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The Battle for Hamoukar - Mesopotamia's First Great Battle

Evidence for Warfare in Ancient Mesopotamia


The on-going joint excavations at the Mesopotamian site of Hamoukar in Syria by the Oriental Institute and the Syrian Department of Antiquities have discovered evidence of a large organized battle at the site which took place about 3500 BC. Archaeological investigations have recovered more than 1,200 small, oval-shaped bullets and approximately 120 larger round balls. These objects were found among the ruins of a 10 foot high mud brick wall protecting the early urban city of Hamoukar. Archaeologists believe the objects were fired from slings and that the wall collapsed under heavy bombardment from these projectiles. The likely attackers were from the southern Uruk civilization, based on the identification of vast amounts of pottery in pits which had been dug into the demolition debris.

Investigations at Hamoukar began in 1999, led by McGuire Gibson and Clemens Reichel of the Oriental Institute and Muhammad Maktash and Salam al-Quntar of the Department of Antiquities. Tel Hamoukar is one of the oldest urban settlements in the world, located in the Khabur River basin of northeastern Syria eight kilometers from the modern Iraq-Syrian border. The site is between the watersheds of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, and on the ancient route between the cities of Nineveh and Aleppo. At its height, Hamoukar included an area of about 102 hectares; during the Late Chalcolithic/Middle Uruk period when the attack occurred, it included an area of about 32 hectares.

Hamoukar, 3500 BC

The earliest occupations at Hamoukar date to the Late Chalcolithic period, about 4000-3500 BC, when Hamoukar was a small village of about 15 hectares in size. By the late Uruk period of 3500-3000 BC, the site had increased to 105 hectares, and was connected to other cities in Mesopotamia by a series of roads. This transportation network was identified recently by the Oriental Institute's Jason Ur, who plotted the network using high resolution satellite photographs and a Geographic Information System. Hamoukar reached its height after the Uruk invasion, about 2500 BC.

Evidence for regional violence at the time has also been identified at Tell Brak, located south of Hamoukar. Tell Brak has been under excavations by the McDonald Institute at the University of Cambridge since 1977. During the Middle Uruk period, Tell Brak included an area of about 110 hectares, including satellite villages.

Early Urban Civilizations in the Tigris-Euphrates Valley

Although the most recent results at Hamoukar are focused on the violence, the excavations are providing considerable insight into the early urban civilizations in the Tigris-Euphrates river valley systems. Architectural remains of buildings, ovens, and wells have been identified dating to the Uruk period; many more structures and other features have been identified dated to the later periods. The ovens were probably used for baking bread and making beer. Grains found in the vicinity of the ovens include wheat, barley, and oats.

Eye Idols, bone figurines with heads dominated by enormous eyes, have been found at Hamoukar. These objects, also called spectacle figures, are typical of Late Chalcolithic societies in Mesopotamia, at sites such as Tell Brak and Hacinebi.

One area of investigation at Hamoukar that shows potential is the recovery of some 150 basket stamp seals from the ruins of a burned building, which may have included two stories. These inadvertently fired clay seals include stamped impressions, of unknown function, although the impressions probably contain information about the basket's contents or ownership.

For Further Reading

This article is a part of the About.com guide to the Mesopotamia, and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

John Nobel Wilford. 2005. Archaeologists unearth a warzone 5500 years old. New York Times, December 16, 2005.

Jason A. Ur. 2002. Settlement and Landscape in Mesopotamia: The Tel Hamoukar Survey 2000-2001. Akkadica 123 (2002), fasc. 1.

Jason A. Ur. 2002. Surface Collection and Offsite Studies at Tell Hamoukar, 1999. Iraq 64:15-44.

Tel Hamoukar Expedition, Oriental Institute

Tell Brak Project, McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, University of Cambridge

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