A 3 400-year-old city, possibly ancient Zakhiku, emerges from the Tigris River, Iraq

The archaeological site of Kemune in the dried-up area of the Mosul reservoir

A team of German and Kurdish archaeologists has uncovered a 3 400-year-old Mittani Empire-era city once located on the Tigris River. The settlement emerged from the waters of the Mosul reservoir early this year as water levels fell rapidly due to extreme drought in Iraq.

  • According to the researchers, this extensive city with a palace and several large buildings could be ancient Zakhiku – believed to have been an important center in the Mittani Empire (ca. 1 550-1 350 BC).
  • It is located at Kemune in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.

To prevent crops from drying out due to extreme drought, particularly affecting southern Iraq, large amounts of water have been drawn down from the Mosul reservoir – the country’s most important water storage – since December 2021.

This led to the reappearance of a Bronze Age city that had been submerged decades ago without any prior archaeological investigations.1

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 resubmerged.

The Kurdish archaeologist Dr. Hasan Ahmed Qasim, chairman of the Kurdistan Archaeology Organization, and the German archaeologists Jun.-Prof. Dr. Ivana Puljiz, University of Freiburg, and Prof. Dr. 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 a short time, the researchers succeeded in largely mapping the city.

A 3400-year-old city, possibly ancient Zakhiku, emerges from the Tigris River, Iraq - image 2
Aerial view of the excavations at Kemune with Bronze Age architecture partly submerged in the lake. Credit: Universities of Freiburg and Tübingen, KAO
A 3400-year-old city, possibly ancient Zakhiku, emerges from the Tigris River, Iraq - image 1
The archaeological site of Kemune in the dried-up area of the Mosul reservoir. Credit: Universities of Freiburg and Tübingen, KAO

In addition to a palace, which had already been documented during a short campaign in 2018, 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 dates to the time of the Empire of Mittani (approx. 1 550-1 350 BC), 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,” Dr. Ivana Puljiz from the University of Freiburg said.

“The excavation results show that the site was an important center in the Mittani Empire,” said Dr. Hasan Ahmed Qasim, chairman of the Kurdistan Archaeology Organization.

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 1 350 BC, during which the collapsing upper parts of the walls buried the buildings.

A 3400-year-old city, possibly ancient Zakhiku, emerges from the Tigris River, Iraq - image 9
The excavated large buildings from the Mittani period are measured and archaeologically documented. Credit: Universities of Freiburg and Tübingen, KAO
A 3400-year-old city, possibly ancient Zakhiku, emerges from the Tigris River, Iraq - image 5
Archaeologists and workers excavate the walls of a large building in the ancient city, which is interpreted as a storage building from the time of the Mittani Empire. Credit: Universities of Freiburg and Tübingen, KAO

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 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,” Pfälzner says.

A 3400-year-old city, possibly ancient Zakhiku, emerges from the Tigris River, Iraq - image 6
Pottery vessels, in which cuneiform tablets were stored, are standing in the corner of a room from the Middle Assyrian period (c. 1 350–1 100 BC). Credit: Universities of Freiburg and Tübingen, KAO
A 3400-year-old city, possibly ancient Zakhiku, emerges from the Tigris River, Iraq - image 8
View into one of the pottery vessels with cuneiform tablets, including one tablet which is still in its original clay envelope. Credit: Universities of Freiburg and Tübingen, KAO

Conservation project to prevent damage by rising water

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 more completely submerged.

References:

1 A 3400-year-old city emerges from the Tigris River – UNI Freiburg – May 30, 2022

Featured image: The archaeological site of Kemune in the dried-up area of the Mosul reservoir. Credit: Universities of Freiburg and Tübingen, KAO

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