About this Project

2015 – 2018

For over 100 years, economists at the University of Chicago worked in close proximity to archaeologists and ancient historians, but they rarely worked together. That began to change with the Economic Analysis of Ancient Trade project (2015–2018).

The first step toward this collaboration took the form of the two-year Working Group on Comparative Economics project at the Neubauer Collegium. Researchers from the Booth School of Business and the Departments of Classics, History, Sociology, Economics, and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations found common ground by considering how modern concepts of the managerial firm and bound labor might apply to the investigation of ancient markets. An important highlight from that project was a discussion with the economic historian Avner Greif, who shared insights he gained using Transaction Cost Theory and game theory to compare the dynamics of medieval trade in Muslim North Africa and Europe.

The Economic Analysis of Ancient Trade project built on the ideas and close intellectual relationships that the working group forged. The project brought the tools and methods of economics together with the textual and area expertise of historians working on the ancient world to deepen our understanding of the Old Assyrian trading system of the nineteenth century BCE, the earliest documented case of profit-oriented long-distance trade conducted by mercantile entrepreneurs. The researchers focused on a large body of cuneiform tablets that detail long-distance trade along caravan routes that spanned northern Iraq and central Turkey, connecting ancient Assyria and Cappadocia.

Scholars have long debated whether this kind of entrepreneurial, profit-oriented trade was the norm or an exception in ancient times. The Economic Analysis of Ancient Trade project was the first attempt to use a comprehensive, interdisciplinary set of ideas and methods to study the actual mechanisms and dynamics of the trade process. Members of the research team extracted new information from texts and tested the soundness of theoretically derived market models by applying techniques from economic anthropology, New Institutional Economics, game theory, and network analysis. The project developed a collaborative methodology that allows specialists in the ancient world to ask new questions of their evidence. It also offers mathematically oriented economists an empirical testing ground to gauge the veracity of their working models.

The project brought together an unusual mix of scholars in an inaugural workshop to think through the problem of how the various economic models could speak to each other. The project staff then built the evidence base by digitizing thousands of Old Assyrian cuneiform texts using OCHRE, an innovative computational platform developed at the University of Chicago. OCHRE makes possible complex analyses of information from ancient sources, which are then aggregated for statistical analysis that is shaped by specific research questions. Software specialists continually tweaked and improved the methods to strengthen the analysis. Data specialists shared early results with researchers, working together to identify any problems with the approach. Economists presented preliminary research findings to experts on the region and period, and they received valuable feedback.

These early encounters confirmed the need for continuous software innovations throughout the digitization process. The end result was a refined technique that served the team well and will benefit other researchers on later projects. At the same time, the core group of economists integrated the new data into their ongoing analyses of these ancient markets and continued to present their findings to other economists. Kerem Coşar was able to infer the location of ancient cities otherwise lost from the historical record by using a structural gravitational model of trade—a powerful example of the value of this sort of complex interdisciplinary approach.

This example of “lost cities found” is an early indicator of how important the project may turn out to be. The model Coşar used revealed important information about the economic landscapes of the Bronze Age—where people chose to live, what they produced, and how they traded. But it also has immediate relevance to economists and policymakers, who analyze the same processes to shape policy. The models developed and refined through the Economic Analysis of Ancient Trade project did not merely improve our understanding of the drivers and mechanisms that governed Old Assyrian trade—though that is, in itself, an important result. Using the past to improve the efficacy of economic modeling for the present, the project presents an opportunity for direct positive impact. Knowledge generated in relation to trade that occurred thousands of years ago may help improve the economic policies of the twenty-first century.

Image: Map of Anatolia, circa 1880 BC (cartography by Ivan d’Hostingue and Gojko Barjamovic, in Gojko Barjamovic, A Historical Geography of Anatolia in the Old Assyrian Colony Period (Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, 2011).


Ancient Data, Modern Math and the Hunt for 11 Lost Cities of the Bronze Age

November 13, 2017

The Washington Post reports on new findings by the research team on the Neubauer Collegium Economic Analysis of Ancient Trade project.

Project Updates

Recent Publications

The Making of the Ancient Greek Economy: Institutions, Markets, and Growth in the City-States
In this English-language translation of his acclaimed work, Alain Bresson offers a new theoretical framework for studying the economy of ancient Greece.


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