A team of German and Kurdish archaeologists have discovered a 3,400-year-old Mittani Empire-era city once located on the Tigris. The colony emerged from the waters of the Mosul Reservoir earlier this year as water levels dropped rapidly due to extreme drought in Iraq. The vast city with a palace and several large buildings could be ancient Zakhiku – said to have been an important center of the Mittani Empire (c. 1550-1350 BC).
A Bronze Age town has resurfaced due to drought
Iraq is one of the countries in the world most affected by climate change. The south of the country in particular has been suffering from extreme drought for months. To prevent crops from drying out, large amounts of water have been drawn from the Mosul Reservoir – Iraq’s largest water reservoir – since December. This led to the reappearance of a Bronze Age city that had been submerged decades ago without any prior archaeological investigation. It is located in Kemune in the Kurdistan region of Iraq.
This unforeseen event put archaeologists under sudden pressure to excavate and document at least parts of this large and important city as quickly as possible before it was submerged again. Kurdish archaeologist Dr. Hasan Ahmed Qasim, president of the Kurdistan Archeology Organization, and German archaeologists Jun.-Prof. Dr. Ivana Puljiz, University of Fribourg, and Prof. Dr. Peter Pfälzner, University of Tübingen, spontaneously decided to undertake joint salvage excavations in Kemune. These took place in January and February 2022 in collaboration with the Directorate of Antiquities and Heritage in Duhok (Kurdistan Region of Iraq).
The Fritz Thyssen Foundation supported the excavations
A rescue excavation team was assembled within days. Funding for the work was obtained on a short-term basis from the Fritz Thyssen Foundation through the University of Fribourg. The German-Kurdish archaeological team was under enormous time pressure as it was unclear when the water in the reservoir would rise.
Massive fortification, multi-storey storage building, industrial complex
In a short time, the researchers managed to map most of the city. In addition to a palace, which had already been documented during a short campaign in 2018, several other large buildings were discovered – a massive fortification with wall and towers, a monumental multi-storey storage building and an industrial complex. The vast urban complex dates from the time of the Mittani Empire (c. 1550-1350 BC), which controlled large parts of northern Mesopotamia and Syria.
“The huge store building is of particular significance because huge amounts of goods must have been stored there, probably brought in from all over the region,” says Puljiz. Qasim concludes: “The results of the excavations show that the site was an important center of the Mittani Empire.”
The research team was stunned by the state of preservation of the walls – sometimes at a height of several meters – despite the fact that the walls are made of sun-dried mud bricks and have been under water for more than 40 years. This good preservation is due to the fact that the city was destroyed during an earthquake around 1350 BC. BC, during which the collapse of the upper parts of the walls buried the buildings.
Ceramic vessels with over 100 cuneiform tablets
Of particular interest is the discovery of five ceramic vessels containing an archive of over 100 cuneiform tablets. They date from the Middle Assyrian period, shortly after the earthquake that struck the city. Some clay tablets, which may be letters, are even still in their clay casings. Researchers hope this find will provide important information about the end of the Mittani period city and the beginning of Assyrian rule in the region. “It’s almost a miracle that cuneiform tablets made of unfired clay have survived so many decades under water,” says Pfälzner.
Conservation project to prevent damage from rising waters
To prevent further damage to the important site from rising waters, the excavated buildings were completely covered with tight-fitting plastic sheeting and covered with gravel as part of an extensive conservation project funded by the Gerda Henkel Foundation . This is intended to protect the raw clay walls and any other finds still hidden in the ruins during times of flooding. The site is again completely submerged.
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