An enigmatic mound built in northeastern Syria some 4,400 years ago may be the oldest known war memorial, hosting the remains of male and child soldiers, some possibly as young as eight, along with their military equipment, archaeologists say.
The earthen memorial was raised just outside Tell Banat, which is the remains of an ancient settlement on the east bank of the Euphrates River that was occupied already 5,000 years ago, at the dawn of the Bronze Age. The artificial knoll built by the settlement may have been an early attempt by an unknown Mesopotamian civilization to honor its war dead and even to assert control over the region by projecting power, reports a study published Friday in the journal Antiquity.
The “White Monument,” so called because it was covered in gypsum to give it a white sheen, was once visible for miles in the surrounding plain, sticking out like a sore thumb.
We say “once” because the site is now largely lost. Most of Tell Banat was flooded at the end of the 1990s due to the construction of the Tishreen dam a few kilometers downstream. The few remains that stayed above the water level were later heavily damaged by Isis, which took over the area early on in the Syrian Civil War, says Prof. Anne Porter of the University of Toronto.
“Every single thing about this site is unique, there is nothing else like it, so it’s a real shame,” Porter tells Haaretz.
We don’t know much about Tell Banat, including how the town was called back in the Bronze Age or to which civilization it belonged. It was probably an independent town but was part of the broader cultural sphere of Ebla and Mari, two major city-states that dominated ancient Syria at the time, Porter says.
Reaching a vast 22 meters in height and 100 meters in diameter, the imposing White Monument has a complex and puzzling history. Its reinterpretation as a war memorial is based on the examination of data and artifacts from the rescue dig that Porter and her husband, Thomas McClellan, led at Tell Banat from 1988 to 1999, when the site was flooded.
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But now: “When we looked more closely at the data, especially the objects buried with the dead, we saw something we hadn’t understood before,” Porter says.
Army of the dead
The White Monument was initially a series of smaller mounds, or tumuli, used for local burials from at least 2700 B.C.E. Sometime around 2400 B.C.E., the older phases of the monument were covered to create a single giant mound. Over time, erosion smoothed the sides of the knoll, but initially it would have had the shape of a stepped pyramid, the archaeologists report. On the steps of this pyramid, the ancient Mesopotamians created installations with human bones and funerary offerings.
The archaeologists recovered at least 30 bodies from the steps and it is these unusual burials that point to the use of the site as a war cemetery and memorial.
Firstly, most of the dead were classified as male; none could be positively identified as female, Porter notes.
The installations were secondary burials of unarticulated skeletons, meaning that the remains were transported to the White Monument after the bodies had decomposed somewhere else. Given that the human remains were very fragmentary and poorly preserved, it is possible that their initial burial was haphazard or that the bodies had decomposed directly on the battlefield.
But the main support for the argument of Porter and colleagues comes from the artifacts with which the bones were interred. The installations seem to have been grouped according to the military unit to which these poor souls belonged to, creating a ghoulish army of the dead.
One side of the pyramid contained single burials accompanied by large amounts of bi-conical pellets, common ammunition for slingshots at the time. These easily-produced and effective infantry weapons could be used by pretty much anyone, including a child.
In fact, one of the bodies found in this group belonged to a juvenile who was aged between 8 to 10, the study reports. Any surprise at the young age of these combatants should be tempered by the thought that child soldiers are still commonly recruited in conflicts in our supposedly enlightened, modern age, Porter notes.
Jumping up and down
A second group of burials on the White Monument consisted of pairs of humans, usually an adult and a teenager, accompanied by the skulls and hoofs of kungas, a type of donkey. These installations are interpreted as belonging to teams of charioteers and their animals, Porter says.
The two-wheeled, horse-drawn chariot that we see in movies like Ben-Hur was a fast war machine that was introduced later, only in the second millennium B.C.E. Back in the third-millennium B.C.E., Mesopotamians battled with “war carts,” lumbering four-wheeled contraptions drawn by donkeys or onagers.
The best depiction of these primitive chariots can be seen on the Standard of Ur, a decorated box, now held at the British Museum, dated to around 2500 B.C.E. and depicting Mesopotamian warriors and chariots. Here we can see that the war carts have drivers paired with a teammate precariously perched on the rear edge of the chariot. Because the carts had four wheels and a fixed front axle, they would have barely been able to turn, Porter explains. So it was the job of this so-called “jumper” to leap on the back of the cart, raising the front so that the vehicle, now temporarily two-wheeled, could turn more easily in battle, she says.
We know from ancient Mesopotamian texts and other burials that these jumpers were often professional acrobats or younger, agile people, which could help explain the adult-teenager pairings of the White Monument: one was the driver and one was the jumper.
These were specially-trained warriors, accompanied by the kungas, which we know from texts were expensive and highly prized animals.
Mesopotamian texts and depictions tell us that victorious armies would often pile up high the bodies of defeated enemies after a battle, as shown in the Stele of the Vultures. But the White Monument is nothing like that. Here soldiers were transported to the site sometime after the fact and carefully reburied with honor along with their gear.
All of which suggest that the soldiers buried at Tell Banat belonged to a well-organized state-sponsored army, Porter concludes.
Which army it may have been, we don’t know. But its elaborate and imposing nature suggests that in addition to serving as a memorial for the community’s warriors, the White Monument may have functioned as a symbol of power for whatever polity had won control of the region.
“We do not know whether these were the victors or the losers of that battle. We do know that they took the bodies of the dead from some other place, perhaps long after the event, and interred them in a huge mound that was visible for miles around,” the archaeologist says. “This is not just a commemoration, it’s a real statement, a statement of power and assertion of control.”