Once upon a time, before writing was even invented, the people of an ancient city located in Hamoukar, modern-day Syria, were subjected to the horrors of urban warfare, the earliest case of this style of combat that scholars know about. Now, 5,500 years later, the site  finds itself threatened by the effects of a modern-day war.

The ancient inhabitants  were assaulted by a force armed with slingshots and clay balls. The attackers, possibly from the more well known city of Uruk and perhaps motivated by Hamoukar’s access to copper, succeeded in taking the city, destroying part of it through fire.

“The attack must have been swift and intense. Buildings collapsed, burning out of control, burying everything in them under vast piles of rubble,” Clemens Reichel, one of the team leaders of the University of Chicago Oriental Institute’s Hamoukar Expedition, said in a 2007 University of Chicago news story.

Today, Hamoukar’s modern inhabitants face automatic gunfire, helicopter gunships and, as Western intelligence agencies have now verified, chemical weapons. The conflict has killed more than 60,000 people and resulted in more than a million refugees being forced to flee the country. It has also damaged and otherwise put in peril numerous historical sites, including Hamoukar.

Still, apart from the warfare, there is another peril for the site, stemming for the modern thirst for urban development. Without a local authority able to protect antiquities, the ancient city of Hamoukar has undergone a modern-day building boom. According to Reichel, the archaeological team’s co-director “noticed that there was a big bulldozer cut on the site right next to our dig house […]. As I remember, it was about 25 meters (82 feet) long and 3 meters (10 feet) deep, so that’s a very sizable cut,” which, it turned out, was dug by a contractor building an addition for a school building. “If there’s ever a way back to Hamoukar, we have to really fight an uphill battle there to protect the site,” Reichel said, adding that the newly erected buildings would have to be taken down wherever possible. “That’s going to be a major challenge,” he noted.

Held in a museum at Deir ez-Zor, located about 150 miles (240 kilometers) southwest from the Hamoukar site,the artifacts the team has already discovered also face danger.

“Deir ez-Zor has seen a lot of violence and a lot of destruction,”says Reichel, adding that he’s not entirely sure what the situation is at the museum. “I have to say, I’m not particularly optimistic; I think it’s quite possible that it [the museum] will see damage as well, and it’s a museum that will be looted.” Some ceramic, faunal and archaeobotanical samples, of no commercial value, that were being kept in their dig house may also be lost.

Yet another risk is the possibility of a new insurgent group taking over the area. The Guardian reported last month that Jabhat al-Nusra, which the U.K. news outlet says is associated with al-Qaida, is moving into the province where Hamoukar is located, taking control of oil fields from Kurdish groups.

Reichel emphasized that although Hamoukar is impacted by the war, it hasn’t suffered as harsh a fate as historical sites in western Syria, where the bulk of the fighting has taken place.

“I don’t want to single out Hamoukar; what is happening in western Syria is really the big tragedy,” he said, noting places that have taken greater damage, such as Palmyra, Aleppo and sites in Damascus. “Those are, of course, really at major risk, and this is where most of the warfare and related conflict seems to be going on.”

Trip to southern Iraq

Archaeology in Iraq is still recovering from the effects of the 2003 U.S. invasion but there are positive signs in the south of the country said Reichel, who recently visited the area, assessing the possibility of future archaeological projects.

“We encountered guards virtually everywhere, and that’s very encouraging of course,” he said, emphasizing that he can only speak of the archaeological sites he saw in the far south of Iraq around Basra and Nasiriyah. “Things are definitely getting better; the security situation is much improved,” he said, noting that there are still some major challenges that need to be overcome.

In part of northern Iraq, the situation for archaeologists is better. “There’s a lot of fieldwork going on in the north, in Kurdistan, which is a semiautonomous region, but in southern Iraq, we’ll have to see what the security situation is going to be like,” Reichel said. “This is one of the challenges,” he said. “The other one is that the costs of working, or even traveling in Iraq, are still very high, partly because we still have to pay for security.”

Nonetheless, Reichel thinks that in time, archaeologists will come back to the southern part of the country. “I think it’s going to be a slow process of recovery,” he said.

Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum is set to open a major Mesopotamian exhibition featuring over 170 artifacts, many from London’s British Museum, on June 22. The museum is also running a concurrent exhibit that looks at the looting in Iraq that occurred after the U.S. invasion in 2003.