A 3,400-year-old city resurfaces from the Tigris River in the Kurdistan Region
German and Kurdish archaeologists recently examined a 3,400-year-old Mitanni Empire-era city three kilometers from New Kemune village in Duhok province's Sumel district, Bekas Brifkani of the Duhok Directorate of Antiquities and Heritage in Duhok told a press conference in Duhok on Monday.
The ancient city emerged from the waters of the Mosul reservoir early this year as water levels lowered due to extreme drought in Iraq.
With a palace and several large buildings, the city could be ancient Zakhiku – believed to have been an important center in the Mitanni Empire (1550-1350 BC).
According to Brifkani, Duhok has more than 2,000 archeological sites.
Bronze Age city resurfaced due to drought
Iraq is one of the countries in the world most affected by climate change. In particular, the country's south has been suffering from extreme drought for months. Since December, large amounts of water have been drawn down from the Mosul reservoir to prevent crops drying out. This led to the reappearance of the Bronze Age city, submerged decades ago without any prior archaeological investigations.
This unforeseen event put archaeologists under sudden pressure to excavate and document at least parts of this large, important city as quickly as possible before it was re-submerged. The Kurdish archaeologist Dr. Hasan Ahmed Qasim, chairman of the Kurdistan Archaeology Organization, and the German archaeologists Jun.-Prof. Dr. Ivana Puljiz from the University of Freiburg and Prof. Dr. Peter Pfälzner from the University of Tübingen spontaneously decided to undertake joint excavation work at Kemune. That work took place in January and February in collaboration with Duhok's antiquities directorate.
A team for the excavations was put together within days. Funding for the work was obtained on short notice from the Fritz Thyssen Foundation through the University of Freiburg. The German-Kurdish archaeological team was under immense pressure since it was not clear when the water in the reservoir would rise again.
Within a short time, the researchers succeeded in mapping most of the city. In addition to a palace, which had already been documented during a brief campaign in 2018, several other large buildings were uncovered – a massive fortification with walls and towers, a monument, a multi-story storage building, and an industrial complex. The extensive urban complex dates to the time of the Empire of Mitanni, which controlled large parts of northern Mesopotamia and Syria.
"The huge magazine building is particularly important because enormous quantities of goods must have been stored in it, probably brought from all over the region," said Puljiz.
"The excavation results show that the site was an important center in the Mitanni Empire," said Dr. Qasim.
The research team was stunned by the well-preserved state of the walls – sometimes to a height of several meters – despite being made of sun-dried mud bricks and having been underwater for more than 40 years. The city was destroyed in an earthquake in 1350 BC that caused the upper parts of the wall to bury its buildings. This may explain why the lower walls were so well-preserved hundreds of years later.
Ceramic vessels with over 100 cuneiform tablets
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 struck the city. Some clay tablets, which may be letters, are still in their clay envelopes. The researchers hope this discovery will provide important information about the end of the Mitanni-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 underwater," said Pfälzner.
Conservation project to prevent damage by rising water
The excavated buildings were covered entirely with tight-fitting plastic sheeting and covered with gravel fill as part of an extensive conservation project funded by the Gerda Henkel Foundation to avert further damage to the important site by the rising water. This is intended to protect the walls of unbaked clay and any other find still hidden in the ruins during times of flooding.
The site is now once more wholly submerged.