Saturday, January 27, 2007

Evidence of Ancient 'Last Stand' Found in Lost Syrian City

It was the ancient version of a last stand: Twelve clay bullets lined up and ready to be shot from slings in a desperate attempt to stop fierce invaders who soon would reduce much of the city to rubble.

The discovery was made in the ruins of Hamoukar, an ancient settlement in northeastern Syria located just miles from the border with Iraq.

Thought to be one of the world's earliest cities and located in northern Mesopotamia between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, it is the site of joint excavations by the University of Chicago and the Syrian Department of Antiquities.

Excavations have been going on at the site since 1999, but in digs conducted this past fall, researchers uncovered new evidence of the city's end and more clues about how urban life there may have begun. The University of Chicago was to announce the findings Tuesday.

The archaeologists have previously detailed how they believe Hamoukar's independence was ended by a battle that caused its buildings and walls to collapse and burn.

This past fall, the team found more traces of that battle. For example, there was a shallow pit containing a water basin normally used to soften clay sealings for reuse. The clay sealings were used on bags, jars and baskets to help ensure that the valuables or food inside had not been tampered with.

But along this basin, the researchers found neatly lined up along its edge 12 "sling bullets," oval-shaped weapons made of clay that were fired using slings. More than 1,000 of the bullets were found in debris of collapsed walls in 2005.

Reichel theorizes someone who usually worked with the clay sealings was trying to contribute to the war effort and fashioned bullets from the clay instead.

"You imagine the despair the people were in. They were using everything they could to throw back at the attacker," he said. "It looks like a desperate last attempt."

But the roof collapsed before the bullets could be used, and the researchers believe they were the first to see the scene since that fateful day.