Iraqi Drought Reveals Stunning 3,400-Year-Old City Covered By Tigris River

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German and Kurdish archaeologists have uncovered an ancient metropolis of the Mittani Empire once submerged below the Tigris River.

The settlement was revealed when the levels of the Mosul reservoir plunged earlier this year due to extreme drought in Iraq

View into one of the pottery vessels with cuneiform tablets, including one tablet which is still in its original clay envelope. (Credit: University of Tübingen)

The extensive city with a palace and several large buildings could be Zakhiku—believed to have been an important center in the Mittani Empire between 1550-1350 BC.

To prevent crops from drying out, large amounts of water have been drawn down from the reservoir, which is Iraq’s most important water storage.

This led to the reappearance of a Bronze Age city that had been submerged decades ago without any prior archaeological investigations. It is located at Kemune in the Kurdistan Region of the country.

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The unforeseen event sent archaeologists scrambling to excavate and document at least parts of this large, important city as quickly as possible before it was resubmerged.

The Kurdish archaeologist Dr. Hasan Ahmed Qasim, chairman of the Kurdistan Archaeology Organization, and the German archaeologists Prof. Dr. Ivana Puljiz (University of Freiburg) and Prof. Dr. Peter Pfälzner (University of Tübingen) spontaneously decided to undertake joint rescue excavations at Kemune in January and February, in collaboration with the Directorate of Antiquities and Heritage in Duhok (Kurdistan Region of Iraq).

A team for the rescue excavations was put together within days. Funding for the work was obtained at short notice from the Fritz Thyssen Foundation. They were under immense time pressure because it was not clear when the water in the reservoir would rise again—and the exposed walls of large buildings in the old city complex would vanish.

The team was ‘stunned’

Fortunately, the researchers succeeded in largely mapping the city. In addition to a palace, several other large buildings were uncovered—a massive fortification with wall and towers, a monumental, multi-story storage building and an industrial complex. The extensive urban complex was described as an “important center” of the Empire of Mittani, which controlled large parts of northern Mesopotamia and Syria.

“The huge magazine building is of particular importance because enormous quantities of goods must have been stored in it, probably brought from all over the region,” says Prof. Ivana Puljiz.

The research team was stunned by the well-preserved state of the walls—sometimes to a height of several meters—despite the fact that the walls are made of sun-dried mud bricks and were under water for more than 40 years.

This good preservation is due to the fact that the city was destroyed in an earthquake around 1350 BC, during which the collapsing upper parts of the walls buried the buildings.

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Pottery vessels, in which cuneiform tablets were stored, from the Middle Assyrian period – Courtesy of Universities of Freiburg and Tübingen / KAO

Of particular interest is the discovery of five ceramic vessels that contained an archive of over 100 cuneiform tablets. They date to the Middle Assyrian period, shortly after the earthquake disaster struck the city. Some clay tablets, which may be letters, are even still in their clay envelopes.

The researchers hope this discovery will provide important information about the end of the Mittani-period city and the beginning of Assyrian rule in the region. “It is close to a miracle that cuneiform tablets made of unfired clay survived so many decades under water,” Peter Pfälzner says.

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After the research team has completed their work, the excavation is covered extensively with plastic foil to protect it from the rising waters of the Mosul reservoir. (Credit: University of Tübingen)

To avert further damage to the important site by the rising water, the excavated buildings were completely covered with tight-fitting plastic sheeting and covered with gravel fill as part of an extensive conservation project funded by the Gerda Henkel Foundation.

This is intended to protect the walls of unbaked clay and any other finds still hidden in the ruins during times of flooding. The site is now once again completely submerged.

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