09/06/2013 09:18 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Poison Gas Used In Ancient Syria? Eerie Evidence Of Lethal Chemical Warfare (PHOTOS)

Yale University Art Gallery

Even as Syrian President Bashar Assad faces international criticism over allegations of illegal chemical attacks, it appears the region may have seen chemical warfare as far back as 1,700 years ago. One of the earliest documented incidents of poison gassing may have occurred in an eastern Syrian province.

Back in 2009, an archaeologist from the United Kingdom's University of Leicester was the first to widely publicize evidence of an ancient poison gas attack. According to statements released by the university, Dr. Simon James came to his startling conclusion after reexamining the remains of about 20 Roman soldiers who died in a narrow space and under mysterious circumstances while defending their city from Persian attackers around 256 A.D.

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One of the skeletons believed to have died during an ancient poison gas attack. (Yale University Art Gallery/Dura-Europos Collection)

Discovery News notes there was no historical record of the brutal siege of the Roman fort at Dura-Europos, part of modern-day eastern Syria. Excavations in the area in the 1920s and 1930s, as well as a subsequent excavation in 1986, helped guide researchers' recreation of the scene.

"For the Persians to kill 20 men in a space less than 2 meters high or wide, and about 11 meters long, required superhuman combat powers -- or something more insidious," James said in a statement. "I think the [Persians] placed braziers and bellows in their gallery, and when the Romans broke through, added the chemicals and pumped choking clouds into the Roman tunnel. The Roman assault party were unconscious in seconds, dead in minutes."

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Close to 20 Romans and one Persian soldier may have perished as the result of a rudimentary poison gas attack in the 3rd century A.D. (Yale University Art Gallery/Dura-Europos Collection)

The gas was created by adding a compound of burnt bitumen and sulfur to fire, according to the statement. James was tipped off to the evidence of possible poisons by mineral residue near the bodies.

"These provided the vital clue," James told Discovery News at the time of his discovery in 2009. "When ignited, such materials give off dense clouds of choking gases."

He also rediscovered the body of a Persian soldier, the man likely given the unenviable task of lighting the volatile weapon.

"Probably, he is the man who set the fire," James told Discovery News at the time. "He lingered too long to ensure it was alight, and was himself overcome by fumes from the bitumen and sulfur he used to start the blaze."

Adrienne Mayor, a research scholar in classics and history of science at Stanford University, told Discovery News this week that chemically enhanced accelerants had been described in historical accounts of even older battles -- including the Peloponnesian War, around 429 B.C. But the Persian attack may represent one of the first documented instances of soldiers purposefully producing toxic fumes.


(Yale University Art Gallery/Dura-Europos Collection)