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Heaps of Bronze-Age grain retrieved from an enormous subterranean silo show the long reach of the tax collector, even 3,000 years ago.

Archaeologists discovered the silo in 1999 at Hattusha, in what is now Turkey. Founded in roughly 1650 BC, Hattusha was the capital of the Hittite empire, which grew into a superpower that rivalled the kingdom of Egypt. The silo covered an area that was roughly the size of a football pitch and, when discovered, held hundreds of tonnes of intact grain (below) in layers more than one metre thick.

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Carbonised crop and weed material from the silo complex.

Carbonised crop and weed material from the silo complex.

Carbonized remnants found in a burnt silo from the Bronze Age include, clockwise from upper left, wheat kernels mixed with weed seeds; barley; and two types of weed seed.Credit: C. Diffey et al./Antiquity

Amy Bogaard at the University of Oxford, UK, and her colleagues examined the wheat and barley in 5 of the silo’s 32 chambers. The intermixed weed seeds and the chemical profiles of the grains suggest that each chamber held cereals from a separate farming community, or perhaps multiple communities.

The authors say the silo contained grain collected as tax from people living across Hittite lands, and was a symbol of the Hittite king’s wealth — until fire devastated the structure shortly after its construction, leading the regime to abandon the wreckage.