Roughly 4,500 years ago, some Mesopotamians living in present-day Syria decided to remodel and repurpose one of their community’s most prominent monuments: a rippled white dome that entombed the dead. For generations residents periodically climbed the monument’s exterior to pour libations and place offerings over graves beneath its surface. But the renovation around 2450 B.C. covered this communal space with earthen terraces, transforming the dome into a six-story ziggurat, or stepped pyramid. And those steps were packed with more than soil: The renovators also deposited assortments of human bones, skins from animals that drew wagons and two-inch-long clay bullets, handy for arming slingshot-like weapons.
These skeletons seem to have been fallen soldiers—wagon drivers and sling-shooters—exhumed and reburied to potentially create the world’s first military memorial, according to a study forthcoming in Antiquity. The Syrian site, known as the White Monument, could offer the best evidence yet that urban rulers wielded enough power to support standing armies by the third millennium B.C., in the Early Bronze Age. Unlike other tombs from the time, which included valuable metal weapons and jewelry, the remodeled White Monument contained partial skeletons of mostly adults and teens, buried with the ammo or animals needed for specific tasks in battle. Like the United States’ Arlington National Cemetery, the monument likely held soldiers, whose remains were retrieved from battlegrounds or other gravesites to be buried with co-combatants.
Such a massive memorial for battle-dead suggests the town had a standing army: “people who identify as soldiers, as opposed to people who go out and fight in the offseason or when someone’s attacking,” says Stephanie Selover, an archaeologist at the University of Washington who studies ancient warfare in nearby Anatolia, but was not involved in the study.
“The possibility of standing armies that are so controlled and centralized you’re even able to make a monument… There’s nothing else like this,” in the Early Bronze Age, she adds.
The monument would have served as a conspicuous reminder that leaders had the means to maintain and memorialize an army—a message that would have been received by locals as well as outside foreigners. “Burying these people in the sort of function that they would have had in a military is really a statement of power at that point, both locally and externally, because this thing was really visible for miles,” says University of Toronto archaeologist Anne Porter, lead author of the Antiquity study.
Prior to this research, scholars have found ample evidence for violence during the Early Bronze Age, including massacre sites and daggers tucked in graves. “Nothing makes this a particularly crunchy or peaceful time,” says Seth Richardson, a historian of the ancient Near East at the University of Chicago, who was not involved in the study.
But the idea that professional soldiers existed then mainly comes from inscriptions and artifacts, like the Stele of the Vultures, limestone fragments that once constituted a roughly six-foot-tall carving, made between 2600 and 2350 B.C. Discovered in the late-19th century at the Iraqi site of Tello, the stele depicted battle scenes including ranks of spear-totting soldiers in helmets. It also showed a haphazard assemblage of bodies, thought to be slain enemies, and a carefully piled stack of bodies, interpreted as the victor’s lost soldiers. Artistic works like the Stele of the Vultures “are the propaganda. You always have this mighty king smiting somebody, the little men behind him and then the enemy soldiers with their heads cut off. It’s very formulaic,” explains Selover. But if the researchers are right about the White Monument, it would be the first physical example of memorial mound for a victor’s fallen soldiers, depicted on carvings.
In the 1990s, the White Monument bulged from cotton fields like a dune-colored cone. “It was just this huge pile of dirt,” recalls Porter. But when sunlight struck, the mound twinkled white—thanks to gypsum and marl used as building materials—and earned its moniker.
The gleaming dirt stood several hundred feet from a more sprawling ruin-layered hill, or tell. Porter’s team excavated both spots, and called the White Mountain, “Tell Banat North,” and the more expansive feature, “Tell Banat.” Though in the 20th century, Tells Banat and Banat North looked like two distinct hills, back in the third millennium B.C. they belonged to a single urban center, which spread over 70 acres. Within Tell Banat the archaeologists found the town itself, including buildings, streets, pottery workshops and a stone tomb. The White Monument, or Tell Banat North, was solely a burial monument, which loomed just beyond the city walls.
“Everywhere we put a pick and a trowel revealed something truly remarkable,” recalls Porter. The full area “was a site… that you could spend a lifetime working.”
Though they knew at the time that wouldn’t happen: The ancient settlement, along with more than a dozen other sites, was in the planned flood zone of the Tishreen hydroelectric dam, which was being built in the 1990s. Pressed for time and resources, the team unearthed and documented as much as they could—and moved the finds to a storehouse in Syria—before floodwaters engulfed the ancient sites as well as modern villages in the area. Porter and excavation codirector Thomas McClellan of the Euphrates Salvage Project witnessed the flood. “It was a really traumatic experience, watching the water rise and all these mudbrick villages collapsing,” says Porter.
For the next decade, the team examined skeletal remains and artifacts recovered from the site, until ISIS razed the dig’s storehouse. The militants obliterated ancient bones, pottery and other items, and reportedly dumped the debris into the river. “I don’t think there is anything to retrieve there,” Porter says, based on secondhand accounts of the attack.
Though the site and the finds are gone, the researchers have continued making discoveries from archival data, as all professional digs do. As excavations unfolded, archaeologists compiled meticulous notes, photos and spatial measurements, which documented how each find was positioned, relative to the surrounding sediment and architectural remnants. For this site, experts on skeletal analysis described and measured the human and animal bones recovered, before ISIS destroyed them. The data survived in published reports as well as unpublished notebooks, photographs, sketches and spreadsheets, kept with Porter in Canada.
Sussing patterns and meaning from this data is the behind the scenes work of real archaeology, which the public or beginning students rarely glimpse. Porter and her professional colleagues chipped away at the Tell Banat and Banat North records after the dig wrapped in 1999. Several years ago, she realized the work could provide a unique learning opportunity. “I really wanted to teach a class where students actually did what archaeologists do, rather than seeing the world's greatest hits or all the pretty stuff,” she says.
In 2018 Porter taught a seminar called “Death on the Euphrates” at the University of Toronto. About ten undergrads set out to answer: Who was buried in the White Monument?
“They learned very quickly that the life of an archaeologist isn't all glamour and Indiana Jones, and that it's really very tedious work, a lot of the time,” Porter says.
Through the semester, she lectured about Mesopotamian culture, ancient mortuary practices and what was already known about Tell Banat and Banat North. At the same time, the students tried to understand the burials in the White Mountain, based on the notebooks, photos and other documents.
Alexandra Baldwin, a 2019 graduate who took the class, recalls her first day: “I walked in and there were just these enormous folders of all of the data. I had never seen anything like it.”
Porter figured the class would be a valuable learning opportunity. She didn’t expect the group to discover something new about the ancient Near East. The students mapped out the clusters of bones and grave goods in the White Monument and compared the contents of each deposit. Through discussions and comparisons with other sites, it became clear that the human remains were deliberately placed in a manner that changed over time. “There was a meaning behind that,” explains Brittany Enriquez, a student in the class who graduated in 2018. “It wasn’t like there was just stuff all through the dirt.”
The team’s analysis convincingly showed that the White Monument was really a series of tombs, built over several centuries. Like a Russian nesting doll, the ~2,450 B.C. final construction encased a prior monument erected between 2450 and 2,700 B.C., which contained a still older mound. Porter’s excavation reached the smooth, white surface of this third-inner monument, but the flood occurred before the team could dig its contents—and see if even earlier monuments nested within.
Enigmatic rituals took place at the middle monument. Its numerous tombs contained assorted bones from about two to five individuals, along with animal remains and pottery. The Banat morticians covered these modest graves with white gypsum, rammed into horizontal bands, which made the full monument look like a groomed ski hill. Later, the Banat individuals dug through the surface to bury more partial skeletons, possibly of ordinary residents, this time sealed with layers of plaster. They also seem to have left offerings, including beads, alabaster bowls, human shinbones and ritual libations—suggested from soak stains on the plaster.
According to the researchers, the monument’s last renovation around 2450 B.C. marked a drastic change: The communal tomb became a monument for slain soldiers. Within the added steps, the renovators buried at least 29 individuals in discrete patches with rings, figurines and other artifacts. In one corner of the monument most of the burials included skulls and appendages of donkey-like animals, probably interred as hides with heads and hooves still attached. These equids likely pulled battle wagons. In another corner, loads of clay bullets or pellets accompanied the human bones.
Those pellets “are the unsung heroes of the ancient near,” says Selover. Though the artifact has long puzzled scholars, evidence has mounted that, when shot from slings, they hailed down on foes and could be lethal. “It's a really sophisticated weapon for being a very simple weapon,” she adds.
“The means of violence in deep antiquity didn't need to be particularly scary by our standards to be effective by theirs,” explains Richardson. Even if some weapons were simple, and the monument only held a few dozen soldiers, it sent a message of might.
Given the scale of the renovations, it’s doubtful they came about in a grassroots fashion. Rather, the White Monument remodel suggests leaders around 2450 B.C. had enough authority within the settlement to take over a long-used community tomb and devote it to their soldiers. And at 72-feet-tall, the monument could be spied from afar, deterring potential invaders and raiders.
Former students Baldwin and Enriquez know that their take is one plausible interpretation of the available evidence, but that other explanations are possible. Still, Baldwin says she’s proud of their work, “sifting through all this material to leave a narrative… something probable that supports looking at the distant past with more depth and with more humanity.”