Thursday, January 18, 2007


Ruins in Northern Syria Bear the Scars of a City's Final Battle

Archaeology: From The New York Times:

Archaeologists digging in Syria, in the upper reaches of what was ancient Mesopotamia, have found new evidence of how one of the world's earliest cities met a violent end by fire, collapsing walls and roofs, and a fierce rain of clay bullets. The battle left some of the oldest known ruins of organized warfare.

The excavations at the city, Tell Hamoukar, which was destroyed in about 3500 B.C., have also exposed remains suggesting its origins as a manufacturing center for obsidian tools and blades, perhaps as early as 4500 B.C.

The two discoveries were made in September and October and announced yesterday by the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago and the Syrian Department of Antiquities. The site is in northeastern Syria, less than five miles from the Iraqi border.

Continued at "Ruins in Northern Syria Bear the Scars of a City's Final Battle"


Based on a University of Chicago press release dated January 16, 2007:

New details in the tragic end of one of the world's earliest cities as well as clues about how urban life may have begun there were revealed in a recent excavation in northeastern Syria that was conducted by the University of Chicago and the Syrian Department of Antiquities.

"The attack must have been swift and intense. Buildings collapsed, burning out of control, burying everything in them under vast pile of rubble," said Clemens Reichel, the American co-director of the Syrian-American Archaeological Expedition to Hamoukar. Reichel, a Research Associate at the University's Oriental Institute, added that the assault probably left the residents destitute as they buried their dead in the ruins of the city.

Reichel made that assessment of the battle that destroyed Hamoukar about 3500 B.C. after an excavation was conducted in September and October at the site near the Iraqi border. The team uncovered further evidence of the accomplishments of the inhabitants among the remains of the walled city dating to the fourth millennium B.C.

In addition to the wall, the team has uncovered quasi-industrial installations and two large administrative buildings that had been destroyed by an intense fire. It was at the site that, mixed in with the debris from the collapsed wall, that over 1,000 egg-shaped sling bullets were found in 2005, leading the excavators to conclude that an early act of warfare had caused the end of the settlement.

Work in this past season may explain how powerful the early weapons were. "We literally have them at all stages of use, from manufacture to impact," Reichel said, pointing out that the team found a sling bullet that had pierced the plaster of a mud brick wall. The team also found 12 graves in the debris, very likely of people killed in the battle.

The team discovered several rooms with walls up to six feet high in which more than 1,100 sling bullets were found mixed in with collapsed walls and roofs. They also found a shallow pit into which a water jar had been buried to its rim in the floor of one of the rooms. This pit, ordinarily used to soak discarded clay sealings to recycle them into fresh sealing clay, was used to make sling bullets during the city's final hours. This was indicated by two dozen sling bullets than were lined up neatly along its edge.

"It looks as if they were - quite literally - throwing everything they could find against the aggressors," Reichel said.

Hamoukar was on a key trade route that led from Anatolia (modern-day Turkey) across Northern Syria and the river Tigris into Southern Mesopotamia. Some evidence of this long-lasting trade was found in an area to the south of Hamoukar's main site - a large mound. The team found obsidian fragments in an area of over 700 acres (280 hectares), which they dated to 4,500 - 4,000 B.C. using pottery fragments found with the obsidian. In addition to tools and blades, the team found large amounts of production debris such as cores, a discovery that is even more significant than finding actual tools.

"Finding cores and other production debris tells us that they are not just using these tools here, they are making them here," Salam al-Kuntar, the Syrian co-director of the expedition, explained. Obsidian does not occur around Hamoukar but had to be brought in from Turkey with the nearest sources being over 70 miles away.

The discovery of an obsidian processing center is significant, Reichel added, for it could explain the emergence of a city in this location at such an early time. A large-scale export of tools to Southern Mesopotamia would have resulted in significant revenue and accumulation of wealth. "This could have been the incentive that pulled people off their fields. People specialized instead of ploughing their own fields they bought their food supplies from surrounding villages. And once people accumulated a fortune they want a walled enclosure to protect it - your first city." Unlike in southern Mesopotamia, therefore, the prime mover towards urbanism appears to have been economic incentive, not coercion.

The obsidian workshops were located off the main mound and predate the destroyed city by several hundred years, but numerous older levels have already been noted below the destroyed buildings in small test trenches. "We have no clear idea how far the first city at Hamoukar goes back in time," Reichel said. "It could be much earlier than 3,500 B.C."

By the time the city was destroyed, he added, copper had started to replace obsidian as key raw material for tools. The discovery of numerous copper tools in the ruins of Hamoukar might indicate that Hamoukar had followed developed from an obsidian into a copper processing center, possibly also exporting copper tools to the south.

The discovery could lead the way to providing an additional explanation for how civilization developed in the Fertile Crescent. In the south, urban society emerged in the Uruk [Biblical Erech] culture in response to the needs of providing organization to an economy supported by an irrigation-based agriculture.

The latest findings from Hamoukar suggest that the specialized mass-production of goods for trade could have been a similar driving force in the North.

Images/Photos: Tell-Hamoukar


Also of interest by Jason Ur:

Ur, J. A. 2002. Settlement and Landscape in Northern Mesopotamia: The Tell Hamoukar Survey 2000-2001. Akkadica 123:57-88.


Since its inception in 1999, the Syrian-American Hamoukar Expedition has attempted to place on-site excavations into a larger context both on the site itself and within its region. The Tell Hamoukar Survey (THS) has conducted site-based surface collection and documentation of off-site traces of land use such as ancient roads and field scatters. Our ultimate goal is to understand the history of human settlement and land use in the eastern Upper Khabur basin through the synthesis of intensive problem-oriented excavation and extensive site survey and landscape studies.

This report summarizes the preliminary results of the 2000-2001 Tell Hamoukar Survey; discussed at length are the history of settlement in the region, the articulation of settlements via ancient roads (hollow ways), and the intensification of agriculture at the end of the 3rd millennium.

And the Oriental Institute Annual Report 2003-2004


Two recent posts on Archaeology:

"Antikythera: Enigma of Ancient Computer Resolved At Last"

"Great Pyramids Of Giza - Building Blocks Made Of Concrete?"

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