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Latest Archaeological and Cultural News of Iran and the Iranian World

 

Sasanian Iran and the Evidence Of Earliest Chemical Warfare

 

16 January 2009

 

 

  Diagram showing the Sasanian Persian mine designed to collapse Dura’s city wall and adjacent tower, the Roman countermine intended to stop them, and the probable location of the inferred Persian smoke-generator thought to have filled the Roman gallery with deadly fumes. The Persians may have used bellows, but a natural chimney effect may also have helped generate the poisonous cloud.

(Credit: Image copyright Simon James)

 

LONDON, (CAIS) -- While US and Western Europe have pushed the Chemical Warfare to a sophisticated and most gruesome level to inflict the maximum damage upon their enemies since early 1900s, apparently, it was Sasanian Iran in 3rd century who were the original inventors of chemical warfare. A researcher from the University of Leicester has identified what looks to be the oldest archaeological evidence for chemical warfare from Romano-Persian 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 CE 256, the city was subjected to a ferocious siege by an army from the powerful Iranian dynasty of Sasanians. 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 Sasanian Iran 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 Iranians 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 were as knowledgeable in siege warfare as the Romans; they surely knew of this grim tactic.”

Ironically, this Sasanian mine failed to bring the walls down, but it is clear that the Sasanian military engineers 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 defeated Roman soldiers were killed or deported to mainland-Iran, the city abandoned forever, leaving its secrets undisturbed until modern archaeological research began to reveal them.

 

 

 

 

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