Excavations in the ancient Syrian city of Hamoukar have unearthed the earliest evidence yet of organized warfare. A team of Syrian and American archaeologists found more than 1,200 clay sling bullets as well as the burned remains of administrative buildings, bakeries, and homes that were demolished during a fierce attack 5,500 years ago.
"Finding a battle is not like finding an object," says Clemens Reichel, the University of Chicago archaeologist leading the U.S. team. "It is a culmination of evidence." In this case, the culmination includes a large collection of pottery vessels whose distinctive style indicates that people from the southern Mesopotamian city of Uruk took over Hamoukar just after the battle. Reichel speculates that an army of a few hundred Uruk soldiers marched on Hamoukar but found the city harder to conquer than anticipated. Many of the bullets at the site are flattened on one side, as if they were still soft when thrown. The Uruk forces may have run short of ammunition and resorted to digging clay from a nearby pit to make their sling bullets.
Why Hamoukar was invaded is a mystery. "The Mesopotamian kings saw warfare as a divinely ordered thing, but there was always an underlying economic factor," Reichel says. He speculates that Uruk soldiers marched on Hamoukar to eliminate a political and economic rival or to keep open a key trade route. Today Hamoukar is little more than a 50-foot-high mound rising from the Syrian plains. Just five miles away, across the Iraqi border, conflict still rages. "There is an element about it that is almost surreal," Reichel says.