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Evidence of ancient chemical warfare reported

Jan. 16 , 2009
Courtesy University of Leicester
and World Science staff

A re­search­er has iden­ti­fied what he says may be the old­est ar­chae­o­log­i­cal ev­i­dence for chem­i­cal war­fare: a poison-gas at­tack that killed about 20 Ro­man sol­diers in the wan­ing years of their Em­pire.

The grim events occurred in a mine at the city of Du­ra-Europos, Syr­ia, around 256 A.D., ac­cord­ing to ar­chae­o­lo­g­ist Si­mon James of the Uni­ver­s­ity of Leices­ter, U.K.

The city, on the riv­er Eu­phra­tes, had been con­quered by the Ro­mans, who in­stalled a large gar­ri­son. The city lat­er suf­fered a fe­ro­cious siege by an ar­my from the pow­er­ful new Sasa­nian Per­sian em­pire. The dra­mat­ic sto­ry is known en­tirely from ar­chae­o­log­i­cal re­mains; no an­cient text de­scribes it, James said.

Ex­cava­t­ions dur­ing the 1920s-30s, re­newed in re­cent years, have re­sulted in spec­tac­u­lar and grue­some dis­cov­er­ies, he added.

The Sasa­nians used the full range of an­cient siege tech­niques to breach the city. These in­clud­ed build­ing “mi­nes” or tun­nels un­derneath the city walls in an at­tempt to make them col­lapse.

Ro­man de­fend­ers re­sponded by build­ing “counter-mines” to thwart the at­tackers, James said. In one of these nar­row, low gal­ler­ies, a pile of bod­ies—a­bout 20 Ro­man sol­diers still with their weapon­s—turned up in the 1930s. James re­cently re­vis­ited the site to un­der­stand how the war­riors died.

“It is ev­i­dent that, when mine and coun­ter­mine met, the Ro­mans lost the en­su­ing strug­gle,” he said. “Care­ful anal­y­sis of the dis­po­si­tion of the corpses shows they had been stacked at the mouth of the coun­ter­mine by the Per­sians,” he added. The Per­sians had used their vic­tims “to cre­ate a wall of bod­ies and shields, keep­ing Ro­man counterat­tack at bay while they set fire to the coun­ter­mine, col­laps­ing it.”

“This ex­plains why the bod­ies were where they were found. But how did they die? For the Per­sians to kill 20 men in a space less than two me­ters high or wide, and about 11 me­ters long, re­quired su­per­hu­man com­bat pow­ers—or some­thing more in­sid­i­ous.”

Finds from the Ro­man tun­nel re­vealed that the Per­sians used sul­fur crys­tals and bi­tu­men, a nat­u­ral, flam­ma­ble, tar-like sub­stance, he added; these chem­i­cals give off dense clouds of chok­ing gas­es when ig­nit­ed. The Per­sians evidently “heard the Ro­mans tun­nelling,” said James, “and pre­pared a nas­ty sur­prise for them.” When the Ro­mans broke through, the Sasa­nians ap­par­ently set fire to the chem­i­cals and pumped the gases in the Ro­mans’ di­rec­tion us­ing bel­lows, he said.

“The Ro­man as­sault par­ty were un­con­scious in sec­onds, dead in min­utes. Use of such smoke gen­er­a­tors in siege-mines is ac­tu­ally men­tioned in clas­si­cal texts, and it is clear from the ar­chae­o­log­i­cal ev­i­dence at Du­ra that the Sasa­nian Per­sians were as knowl­edge­a­ble in siege war­fare as the Ro­mans; they surely knew of this grim tac­tic.”

Iron­ic­ally, this Per­sian mine failed to de­stroy the walls, but the Sasa­nians some­how broke in­to the city an­y­way, James said. He has ex­ca­vat­ed a row of cat­a­pult bolts, ready to use by the wall of the Ro­man camp in­side the city, rep­re­sent­ing the gar­ri­son’s last stand dur­ing fi­nal street fight­ing.

The de­fend­ers and in­hab­i­tants were slaugh­tered or de­ported to Per­sia, the city aban­doned for­ev­er, leav­ing its grue­some se­crets un­dis­turbed un­til mod­ern ar­chae­o­log­i­cal re­search be­gan to re­veal them. James pre­sented his find­ings at the meet­ing of the Ar­chae­o­log­i­cal In­sti­tute of Amer­i­ca in Phil­a­del­phia last week.


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A researcher has identified what he said may be the oldest archaeological evidence for chemical warfare. A poison-gas attack killed about 20 Roman soldiers in a mine at the city of Dura-Europos, Syria, around 256 A.D., according to archaeologist Simon James of the University of Leicester, U.K. The city, on the river Euphrates, had been conquered by the Romans who installed a large garrison. The city later suffered to a ferocious siege by an army from the powerful new Sasanian Persian empire. The dramatic story is told entirely from archaeological remains; no ancient text describes it, James said. Excavations during the 1920s-30s, renewed in recent years, have resulted in spectacular and gruesome discoveries, he added. The Sasanians used the full range of ancient siege techniques to breach the city. These included building “mines” or tunnels underneath the city walls in an attempt to make them collapse. Roman defenders responded by building “counter-mines” to thwart the attackers, James said. In one of these narrow, low galleries, a pile of bodies—about 20 Roman soldiers still with their weapons—turned up in the 1930s. James recently revisited the site to understand how the warriors died. “It is evident that, when mine and countermine met, the Romans lost the ensuing struggle,” he said. “Careful analysis of the disposition of the corpses shows they had been stacked at the mouth of the countermine by the Persians,” he added. The Persians had used their victims “to create a wall of bodies and shields, keeping Roman counterattack at bay while they set fire to the countermine, collapsing it.” “This explains why the bodies were where they were found. But how did they die? For the Persians to kill 20 men in a space less than two meters high or wide, and about 11 meters long, required superhuman combat powers—or something more insidious.” Finds from the Roman tunnel revealed that the Persians used and sulfur crystals and bitumen, a natural, flammable, tar-like substance, to get it burning, he added. These chemicals provided the vital clue, James went on. When ignited, such materials give off dense clouds of choking gases. “The Persians will have heard the Romans tunnelling,” said James, “and prepared a nasty surprise for them.” When the Romans broke through, the Sasanians apparently set fire to the chemicals and pumped the choking gas in the Romans’ direction using bellows, he added. “The Roman assault party were unconscious in seconds, dead in minutes. Use of such smoke generators in siege-mines is actually mentioned in classical texts, and it is clear from the archaeological evidence at Dura that the Sasanian Persians were as knowledgeable in siege warfare as the Romans; they surely knew of this grim tactic.” Ironically, this Persian mine failed to destroy the walls, but the Sasanians somehow broke into the city anyway, James said. He has excavated a row of catapult bolts, ready to use by the wall of the Roman camp inside the city, representing the garrison’s last stand during final street fighting. The defenders and inhabitants were slaughtered or deported to Persia, the city abandoned forever, leaving its gruesome secrets undisturbed until modern archaeological research began to reveal them. James presented his findings at the meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America in Philadelphia last week.