In northern Syria, researchers have discovered a burial mound that may be the world’s oldest war memorial, according to a new study published by Cambridge University Press’s peer-reviewed journal Antiquity. Known as the White Monument, or Tell Banat North, the 72-foot high mound dates to the third millennium B.C.E. and derives its name from the material that was used to build it: gypsum, which glistens in sunlight.
The White Monument was long thought to contain the bodies of dead enemies—a practice well documented in ancient Mesopotamia. The idea was to bury enemy corpses in a large mound after battle so that “their corpses will reach the base of heaven” as a symbol of both punishment and victory, according to the study, which was led by Anne Porter, a professor at the University of Toronto.
But new research reveals a portion of the burial, dating to 2450–2300 B.C.E. may, in fact, be a memorial designed to honor the Mesopotamian’s own fallen soldiers. At this time, the mound was expanded horizontally and would have resembled a step pyramid with alternating slopes and platforms. To create the pyramid, the bodies of the deceased were deposited directly into the soil, and were systematically organized according to their roles in the military, indicating that the pyramid was a monument and not a mound for quick internment.
“The individuals placed in White Monument A not only participated in battle but did so in a formalised way: they were part of an organised army, divided into waggoneers and foot soldiers,” Porter and her team write in the study.
The bodies of those buried in the northwest quadrant of White Monument A were of those who operated vehicles pulled by kungas, or donkey-like animals; these individuals were buried with the kungas. Researchers also found individuals buried in pairs, who are thought to have been charioteer teams.
Corrugated surface of White Monument B.
Courtesy the Euphrates Salvage Project
In the southwest quadrant, the human remains were found to be buried with biconical pellets, indicating these soldiers used projectiles in slings as a weapon. Other objects found in the burials included pots, beads, rings, animal and anthropomorphic figurines, a clay wagon, and a model wheel.
Tell Banat was the heart of the Banat/Bazi complex, a cluster of settlements in Tell Banat built during the third and second millennia B.C.E. The White Monument—whether it was the result of an internal or external struggle—was created “as a memorial to those who served, if not died, in a local conflict,” according to the study. This finding opens up the possibility for further research on similar sites across northern and central Syria.