A team of archaeologists has discovered the remains of a 3,400-year-old Mittani Empire-era city that was once located on the Tigris River.

The settlement emerged from the waters of the Mosul reservoir earlier this year when water levels dropped rapidly due to extreme drought in Iraq. The sprawling city with a palace and several large buildings could be ancient Zakhiku, believed to have been an important center in the Mittani Empire (ca. 1550-1350 BC).

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 To prevent crops from drying out, large amounts of water have been withdrawn from the Mosul Reservoir, Iraq’s most important water storage, since December. This led to the reappearance of a Bronze Age city that had been submerged decades ago without prior archaeological investigations. 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 Hasan Ahmed Qasim, President of the Kurdistan Archaeological Organisation, and German archaeologists Ivana Puljiz (University of Freiburg) and Peter Pfälzner (University of Tübingen) spontaneously decided to undertake joint rescue excavations at Kemune. These took place in January and February 2022 in collaboration with the Directorate of Antiquities and Heritage in Duhok (Kurdistan region of Iraq).

Within days a team was assembled for the rescue excavations. Short-term funding for the work was obtained from the Fritz Thyssen Foundation through the University of Freiburg. The German-Kurdish archaeological team was under immense time pressure because it was unclear when the water in the reservoir would rise again.

In a short time, the researchers managed to largely map 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 walls and towers, a multi-storey monumental storage building, and an industrial complex. The sprawling urban complex dates to the time of the Mittani Empire (ca. 1550-1350 BC), which controlled much of northern Mesopotamia and Syria.

“The huge building is of particular importance because huge amounts of merchandise must have been stored in it, probably brought from all over the region,” says Ivana Puljiz in a statement. Hasan Qasim concludes: “The excavation results show that the site was an important center in the Mittani Empire.”

The research team was stunned by the well-preserved state of the walls, sometimes standing several meters high, even though 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 by an earthquake around 1350 BC, during which the upper parts of the walls collapsed and buried the buildings.

Of particular interest is the discovery of five ceramic vessels that contained an archive of more than 100 cuneiform tablets. They date from the Middle Assyrian period, shortly after the earthquake disaster struck the city. Some clay tablets, which may be letters, are still in their clay envelopes. The researchers hope that 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 almost a miracle that cuneiform tablets made of unfired clay survived so many decades under water,” says Peter Pfälzner.

To prevent further damage to the important site from rising water, the excavated buildings were completely covered with tight-fitting plastic sheets and covered with gravel fill as part of an extensive conservation project funded by the Gerda Henkel Foundation. This is meant to protect the unfired clay walls and any other finds still hidden in the ruins during times of flood. The site is now once again completely submerged.

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