Archaeological Evidence for 1,700-Year-Old Chemical Warfare

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Archaeological Evidence for 1,700-Year-Old Chemical Warfare

One of the unique features of the First World War was the widespread use of chemical arms. Chemical gases of a variety of lethality, including mustard gas, phosgene and tear gas, were used to disable and kill enemy defenders.

Although chemical weapons played a major role during the Great War, their practice can be dated to a much former period of history.

One of the initial references to the use of chemical weapons in western literature can be found in the Greek myth of Heracles, in which the hero dips his arrows in the blood of the Hydra to make them toxic.

It has also been claimed that resentful arrows were mentioned by Homer in both his epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey.

Records of the use of chemical weapons also show in the ancient civilizations of the East. In India, for instance, the use of poisons during warfare can be recognized in both the Mahabharata and the Ramayana.

Moreover, recipes for toxic weapons can be creating in Kautilya’s Arthashastra, which dates to India’s Mauryan period. In China, there are writings that explain the use of toxic gases by defenders of a city. The toxic fumes, produced by burning balls of mustard or other toxic vegetables, are pumped into tunnels dug by a besieging army using bellows.


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Returning to the Western world, the use of toxic gas may be traced to the Peloponnesian War, which took place during the 5th century B.C. During one of the battles between the Spartans and the Athenians, the former burnt a mixture of wood, pitch and sculpture under the walls of the latter, hoping that the fumes would harm the defenders, and thus disabling their ability to resist the Spartan attack.

The examples provided thus far have been obtained through the surviving literary proof. For the earliest available archaeological facts of the use of chemical weapons, however, one would need to look at the site of Dura-Europos, which is situated on the bank of the Euphrates River in Syria.

Dura-Europos was a Roman city that fell to the Sassanians about the middle of the 3rd century A.D.

Although there are no fictional records about the final siege, archaeology provides a clue as to what happened. Dura-Europos was excavated during the 1920s and 30s by French and American archaeologists.

Among the features found by the archaeologists were mines, one dug by the Persians and another dig by the Romans as a counter.

In addition, the piled bodies of at least 19 Roman soldiers and a lone Sassanian soldier in the tunnel also established.

The initial explanation was that a fierce battle ensued in the tunnel, where the Sassanians successfully repelled the Roman defenders. After the fight, the Sassanians destroyed the counter-mine by setting fire to it, as evidenced by the presence of the sulphur crystals and bitumen in the tunnel.

In 2009, a re-examination of the data led to a re-interpretation of the events that happened during the siege. As the tunnels were too narrow for effective hand-to-hand combat, doubts were cast on the established explanation.

Furthermore, the position of the Roman bodies, stacked purposely into a pile, suggests that this was not the place where they fell. The alternate interpretation, as suggested by Prof. Simon James, an archaeologist at the University of Leicester, was that the Sassanians employed toxic gases to kill the Roman defenders.

When sulphur and bitumen were thrown onto a fire, it became a choking gas, and curved into sulphuric acid when breathed in by the Roman defenders. Within minutes, the Romans who were in the dig were dead. This happened when the Sassanian mine was busted in by the Romans, whose counter-mine was right above theirs.

The lone Sassanian soldier may have been a wounded of his own weapons, and died of the poison gasses as well.


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Once the dig was cleared, the Sassanians stacked the Roman bodies at the mouth of the counter-mine as a shield wall, and proceeded to destroy this mine, so that they could resume their sapping work.

The archaeological finds at Dura-Europos tell that chemical warfare was previously in use during ancient times, and provides the first physical proof that the literary sources lack.


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