have extracted ancient DNA from a nearly 3-millennium-old brick, showcasing a fascinating array of plant life from the Neo-Assyrian era.

Scientists have made a breakthrough, extracting ancient DNA from a 2,900-year-old clay brick, previously belonging to the palace of Neo-Assyrian king Ashurnasirpal II. Located in what is now modern-day northern Iraq, the brick finds its origins in the ancient city of Kalhu, constructed circa 879 BCE.

Decoding The Cuneiform Script

A cuneiform inscription, penned in the extinct Akkadian language, revealed the brick’s connection to “The palace of Ashurnasirpal, king of Assyria.” This inscription allowed for a precise dating between 879 BCE and 869 BCE. During a 2020 digitization project at the National Museum of Denmark, researchers delved deep into the brick’s core, minimizing risks of DNA contamination.

Using an adapted protocol originally designed for porous materials like bone, the team successfully retrieved the DNA. Their findings, now published in Scientific Reports, identified 34 plant groups. Among them, Brassicaceae (cabbage) and Ericaceae (heather) were most prevalent, along with notable sequences from birch, laurels, umbellifiers, and cultivated grasses.


A Melding of Minds

Combining the expertise of assyriologists, archaeologists, biologists, and geneticists, the research compared ancient DNA data to current botanical records and historical Assyrian plant descriptions.

Primarily crafted from Tigris river mud and reinforced with materials like straw or dung, the brick was sun-dried, a natural process aiding the preservation of trapped genetic material. “The DNA protection inside the clay mass illustrates the power of interdisciplinary collaboration in scientific discoveries,” expressed Dr. Sophie Lund Rasmussen from the University of Oxford.

A Template for Future Exploration

Beyond shedding light on one particular brick, the study offers a methodological foundation for probing other archaeological clay sources worldwide. Clay is ubiquitous in global archaeological sites and offers precise dating opportunities. Although this investigation focused on plant DNA, future endeavors might uncover other taxa, enriching our understanding of ancient biodiversity.


Dr. Troels Arbøll from the University of Oxford emphasized, “The inscribed brick stands as a biodiversity time capsule, granting unparalleled insights into ancient Assyrians.”

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Written by Ivan Petricevic

I've been writing passionately about ancient civilizations, history, alien life, and various other subjects for more than eight years. You may have seen me appear on Discovery Channel's What On Earth series, History Channel's Ancient Aliens, and Gaia's Ancient Civilizations among others.

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