Planet Earth

66. Great Ancient City Unearthed in Syria

By Andrew LawlerJan 11, 2008 6:00 AM


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While the corpses of their enemies still lay on the battlefield, the victors celebrated by slaughtering cattle and holding a gigantic feast. Then they dumped the war dead into a pit, heaved in the animal bones from their repast, and tossed their plates on top of the pile.

Now—nearly six millennia later—the unearthing of these remnants in what is now northeastern Syria is a spectacular archaeological find, one of several important discoveries made recently at Tell Brak, a 130-foot-high mound jutting above the northern fringe of the Mesopotamian plain.

Archaeologists from the University of Cambridge, the University of Edinburgh, and Harvard University say Brak was one of the earliest and largest cities in the region—and therefore the world. That assertion is shaking up Near Eastern archaeology, since scholars long assumed that the first substantial cities arose in southern Mesopotamia in today’s Iraq.

The remains of the battle date to about 3800 B.C., nearly a thousand years before writing, manufacturing-style craftsmanship, and other urban activities took a firm hold in the region. Yet the citizens of Brak were already using imported materials to make fine goods in large workshops, including a marble-and-obsidian chalice and a stamp seal with the image of a lion being caught in a net—a classic symbol of kingship in the ancient Near East.

Furthermore, this was no mere village: Close examination reveals the settlement extending over an astonishing 136 acres in the period of 4200 to 3900 B.C., larger than other settlements of the time, with the sole exception of Uruk in southern Mesopotamia. The team of archaeologists, led by Joan Oates of Cambridge, will return to Brak in the spring to continue their work.

Go to the next story: 67. Mars Rover Delves Into Crater

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