Tell Banat North in Syria was submerged in 1999.
© New Scientist
Tell Banat North in Syria was submerged in 1999.
An earthen mound in what is now Syria may be the oldest known war memorial in the world, constructed before 2300 BC. The remains of foot soldiers and charioteers were buried in distinct clusters in a monument made of piled-up soil. However, it is not clear if they belonged to the winning or losing side, or what the conflict was about.

The finding comes from a re-examination of remains from the White Monument, which was excavated in the 1980s and 1990s. The area was submerged in 1999 by the construction of the Tishrin Dam on the Euphrates River, and has not been investigated since.

Anne Porter of the University of Toronto in Canada was one of the leaders of the excavations. "It was a salvage project," she says. The flooding was "a really traumatic experience" because the area was "the most fabulous site you could imagine working on".

Immediately to the north of a small mountain called Jebel Bazi, Mesopotamian people built a settlement that archaeologists call the Banat/Bazi complex. It was occupied between about 2700 and 2300 BC. The site included a set of earthen mounds called Tell Banat, and slightly further north a single large mound called Tell Banat North or the White Monument.

The White Monument got its name because it was coated in a chalky mineral called gypsum. Porter says it was built in three stages. The first was a smooth mound, which the team never managed to excavate due to the flooding. Later, people built smaller mounds on top of it, containing human bones. "Imagine upside-down ice cream cones on the outside of a pudding," says Porter. "That's what it must have looked like."

Finally, the people constructed stepped platforms around the edge of the mound. In the soil, the team found lots of fragmentary bones. Some were human. Others belonged to animals similar to donkeys - the exact species is unclear.

Porter has now worked with a class of undergraduates to reconstruct where all the bones were placed in the earth platforms. "It was them that realised there's a pattern here," she says.

One cluster held the remains of humans buried with hard pellets of compacted earth, which may have been projectile weapons. The team argues these were foot soldiers.

The other set tended to have a single donkey-like animal paired with an adult human and a teenager. The team suggests these were charioteers: the adult driving the chariot and the teenager jumping on and off the chariot.

Porter suspects the monument reflects "an internal conflict" rather than an invasion. At the time, hierarchical societies were emerging, creating "a tension between a community-based kinship society and then these narrowing elites who are in control", she says.

Journal reference: Antiquity