Syria Mass Graves Suggest Ancient Urban Conflict

September 7, 2007

Prehistoric mass graves recently discovered in Syria may hail from a period of bloody conflict that took place 5,800 years ago, archaeologists say.

The remains of more than 60 young adults were unearthed last year from two sites about 40 feet (12 meters) apart in the ancient city of Tell Brak near the modern-day Iraq border.

Given the density of human bones found so far, the final body count will likely reach the hundreds, experts say.

The bodies are probably the result of a bloody massacre that happened as warring factions battled over the Stone Age settlement, according to the researchers.

At that time Tell Brak (also known as Brak)—one of the world's oldest known cities—was rapidly expanding, said Augusta McMahon, field director of excavations at the archaeological site. (Related: "Tombs Found in Syria Hold Riches, Signs of Ritual Sacrifice" [October 24, 2006].)

That made it a tempting prize for enemies abroad and for internal factions seeking control, experts say.

Young Victims

Experts think the victims died violently based on their numbers and ages and the way they were buried.

"They were mostly from their late teens through to their mid-30s," McMahon said. "This is the healthy part of the population—not the people who should be dying."

The bodies also appear to have been severely decomposed by the time of burial, suggesting they'd been exposed for some time, McMahon said.

The skeletons had hands and feet missing and their skulls were unattached, while limb bones were found gathered in piles, the researchers noted.

Under normal circumstances, McMahon said, "the dead would have been buried with a certain amount of care and fairly rapidly, with grave offerings and so on."

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