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: