16 December 2005
NewScientist.com news service
The shattered remains of a 5500-year-old citadel that stood on the modern-day border between Syria and Iraq provide some of the oldest evidence for organised and bloody warfare.
The Mesopotamian settlement lies in Hamoukar, on the northernmost tip of Syria, 8 kilometres from the Iraqi border. In 3500 BC the 13-hectare development was subjected to a devastating attack, its edifices crumbling beneath a crushing hail of bullet-shaped projectiles.
The evidence of the destruction was uncovered in October and November 2005 by an expedition coordinated by the University of Chicago, US, and the Syrian Department of Antiquities.
During earlier excavations, archaeologists found buildings that had been destroyed or severely damaged by fire.
The latest expedition revealed 1200 oval clay “bullets” measuring 2.5 centimetres in diameter and 4 centimetres in length. It also unearthed 120 heavier projectiles measuring 5 centimetres by 10 centimetres.
The team originally mistook the larger projectiles for pots, but both these and the smaller bullets showed impact scars and impressions apparently caused by striking buildings.
The archaeologists also conducted experiments that confirmed the projectiles could easily be launched using slings. The smaller bullets were deformed upon impact, which suggests they were manufactured in the heat of battle and were still soft.
“The whole area of our most recent excavation was a war zone,” says Clemens Reichel, a member of the team from the University of Chicago. “This was clearly no minor skirmish. This was ‘shock and awe’ in the fourth millennium BC.”
During this period, many large settlements were established south of Hamoukar, within the Euphrates valley in central Iraq. There is evidence that these people periodically migrated northwards, establishing colonies and bringing so-called “Uruk” cultural artefacts with them.
But excavations carried out in Hamoukar between 1999 and 2001 show that the original settlement pre-dates this Uruk migration. Shortly after the city was destroyed, however, Uruk artefacts and structures become common in the area.
“It is likely that the southerners played a role in the destruction of this city,” Reichel adds. “They took over this place right after its destruction.” This is the first evidence of Uruk people becoming involved in armed conflict on their northward migrations.
Alexandra Fletcher, a curator in the Department of the Ancient Near East at the British Museum, says the discovery in Hamoukar adds fresh detail to the picture of early civilisation in the area.
“It’s a very interesting time period,” Fletcher notes. “It is the beginning of big cities and everything we associate with modern life – including war.”