First Evidence of Large Scale War Uncovered in Syria

The scene could be that of a Hollywood blockbuster movie. Hundreds, if not thousands, of warriors firing projectiles at a city's walls in preparation for an assault. Meanwhile, behind the fortifications, the inhabitants of the city, caught by surprise, are feverishly planning a defense or an escape, knowing that the next few minutes, hours, or days may be their last.

But it's not Hollywood. It's a possible scenario that archaeologists from the University of Chicago and the Syrian Department of Antiquities are uncovering bit by bit at a place called Hamoukar.

Hamoukar is in far northeastern Syria, not far from the Iraqi border. It is a place where archaeologists believe one of the first large-scale military engagements occurred around 3500 B.C.

It is possible that the destroyers of Hamoukar were from rival city-states in southern Mesopotamia called the Uruk culture. It was previously thought that these cities from the Southern Tigris and Euphrates valley developed first and then colonized areas further upriver, including the area of Hamoukar. Discoveries at Hamoukar during excavations from 1999-2001 seem to show that the culture at Hamoukar may have developed independently, perhaps even simultaenously, with the Uruk and other southern Mesopotamian cultures.

The fact is that Northern Mesopotamia had resources-wood, minerals, stone-that the southerners needed. The battle that destroyed Hamoukar may very well have been the culminating confrontation in a war between north and south over these resources.

The excavation at Hamoukar during October and November of 2005 uncovered the remnants of the battle. "The whole area of our recent excavation was a war zone," Clemens Reichel, Reserach Associate at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, said.

Among the findings at the battle site were collapsed walls that had been heavily bombarded by sling bullets. About 1200 of these inch long, inch and a half wide oval projectiles were found in addition to 120 larger round clay balls. "This was 'Shock and Awe' in the Fourth Millennium B.C.," Reichel said. (see image - a=intact sling bullet, b=sling projectile after impact, c=clay ball projectile)

Even if the Uruk people were not those responsible for the destruction of Hamoukar, they did take the area over shortly after. “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," Reichel said.

Ironically, what was likely a horrific scene of death and destruction for the people of Hamoukar actually helps archaeologists to determine what daily life at the site was like. The inhabitants of Hamoukar were frozen in time, almost like the doomed citizens of Pompeii. “Whatever was in these buildings was buried in them, literally waiting to be retrieved by us," Reichel said. Obviously these remains will be near the top of the priority list for the next season of excavations at Hamoukar.

To read more about the excavation at Hamoukar and view photos from the site, please read the press release from the University of Chicago.

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