4300 year old soldier’s grave and war memorial

Tell Banat North

The white burial mound of Tell Banat North. (Image: University of Toronto / The Banat Publication Project)

An approximately 5000 year old burial mound on the banks of the Euphrates in northern Syria could contain one of the oldest war memorials in the world. For the bones of soldiers who died in battle were apparently buried in this conical hill covered with white plaster. Warriors who were deployed on chariots were buried with their horses and helpers, while foot soldiers with slingshots were given their own corner in the burial mound.

On steles from Mesopotamia from the third millennium BC, images and inscriptions have been found several times that seem to depict a special type of mass burial after a war: the dead are neatly stacked in burial mounds. Because explanatory descriptions were missing, it remained unclear whether these dead were mass graves of defeated enemies or a burial of their own fallen soldiers.

An unusual kind of burial mound

The investigation of a burial mound on the banks of the Euphrates in Syria is now providing new information. As early as the 1990s, archaeologists discovered a conspicuously conical hill covered with layers of white plaster near the Banat / Bazi settlement complex. First excavations revealed that inside the 22 meter high and around 100 meter wide hill “Tell Banat North” several dead were buried in three different phases. While the first two, older construction phases consist of several individual graves, which at some point were vaulted by a common hill, this is the case with the most recent, from the time 2450 to 2300 BC. originating phase is not the case.

“This stage differs both in its external form and in its content,” report Anne Porter of the University of Toronto and her colleagues. Because this outer layer of the burial mound, which was piled up on the old plaster surface, originally consisted of steps one meter wide and 50 centimeter high, which gave the entire ensemble the appearance of a step pyramid. Numerous human bones were embedded in this layer. “They were placed directly on the earth with no special covering or marking,” the team said. Nevertheless, the position of these bones and bone fragments shows a certain order and deliberate arrangement.

In one corner the crew of chariots

Porter and her colleagues have now investigated in more detail what the dead are and why they were buried in this unusual way. To this end, they subjected 18 of the 22 identified individuals and objects accompanying them to a more detailed anatomical analysis. They found that almost all of the dead were male adolescents or young adults. These can be divided into two separate groups. In the north-western part of the burial mound, the remains of an adult, a child and the relics of a horse are buried together, as the archaeologists report. The horses belonged to a breed that was mainly used in Mesopotamia for pulling carriages.

As Porter and her colleagues explain, there is some evidence that these individuals, buried in pairs, were each crew of a Mesopotamian chariot. “Such war chariots, as they are also shown on the famous standard of Ur, were typically driven by teams of two people,” report the archaeologists. While the driver steered and presumably also used weapons while driving, the second, lighter person served as a kind of mobile counterweight: They jumped up and leaned back to shift their center of gravity so that they could make tight turns, for example. In view of this physically demanding and skillful task, it stands to reason that young people often take on this role, explain Porter and her team. This could explain why the couples in the burial mound always consisted of an adult and a youth plus a horse.

… in the other the foot soldiers

The horse bones are missing in the southern corner of the burial mound, but the human remains are often mixed with geometrically shaped stone pellets. “Such biconical pellets have never been found in graves from this era before, but they were found at a gate entrance to the nearby settlement,” as the archaeologists report. “The most convincing interpretation of these biconical pellets in the Syrian context is their use as a projectile for slingshots. With these slings the soldiers could rain down a whole hail of stones on their opponents. “

But this means: “The patterns resulting from these finds indicate that the individuals buried in this monument not only took part in a battle, but did so in a highly formalized way: They were part of an organized army that moved in chariots and foot soldiers, ”said the team. The careful arrangement and spatial separation of the remains speak against the fact that these were the relics of defeated enemies.Instead, Porter and her colleagues see the burial mound of Tell Banat North as a kind of memorial, with which fallen soldiers of their own army were honored . For this, their bones were probably picked up from the battlefield after the battle and then laid to rest in this monument. The hill of Tell Banat could thus be one of the earliest war memorials in world history.

Source: Antiquity, doi: 10.15184 / aqy.2021.58

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