Where there is Smoke, There is Probably Ancient Chemical Warfare

old bones


In my opinion, the most interesting part of archeology is not the unearthing of lost artifacts and old bones; but the stories, once lost, that can now be retold, centuries or even millennia after. Like this one, about 19 dead Roman soldiers who died in 256 A.D. in a very peculiar manner.

Robert du Mesnil du Boisson, an early 20th century French archaeologist, uncovered tunnels under the ancient Syrian city of Dura; presumably used in the 3rd century Persian siege of the Roman occupied city.  The tunnel, originating in an ancient necropolis, led beneath the city wall, where archaeologist found 19 dead Romans and a single dead Persian soldier.  Mesnil also noticed traces of sulfur on the walls (Supernatural, anyone?). After he had sketched the precise location of the bodies (as any archaeologist worth his salt would), he concluded that after a brief but ferocious underground battle, the Romans were lit on fire and died where they laid, stacked and stuffed into the tunnel entrance.

Fast forward a couple decades where Simon James, an archaeologist and historian, found something funny about Mesnil’s notes. For one thing, the 3 X 3 tunnels would be a difficult place for 19 Romans (and the one, presumably badass Persian that killed them all) to have a pitched battle. Also, the oddly neat arrangement of the skeletons didn’t agree with a chaotic, fiery scramble through a small tunnel. James’s theory is that the Romans were not run through with swords or emolliated. It was the smoke, not the fire.

James believes the evidence is much stronger when an all together different scenario is played out. The Persians in their tunnels, hearing the Romans digging to intercept, laid a trap. Upon entering the Persian tunnel, a great fire was lit with sulfur and bitumen thrown on to it. As the Romans were digging down at an angle to intercept, their tunnel would act like a natural chimney. As soon as they broke through, waves of sulfuric smoke would literally melt their lungs from the inside out.  The one unlucky Persian was probably too close to the fire and was killed himself – this is supported by the position of the skeleton, which appears to be clawing at his chest.  After the smoke had cleared, the Roman corpses were stacked into the entrance; effectively blocking off the Roman tunnel.

James believes that this is another example of the horribly creative chemical warfare seen in antiquity. What I found interesting about this story was the amazing way in which James, decades after Mesnil’s discovery, was able to depict a radically different story then what was previously proposed. Deduction is just as important of a skill in archeology as surveying or recording. Deductions, like those made by James, is the reason FOR archaeology. It’s not about preserving vanished artifacts; it is about recalling lost stories.

Here is the link to the full story:


2 thoughts on “Where there is Smoke, There is Probably Ancient Chemical Warfare

  1. I found this article very intriguing. I liked the use of contradicting views to explain the body lay out and sulfur sediment. In relation to what you said in your opening paragraph, I also find it amazing that archaeologists can use information from as far back as 256 A.D. to approximate ancient warfare.
    I believe that French archaeologist Robert du Mesnil du Buisson, who found the ancient tunnels, had a very simplistic outlook on occurring events uncovered in aforementioned tunnels. With only one Persian body lying in the tunnel it seems implausible that major hand-to-hand combat took place, unless the Persians removed their fellow soldiers’ bodies. But in that case, why would one be left behind?
    Infinite possibilities are the root of the problem when trying to piece together the puzzle of a tale taking place almost 2000 years ago. No one will ever know what happened for sure, but ones imagination can construct all sorts of explanations to the left behind bodies in those tunnels.
    I do respect the ideas that were brought to the table by Simon James, the archaeologist and historian from the University of Leicester in England. I liked his outside of the box mind set in which he envisioned this occurrence taking place. He explains “it would have been difficult to engage in hand-to-hand combat in the tunnels, which could barely accommodate a man standing upright. For another, the position of the bodies on du Mesnil’s sketches didn’t match a scenario in which the Romans were run through or burned to death.” Know you stated this in your post, but I just thought this was a very powerful argument. As soon as I heard that statement, I was won over.

  2. This is a very interesting piece when you think about the power of deduction and the importance of reviewing fellow peers’ works. The ability to review and revise another colleague’s material is one of the foundations for the modern scientific community. For anthropology to become a truly respectable field of science over social science than anthropologist must all be willing to review and revise other colleagues’ works. Revision is key because what Robert du Mesnil du Boisson believe to have happen was the best explanation at the time. It wasn’t until Simon James came up with a better hypothesis and explanation like the positioning of the hand that he was able to come to what is I believe to be a better explanation of what occurred down in that tunnel one thousand seven hundred and fifty seven years ago.
    The problem with early anthropologist like Robert du Mesnil du Boisson is the fact that they had a cap on how much they could do and even more powerful on how much they actually knew. Depending on how early in the twenty century he excavated the site, he may have never known about chemical warfare, until it became widely known on world war two. Also the anthropological spectrum that he was viewing these events may have caused him to be bias. Even if he was unbiased he still lacks the amenity of the twenty first century technology. They could have analysis the bodies that were there and have knowledge that ancient societies did participate in chemical warfare. If it was not for Simon James to review the work of Boisson the past would not be clearer today.

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