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Syrian ruins bear the scars of a City

University Of Chicago : 14 June, 2007  (Technical Article)
In the upper reaches of what was ancient Mesopotamia, archaeologists digging in Syria have found new evidence of how one of the world
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.

The proximity to Iraq is not insignificant. Driven out of Iraq by the war and political turmoil, Western archaeologists who specialize in the first urban civilization that flourished in Mesopotamia have had to shift their digging to the northern fringes of the Tigris and Euphrates river valleys, in Syria and Turkey.

As a result, archaeologists are gaining a broader perspective on a transformative period in antiquity that saw the rise of the first cities, specialization in work, stratification of society and eventually, the first known writing. While the more thoroughly studied urban centers in southern Iraq may have been earlier and more powerful city-states that coalesced into empires, those in the north were not as peripheral as once assumed. Some of them developed robust cultures more or less independent of the south. Trade between the two regions was common, and so apparently was conflict.

“We are learning that what was happening in the north cannot be explained as just simple expansion of southern culture,” said Clemens Reichel, a University of Chicago archaeologist who is excavating the battle ruins at the site. Guillermo Algaze, an archaeologist at the University of California, San Diego, who specializes in north-south relations in ancient Mesopotamia, said, “our interpretations are going to shift,” when these new findings are published.

Expanded excavations at Tell Brak, Habuba Kabira, Hamoukar and elsewhere in northern Syria, Dr. Algaze said, have revealed that some northern cities were larger at an earlier time than was expected. And ample evidence is being found for specialized industries like the obsidian works at Hamoukar.

“We are formulating questions to ask when we get back in southern Iraq,” Dr. Algaze said.

Almost no field work has been done in Iraq since 1990, leaders of Mesopotamian archaeology say, and concern is mounting that war and looting have left prized sites in disarray. New hydroelectric projects are another spur to stepped-up excavations in Syria and Turkey. Archaeologists are rushing to dig before ruins are inundated by dammed rivers.

Research at Hamoukar has been under way since 1999. The Chicago-Syria team has now determined that the 40-acre heart of the city was surrounded by a 10-foot-thick wall. The main mound covering ruins extends over 260 acres, and in the outskirts to the south, pottery and obsidian flakes and cores are scattered over some 700 acres.

Dr. Reichel, the American co-director of the project, said that excavations in the recent season turned up more evidence of “how the city looked the day it was destroyed.” In a swift and intense attack, he said, “buildings collapsed, burning out of control, burying everything in them under a vast pile of rubble.”

The excavators uncovered ruins of storerooms with many clay seals to secure baskets and other containers of commodities. They also investigated two large administrative buildings destroyed by fire. In the debris inside, they collected more than 1,000 round or oval-shaped clay bullets that would have been delivered by slings, then a principal weapon of warfare. One bullet had pierced the plaster of a mud-brick wall.

Twelve graves held the skeletons of likely battle victims.

The bullets and the pattern of destruction led the archaeologists to rule out earthquake damage and conclude that a tremendous battle had taken place. Dr. Reichel and other experts said there was no way to identify the aggressor, but they assumed it was the army of one of the southern cities.

When the archaeologists suggested in a 2005 report that a battle had been fought there, they encountered some skepticism from other researchers. But Dr. Algaze, who is not involved in the Hamoukar project, said the sling bullets, breached walls and widespread destruction “have convinced even the non-believers that this is evidence of conflict.”

The more recent discovery of the city’s production of sharp and durable tools from obsidian, a volcanic glass, may prove to be significant in understanding the economy of northern Mesopotamia in relation to the south, archaeologists say.

Well beyond the city center, the Hamoukar team found finished obsidian blades and the spoil of obsidian processing over hundreds of years, beginning around 4500 B.C. “They were not just using these tools here,” said Salam al-Kuntar, the project’s Syrian co-director. “They were making them here.”

The people at Hamoukar appeared to be taking raw obsidian, probably from deposits more than 100 miles away in Turkey, and turning it into a thriving export business. This and perhaps the later processing of copper, archaeologists say, might account for the city’s growth and apparent prosperity up to the time its walls came tumbling down in battle.
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