A researcher from the University of Leicester has identified what looks to be the oldest archaeological evidence for chemical warfare -- from Roman times.
At the meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America, University of Leicester archaeologist Simon James presented CSI-style arguments that about twenty Roman soldiers, found in a siege-mine at the city of Dura-Europos, Syria, met their deaths not as a result of sword or spear, but through asphyxiation.
Dura-Europos on the Euphrates was conquered by the Romans who installed a large garrison. Around AD 256, the city was subjected to a ferocious siege by an army from the powerful new Sasanian Persian empire. The dramatic story is told entirely from archaeological remains; no ancient text describes it. Excavations during the 1920s-30s, renewed in recent years, have resulted in spectacular and gruesome discoveries.
The Sasanians used the full range of ancient siege techniques to break into the city, including mining operations to breach the walls. Roman defenders responded with 'counter-mines' to thwart the attackers. In one of these narrow, low galleries, a pile of bodies, representing about twenty Roman soldiers still with their arms, was found in the 1930s. While also conducting new fieldwork at the site, James has recently reappraised this coldest of cold-case 'crime scenes', in an attempt to understand exactly how these Romans died, and came to be lying where they were found.
Dr James, Reader in the School of Archaeology and Ancient History at the University of Leicester, said: "It is evident that, when mine and countermine met, the Romans lost the ensuing struggle. Careful analysis of the disposition of the corpses shows they had been stacked at the mouth of the countermine by the Persians, using their victims to create a wall of bodies and shields, keeping Roman counterattack at bay while they set fire to the countermine, collapsing it, allowing the Persians to resume sapping the walls. This explains why the bodies were where they were found. But how did they die? For the Persians to kill twenty men in a space less than 2m high or wide, and about 11m long, required superhuman combat powers—or something more insidious."
Finds from the Roman tunnel revealed that the Persians used bitumen and sulphur crystals to get it burning. These provided the vital clue. When ignited, such materials give off dense clouds of choking gases. "The Persians will have heard the Romans tunnelling," says James, "and prepared a nasty surprise for them. I think the Sasanians placed braziers and bellows in their gallery, and when the Romans broke through, added the chemicals and pumped choking clouds into the Roman tunnel. The Roman assault party were unconscious in seconds, dead in minutes. Use of such smoke generators in siege-mines is actually mentioned in classical texts, and it is clear from the archaeological evidence at Dura that the Sasanian Persians were as knowledgeable in siege warfare as the Romans; they surely knew of this grim tactic."
Ironically, this Persian mine failed to bring the walls down, but it is clear that the Sasanians somehow broke into the city. James recently excavated a 'machine-gun belt', a row of catapult bolts, ready to use by the wall of the Roman camp inside the city, representing the last stand of the garrison during the final street fighting. The defenders and inhabitants were slaughtered or deported to Persia, the city abandoned forever, leaving its gruesome secrets undisturbed until modern archaeological research began to reveal them.
A Sarmatian burial mound excavated this summer in Russia's Southern Ural steppes has yielded a magnificent but unusual treasure.The artefacts contained within the mound are helping to shed light on a little-known period of the nomadic culture that flourished on the Eurasian steppe in the 1st millennium BC.
The archaeological study of this remarkable ancient tomb, or kurgan, was carried out by the expedition of the Institute of Archaeology (Russian Academy of Sciences), led by Professor Leonid T. Yablonsky.
No written language
The nomadic peoples had no written language therefore scientists can only learn about their cultures and traditions through archaeological data.
The kurgans which are scattered across the steppes contain many Scythian and Sarmatian relics and while the nomads successfully interacted with the Persian Achaemenid and Greek civilizations, they still preserved a unique culture of their own.
Completing the study of an extraordinary monument
This year archaeologists excavated the eastern part of Mound 1 at Filippovka 1 kurgan in the Orenburg region. This section was approximately 5m high and 50m long and was left unexplored by the previous expedition more than 20 years ago. The aim was to complete the study of this extraordinary monument, which had already famously entered the annals of world culture with the discovery of 26 "golden" deer statuettes.
Another major challenge for the archaeologists was to ensure the preservation of this unique cultural heritage which faces a large number of imminent threats with robbery being a major problem.
Massive cast bronze cauldron
An underground passage near the entrance was the first area of exploration this season. A massive cast bronze cauldron with a diameter of 102 cm was discovered there. Its handles were fashioned in the traditions of the Scythian-Siberian animal style with an image of two griffins, beak to beak.
Under the eastern mound an undisturbed burial chamber was discovered measuring approximately 4x5m and 4m deep. At the bottom of the chamber several stratified layers of debris were excavated to reveal exceptionally rich and varied grave goods accompanying a human skeleton. The material associated with the burial seemed to belong to a woman as it contained what is regarded as representing typically female artefacts and jewellery. However, initial osteological examination of the skeletal morphology revealed the occupant of the burial to be male; though DNA-analysis is still to be carried out.
A small wicker chest that is thought to be a vanity case was found near the skull. It was filled to the brim with items including a cast silver container with a lid, a gold pectoral, a wooden box, cages, glass, silver and earthenware bathroom flasks, leather pouches, and horse teeth that contained red pigments.
Nearby lay a large silver mirror with gilded stylized animals on the handle and embossed decoration on the back with the image of an eagle in the centre, surrounded by a procession of six winged bulls.
The garments were decorated with several plaques, depicting flowers, rosettes and a panther leaping on a saiga's (antelope) back. There were also 395 pressed pieces of gold leaf sewn onto the breeches, shirt and scarf. A fringed shawl was held together with a golden chain and the sleeves of the shirt were embellished with multicoloured beads, forming a complex geometric pattern. Two cast gold earrings decorated in places with cloisonné enamel were found in the area of the temporal bones.
The archaeologists also uncovered equipment used in the art of tattooing, including two stone mixing palettes and iron, gold covered needles, as well as bone spoons used to blend paints and pens decorated with animals.
More than one thousand artefacts were recovered from the tomb and they constitute an invaluable research resource that will add to the growing corpus of data that is shedding light on the history of the Eurasian continent.
This excavation represents a major breakthrough in the study of the mysterious Sarmatian culture of the Early Iron Age.
Dr. Marcus Heinrich Hermanns from the Department of Archaeology at the University of Cologne has recovered three lead bars which may originate from the third century before Christ, 39 meters under the sea off the north coast of Ibiza. One of the bars has Iberian characters on it. According to the German Mining Museum in Bochum, the lead originates from the mines of Sierra Morena in southern Spain.
With the help of local volunteer divers, some of whom he also trained in crash courses in underwater archaeology financed by the local government, Dr. Hermanns examined the three lead bars. A fourth specimen had already been found on an earlier occasion. The characters on the upper surfaces of two of the four known bars are syllabary symbols from the script of Northeastern Iberian. "The characters must have been added to the metal before it had set, shortly after it had been cast," says the underwater archaeologist Dr. Hermanns, "in which case, the characters are more likely to be related to production as opposed to commercial information."
The meaning of the characters has not yet been determined, however, the dating of the objects to the third century B.C., i.e. the period of the Second Punic War, raises further questions. The reason for this is that there is very little evidence for the downsizing of silver works in the Sierra Morena region for this period. There is, however, evidence for this in the mining area around Cartagena in the eastern part of the Iberian Peninsula, i.e. the language area of Northeastern Iberian. For this reason, scientists suspect that the raw lead was processed and branded in this area, before it was placed on board a freighter that was shipwrecked off the north coast of Ibiza.
The destination planned for the lead remains unknown. The reason why the lead was transported from the Spanish mainland to the Balearic Islands, even though silver mines were in operation on the islands, has not been established. During antiquity, lead was a by-product of silver mining and used mainly for coinage. Dr. Hermanns therefore assumes that the lead was used as munitions for mercenaries provided by the Baleareans during antiquity.
Due to the dating of the lead, it would make sense that this was for the Second Punic War. "The examination of the recovered lead bars provides a further basing point for the examination of the pre-Roman metal industry in the western Mediterranean region," according to Dr. Hermanns, "there have been some relevant discoveries in the past, however, it is very difficult to establish anything concrete with certainty, due to the research done so far." This project was sponsored by the Fritz-Thyssen-Stiftung, Cologne.