Excavations at a ruined city on the plains of northeastern Syria have turned up the oldest known example of large-scale warfare -- a massive campaign that pummeled the city into submission at the dawn of civilization more than 5,500 years ago, researchers said Thursday.
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 archeologist Clemens Reichel of the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute, who led the joint U.S.-Syrian team that made the discovery. “This was ‘shock and awe’ in the 4th millennium BC.”
The siege and destruction of the site, now known as Tell Hamoukar, was apparently an early step by Uruk, an ancient Mesopotamian city-state, to establish the world’s earliest colonial system, said archeologist Guillermo Algaze of UC 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 finding to the discovery of the fabled city Troy, which was thought to be mythological until its site was found in Turkey nearly 3,000 years after its fall.
The people of Uruk were establishing colonies 400 to 600 miles away from their own city, Algaze added. “We never quite realized they could do that in 3500 BC.”
The Tell Hamoukar site was discovered in 1999 by a joint U.S.-Syrian team led by archeologist McGuire Gibson of the Oriental Institute. Before the discovery, researchers had believed that civilization began 400 miles southeast at Ur and Uruk, Sumerian cities in the so-called Fertile Crescent between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in what is now southern Iraq, and spread northward.
Tell Hamoukar was at least as old as the better-known cities of Mesopotamia. Its discovery indicated that civilizations were already thriving this early in history 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 BC. 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.
Located about five miles from the Iraqi border, Tell Hamoukar had all the traits now associated with cities, including city walls, communal food production, breweries and bureaucracy.
The settlement was unusual, however, for having no recognizable waterway nearby. Virtually all other cities from early periods were located on the banks of rivers. Gibson’s team speculated that the city was founded to service a crucial trade route from the ancient city of Nineveh, 60 miles to the northeast, to the Mediterranean Sea, and that it became prosperous doing so.
Gibson’s team found some evidence of burning and destruction in the ancient city, but the causes were 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 United States.
When Reichel led a team back there 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 used by the invaders.
The team found more than 1,200 intact bullets, each about 1 1/2 inches long and 1 inch in diameter, and about 120 larger balls about 2 1/2 to 4 inches in diameter, along with much larger numbers of shattered balls.
Their purpose was initially a mystery, but researchers soon noticed that many of them had been flattened on one side by impact with a solid object. The flattened sides bore characteristic impressions from the plastered walls of the buildings, suggesting that they were still damp when used.
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 team also uncovered three major buildings inside the walls, each with the “tripartite” layout characteristic of the period, with a large central courtyard surrounded by smaller work and storage rooms. The chambers yielded hundreds of inscribed clay tablets used to seal doors, bottles and a variety of other containers.
Pottery and other artifacts in the buildings were from the local culture, dating from the late Stone Age. “These were not southern Mesopotamians, but local people,” Reichel said.
The picture of the battle is still largely incomplete and will probably remain so, Reichel said. “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.”
That’s good for archeologists, he said, because finding artifacts in place will help them understand the patterns and routines of daily life.
The team is also not sure who attacked the city. But excavation of the soil directly above the ruins revealed caches of pottery shards and other artifacts from Uruk.
“If the Uruk people weren’t the ones firing the sling bullets, they certainly took advantage of it,” he said. “They took over this place right after its destruction.”
Unfortunately, he added, most of the evidence of that occupation has been erased by erosion over the millenniums.