Archaeologists dig up ancient “war zone” near Iraq border
and World Science staff
Archaeologists say they have uncovered the earliest evidence for large-scale warfare in the area of Mesopotamia, an ancient civilization in what is now Iraq.
The conflict occurred near the present-day Syrian border, the researchers say, the same border where U.S. forces are today battling to quell a flow of suspected terrorists into Iraq from Syria.
The archaeologists said a huge battle destroyed one of the Mesopotamia’s earliest cities at around 3500 B.C. The conflict left behind, preserved in their places, artifacts from daily life in an urban settlement in upper Mesopotamia, according to researchers from the University of Chicago and the Department of Antiquities in Syria.
“The whole area of our most recent excavation was a war zone,” said the university’s Clemens Reichel, who co-directed a team that spent October and November at the site.
The excavations took place at Hamoukar, an ancient site in extreme northeastern Syria near the Iraqi border.
The archaeologists said they found extensive destruction with collapsed walls, which had taken heavy bombardment from bullets hurled by slings, and eventually collapsed in a fire. Earlier digs had found a 10-foot high mud-brick wall had protected the settlement.
The excavators said they retrieved more than 1,200 smaller, oval-shaped bullets about an inch long and an inch and a half wide, and some 120 larger round clay balls, the size of tennis balls or slightly bigger. “This clearly was no minor skirmish. This was ‘Shock and Awe,’” Reichel said.
Excavations at Hamoukar have played an important role in redefining scholars’ understanding of the development of civilization, the researchers said. The site’s discovery at the beginning of this century challenged old notions of the development of civilization, archaeologists said, because the ancient city emerged contemporaneously, yet independently, of other early Mesopotamian urban centers.
Earlier work had found that cities first developed in the lower reaches of the Euphrates valley, the area often referred to as Southern Mesopotamia. Those early urban centers, part of the so-called Uruk culture, established colonies that led to the civilization of the north, as the people sought raw materials such as wood, stone, and metals not found in southern Mesopotamia.
Work at Hamoukar between 1999 and 2001 suggested some elements of civilization developed there independently of influences in the south. The latest work suggests that the two forces may have had a violent confrontation at Hamoukar, the archaeologists said.
“It is likely that the southerners played a role in the destruction of this city,” Reichel said. “Dug into the destruction debris that covered the buildings excavated this season were numerous large pits that contained vast amount of southern Uruk pottery from the south. The picture is compelling. If the Uruk people weren’t the ones firing the sling bullets they certainly benefited from it. They took over this place right after its destruction.”
Ironically, for archaeological work, ancient warfare has its advantages, especially when the besieged people may have been surprised, he said. “Whatever was in these buildings was buried in them, literally waiting to be retrieved by us.”
In addition to many objects of value that are left behind, buried under massive amounts of debris, such “frozen contexts” are vital for analyses, helping to identify architectural units as domestic units, cooking facilities, production sites or buildings of administrative or religious use, the researchers explained.
The mid-fourth millennium B.C. settlement at Hamoukar has many distinctively urban features, according to the archaeologists. The area excavated so far contains two large building complexes built around square courtyards. Though both buildings follow closely a house plan known from other sites in Syria and Iraq, their function seems to have been non-domestic.
One of the structures contained a large kitchen with a series of large grinding stones embedded in clay benches and a baking oven large enough to fill a whole room, suggesting that food was produced here for more than a single household.
New findings at the site lends further evidence to back a theory, suggested first after the 1999-2001 excavations, that a city existed at Hamoukar during mid-fourth millennium B.C., according to the researchers. But Reichel said the nature of the contacts between Hamoukar and the south remains to be clarified.
“We assume that some trade relations existed with the Uruk culture, but there is no evidence of Uruk control or domination over Hamoukar before the destruction,” he said. But the southern Uruk clearly dominates the layers just above the destruction.
This year saw the fourth season of excavations at Hamoukar, where work had been done between 1999 and 2001. Following a four-year hiatus and the Iraq War that started in 2003, in a political climate now shadowed by U.S.-Syrian scuffling, the resumption of a joint Syrian-American archaeology work at a site so near the sensitive Iraqi border may seem surprising, Reichel said.
But there were no problems, he added, praising the cooperation of Syrian government officials who he said issued excavation permits swiftly and offered logistical support. “They welcomed us like old friends,” he said.
“Excavations at Hamoukar have played an important role in redefining scholar’s understanding of the rise and development of civilization in the world,” said Abdal-Razzaq Moaz, Syria’s deputy minister of culture for archaeology and cultural heritage. “The resumption of a joint Syrian-American archaeological venture at this time shows the Syrians are interested to have such collaboration in the field of archaeology which allowed to have cultural exchange and mutual understanding between the two people, and to share a world heritage which belong to all the humanity.”
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