Ancient battle site uncovered

Syrian ruins represent oldest known example of large-scale warfare, archaeologists say


Excavations at a ruined city on the plains of northeastern Syria have turned up the oldest known example of large-scale warfare -- an ancient campaign that pummeled the city into submission at the dawn of civilization more than 5,500 years ago, researchers said yesterday.

The discovery of the devastated remains of the ancient trading center suggests that the urge to attack and conquer cities is as old and basic as the need to build them, the researchers said.

"This clearly was no minor skirmish," said archaeologist Clemens Reichel of the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute, who led the team of archeologists who made the discovery. "This was `shock and awe' in the 4th millennium B.C."

The siege and destruction of the site, now known as Tell Hamoukar, was apparently an early step in the effort by the ancient Mesopotamian metropolis of Uruk to establish the world's earliest colonial system, said archaeologist Guillermo Algaze of the University of California, San Diego, who was not involved in the research.

"What makes it fascinating is it's so modern," Algaze said. "Change the names and change the time period, and we could be discussing European colonization of the New World 500 years ago."

Experts compared the new finding to the discovery of the fabled city Troy, which was thought to be mythological until its location was found in modern Turkey nearly 3,000 years after its fall.

The Uruk people, the first empire builders of the world, were establishing colonies 400 to 600 miles away from their own city, he added. "We never quite realized they could do that in 3,500 B.C."

The Tell Hamoukar site was discovered in 1999 by a team led by archaeologist McGuire Gibson of the Oriental Institute. Before its discovery, researchers had believed that civilization began 400 miles further southeast at Ur and Uruk in the Fertile Crescent between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in what is now Iraq.

Tell Hamoukar was at least as old as the better-known cities of Mesopotamia. Its discovery indicated that civilizations were already thriving by this early time and that the idea of cities had evolved independently among several groups of people.

Those people had first settled in the area much earlier, about 9,000 years ago. That was about 2,500 years before the first settlements in China and 6,000 years before the first ones in Western Europe.

The people of Uruk dominated the region for at least 2,000 years, eventually giving way to the Babylonians and the Assyrians.

The new city, located about five miles from the Iraqi border, had all the traits now associated with cities, including city walls, communal food production, breweries and bureaucracy.

It was unusual, however, in that there is no recognizable waterway nearby. Virtually all other cities from early periods were located on rivers. Gibson's team speculated that the city was founded to service a crucial trade route from the ancient city of Ninevah, 60 miles to the northeast, to the Mediterranean Sea, and that it became prosperous doing so.

Gibson's team found evidence of burning and destruction in the ancient city, but the cause was not clear and they had to abandon their excavations for three years because of the war in Iraq and deteriorating relations between Syria and the U.S.

When Reichel led a team back in this summer, the cause of the burning became clear. "The whole area of our most recent excavation was a war zone," he said.

The team found heavily damaged walls and buildings, extensive burning and many implements of warfare -- especially clay "bullets" and balls that were used by the invaders.

Both varieties would have been propelled by slings, with the smaller bullets directed against people and the larger ones aimed at walls and buildings.

"They could undoubtedly inflict major harm," Reichel said.

The picture of the battle is still largely incomplete and will probably remain so, according to Reichel.

"We don't know how many people were involved or how it took place. But it was probably a short battle because everything was left in place."

Thomas H. Maugh II writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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