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A 5,500-year-old mystery emerges

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Chicago Tribune


In the shadow of a much more recent war, a five-year excavation on the Syrian-Iraqi border has uncovered an ancient settlement of unexpected sophistication that was suddenly wiped out by invaders 5,500 years ago.

The discovery sheds light on an early stage of human history in a time and place when cities were first emerging, and it suggests a massive battle waged at its walls.

It also poses a mystery: Who destroyed the city, and why?

Until the ruined city of Hamoukar was discovered in the riverless plains of northern Syria, urbanized civilization from its time was thought to hug closely to the palm groves, marshes and fisheries of Southern Mesopotamia, hundreds of miles to the south.

Current archeological thought has it that settlements as far north as Hamoukar would have been outposts of the southern Uruk society.

Others dating from the period are small, and if the theory is right, imported their culture solely from city-states near the mouths of the Tigris and Euphrates.

Hamoukar has turned that assumption on its head, offering archeologists a full-blown city in far northern Mesopotamia, complete with independent pottery styles and a fully functioning urban society - a thousand years before it was supposed to be there.

"You wouldn't expect to find cities like this until the 3rd Millennium B.C.," said Clemens Reichel, a research associate at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, who excavated the site this year with archaeologist Salam al-Quntar of the Syrian Department of Antiquities.

Hamoukar appears to have reached big-city status by 4,500 B.C. and may have been settled as long as 8,000 years ago.

"This is the root of all the civilizations. It's not only Syrian heritage. This is also yours," said Abdal-Razzaq Moaz, Syria's deputy minister of culture in charge of archaeology and cultural heritage. "It's heritage belonging to all humanity."

For years, scholars thought urbanized society began and was isolated in Uruk, in southern Mesopotamia. The future of modern human society rested on Uruk's growth, archeologists say.

"The middle of the fourth millennium is the time of some of the most important changes in the history of civilizations," said Gil Stein, director of the Oriental Institute. "This is the time when the first cities developed. The first state societies - the things we would call the first true civilizations - develop. The first kings, the use of the wheel."

It was only about 30 years ago that archeologists determined that Uruk expanded by building far-flung colonies.

But within the last decade, archeologists at Hamoukar and Tell Brak in central Syria have also discovered what appear to be full-blown cities in the north by the time Uruk colonists arrived.

"What we're seeing now is that northern Mesopotamia had developed a complex society and developed urbanism apparently in parallel, and more or less independently of these emerging Uruk cities in the south," Stein said.

By 3,500 B.C. - the period in the late copper-stone age when Hamoukar was wiped out - archeologists say Uruk would have been the largest city on the planet, a metropolis far to the south of Hamoukar with a square-mile footprint, more than 40,000 residents, huge public buildings and fortified walls.

In the next hundred years, the society would spread north as far as Syria, Turkey and western Iran, scholars say.

In Hamoukar's heyday it reached a population of about 3,000 people living on 80 acres. The closest significant center of the civilization's northern push was about 100 miles away, near what is modern day Mosul in Iraq.

Tantalizing glimpses of trade with that civilization have been found in Hamoukar since Oriental Institute scholar McGuire Gibson began excavations at Hamoukar in 1999, and may play a role in explaining why the city at the crossroads of northern trade routes was wiped out.

Reichel and his colleagues discovered evidence of the battle that abruptly ended Hamoukar's independence in 2005, when a University of Chicago archeological team returned to the dig site after a hiatus for the Iraq war in 2002 and 2003.

Their dig this year revealed that Hamoukar had been pelted by invaders who hurled more than a thousand sling-fired bullets at it and over a hundred heavy, four-inch clay balls. The walls were toppled and burned.

But beneath them, strangely preserved by the devastation, was a snapshot of Hamoukar urban life from 3,500 B.C. It offers a picture of startling complexity and prosperity. There were storehouses, kitchens, unique pottery forms, evidence of wide trading, and the leftover junk of specialized stoneworkers.

Large animal bones suggest the locals herded sheep and cattle, and Reichel said barley, lentils and peas likely grew in the rain-fed fields around the town. Though it wasn't built next to a river, several wells supplied water for Hamoukar's inhabitants.

Ancient trade routes, tracks that carve north toward Turkey and west toward the Mediterranean, can still be seen. Modern towns with ancient roots can be seen in each direction along the old routes.

"It's a pretty stable environment," Reichel said. "Something that would really sustain communities."

Trenches dug this summer by researchers turned up obsidian plugs and flakes left over from the production of specialized blades, said Reichel. Likewise, two large buildings with square courtyards housed what look to be a warehouse and a giant kitchen complete with large grinding stones, clay benches and a room-sized clay oven.

In the warehouse were stamp seals and tamper-proof clay sealings remarkably similar to devices used in southern Mesopotamia and what is now southwestern Iran. But the pottery found alongside them - until the cataclysmic battle - was entirely local in origin.

Who conducted the attack remains unknown.

But after the invasion, the southern Uruk civilization clearly took over.

Previously, experts believed Uruks were the first to build cities in the north, growing from colonies sent up the Euphrates River to obtain raw materials like wood, stone, and metals absent in southern Mesopotamia.

That may have been the case.

But Hamoukar shows the Uruks weren't alone when they got there.


(c) 2005, Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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