- Exposing the truth THEY don't want you to know

Pushing back the dawn of civilisation
The Sunday Times - 28th May 2000
Archeologists working in an arid corner of Syria have unearthed a vast array
of artefacts that could push back the dawn of civilisation, writes Matthew

The first metropolis?

A workman was digging on a dusty Syrian plain last autumn when a bright green
object in the dirt on his shovel caught the eye of Rachel Franke, one of a
team of American archeologists sifting the desert for clues about the origins
of civilisation. Her heart froze. It was a piece of copper. Closer inspection
of the dirt revealed tiny beads made of shell and bone. Then a larger object
came tumbling loose.

"I had never seen anything like it," said Franke. The sculpted animal figure
she held up in the morning light had been buried for nearly 6,000 years.

She began sieving the dirt with a colander and, by the end of that day,
dozens more artefacts, including ornaments with bulging eyes and a model of
an animal that has yet to be identified, had been found.

"Seeing it was pretty incredible," said Clemens Reichel, another of the
archeologists. "It blew us away."

The archeologists' excitement grew in the following days. Having dug down
past villages and towns that disappeared thousands of years ago, the team had
few expectations of finding anything older underneath. But besides the animal
figures and beads, Franke and her colleagues soon unearthed large quantities
of pottery. "It was far more than any normal family would need - a giant
trash heap of urns, plates, cups and bowls," she said.

The joint American-Syrian team that is excavating a huge mound at Tell
Hamoukar, in an arid corner of Syria not far from the Iraqi border, believes
it has stumbled on what could be the world's oldest city. If it is correct,
it has found evidence that civilisation dawned earlier than had previously
been believed.

Although older settlements than Tell Hamoukar have been found, notably
Jericho, none shows enough sophistication to qualify as a city. Tell Hamoukar
is a site of about 500 acres. By contrast, says Reichel, "Jericho is just
three houses and a tower".

Even clearer evidence of a large-scale ancient community has emerged in
another part of the Tell Hamoukar site, where McGuire Gibson, the expedition
leader, has found a section of a giant city wall and huge, igloo-shaped ovens
unlike any previously seen. Here, too, the archeologists found wells, pottery
fragments and tiny balls of clay loaded with stones for firing from

"The quantity of material we were getting was just extraordinary," said
Gibson, a professor at the University of Chicago's oriental institute. The
implications were breathtaking to Gibson and the other experts to whom he
presented his preliminary findings at an archeology conference in Copenhagen
last week.

Until now the only cities archeologists had found dating back to 4000BC were
Sumerian ones in southern Mesopotamia, between the Tigris and Euphrates
rivers in what is now Iraq. It had been believed that urban dwelling and
civilisation spread north from there into Syria.

Yet if cities were springing up in the north at the same time, archeologists
will have to consider that a culture predating the Sumerians may have sown
the seeds of civilisation in both places.

Gibson's team will return later this year in the hope of strengthening that
hypothesis. "We've only just scratched the surface," says Reichel.

Yet already the rarefied world of Middle Eastern archeology is abuzz with
talk of temples and royal palaces buried beneath the sands of Tell Hamoukar.
The first artefacts from the site are yielding some clues - and tantalising
mysteries - about the culture that produced them.

Just as modern telescopes are giving astrologers a glimpse of the origins of
the universe, archeologists are delving further than ever into the so-called
"cradle of civilisation" in the Middle East. But since the Gulf war in 1991,
Saddam Hussein's Iraq has been virtually sealed off to the foreign
archeologists, for whom southern Mesopotamia was always an irresistible
magnet. Instead they are descending on the bone-dry Syrian desert in droves.

Although Franke had extensive experience in Iraq, she had never been to Syria
before. "It's like rolling a dice," she says of the process of deciding where
to dig in a country whose landscape is littered with the remains of bygone

The first figures showed up on the ninth day of the dig. They were at a layer
of the pit coinciding with the chalcolithic period from 4000BC to 3400BC,
long before the construction of the Egyptian pyramids or Stonehenge.

The Syrian digger handed Franke "a very dirty, strange little item". She
passed it to Gibson, who was working nearby. His eyes lit up. As he scraped
off bits of earth, the finely crafted shape of a reclining lion was revealed.
It looked, thought Gibson, like one of the figures found in tombs of the
Scythian period.

The Scythians, however, had roamed the distant Siberian steppes at a far
later period in the first millennium BC. "The musculature of the animal was
done very expertly," says Gibson.

Soon the team had accumulated so many of the figures that they had little
time for anything other than cleaning them off, and even the cook was drafted
in to help.

Careful dusting revealed a spotted leopard, ducks, bears, rabbits, fish,
birds and dogs. An animal with a long fluffy tail and rabbit ears has defied
explanation. "The locals call it a rat," says Franke. "But rats do not have
fluffy tails."

A German team excavating a nearby site dropped in on the Americans -
archeologists tend to keep in touch with one another while digging in the
same country. So did some members of a European Union-sponsored dig in the
vicinity. Franke showed them the animal figures. "They were flabbergasted,"
she says.

The significance of the figures lay not in their decorative value. They were
the earliest of bureaucratic tools, seals used for stamping a mark on
possessions. "Seals are prime evidence of some kind of system of accounting
or responsibility," said Gibson. "The accounting system is tied to an
administrative system."

The variety of seals found at Tell Hamoukar - besides the decorative animal
pieces, there are more banal clay chunks carrying a basic pattern of lines -
also indicated a hierarchy of authority, said Gibson. "There were two or
three levels of people in which somebody with authority is there to check on
the work of subordinates," he said.

A glimpse of a rigid class hierarchy also appeared to be offered in the
jumble of pottery styles. The sheer quantity of it that Franke pulled from
one rectangular pit suggested cooking on an institutional level. With the
crude cooking bowls and urns, however, were elegant, finely crafted pieces of
crockery, some of it no thicker than the shell of an ostrich egg.

"It's like Upstairs, Downstairs," says Franke. "I figured I'm in a place
where there are people cooking food for people, who were eating it off very
fine vessels."

One thing baffled her about the pottery, however. There were also delicate
versions of the cooking pots too small and brittle for use in a kitchen. At
first she thought they might be decorations or playthings. But their
prevalence on the site ruled this out.

"The small, delicate things mirror exactly the shape of the larger things,"
says Franke. "It doesn't make sense. To me this is the biggest mystery. It is
almost as if the potters were turning out these miniature versions for the

Just as intriguing were a series of "eye idols" - simple figures with bulging
eyes made from bone and similar to a group discovered in the 1930s in Iraq at
a site where Sir Max Mallowan, the archeologist husband of Agatha Christie,
once spent time on a dig. Archeologists believe the figures have a religious
significance. One was found lying in a grave.

More tantalising still for Gibson, however, was a portion of wall 10ft high
and 13ft wide. It had apparently been constructed for defence and it
suggested, he said, a high degree of central control, planning and
administration. Gibson hopes to find more of the wall later this year.

"It would suggest earlier growth of complexity of social organisations in
this part of the world than we previously thought," he says.

This would cast doubt on the widely held belief that the trend of urban
living spread north from ancient Mesopotamian cities such as Ur and Uruk.
This, in turn, raises the possibility that the ideas behind Tell Hamoukar's
constructions sprang from an even earlier influence, perhaps the little-known
culture in the Tigris and Euphrates region, whose artefacts dating back to
about 4500 BC have been labelled "Ubaid period" and are scattered throughout
the Middle East.

On the old trade route between Nineveh and Aleppo, the inhabitants of Tell
Hamoukar are believed to have traded pottery, textiles and precious stones.
Yet the trade routes also carried ideas from one tribal area to another,
which archeologists believe first created civilisation.

Gil Stein, a prominent American archeologist, says future Tell Hamoukar
excavations promise rich rewards. "Monumental structures in southern
Mesopotamia took decades to excavate because they were buried so deep," he

In Tell Hamoukar, however, artefacts are being found much closer to the
surface amid expectations that temples and other large structures may soon be
uncovered. "It's very exciting," he said. "Watch this space."

Whatever the case, the modern world has one tradition, at least, for which to
thank these earliest of urban dwellers. The American archeologists believe
they have discovered what could be the world's oldest brewery at Tell

An analysis of the contents of immense vats discovered at the site show the
remains of barley. "They were," declares Gibson, "almost certainly beer