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The ancient city comes out of the Tigris River

Kemune Archaeological Site

Kemune archeological site in the dry area of ​​Mosul Reservoir. Credit: Universities of Freiburg and Tübingen, KAO

The drought reveals a 3400-year-old urban center of the Mitanni Empire

The Kingdom of Mitanni, also known as the Hurri for the Hittites, Hanigalbat or Hani-Rabbat for the Assyrians, and Maryannu, Nahrin or Mitanni for the Egyptians, was a powerful nation around the 16th century, which was divided into portions. from present-day Syria, Iraq and Turkey.

Although it was thought to be a substantial regional power for a time, little is known about it today compared to other ancient nations of the time. Part of the reason is that no native sources for Mitanni’s history have yet been discovered.

Now, a team of German and Kurdish archaeologists has discovered a 3400-year-old town from the Mitanni Empire, once located on the Tigris River. The settlement emerged from the waters of Mosul Reservoir earlier this year as the water level dropped rapidly due to the extreme drought in Iraq. The extensive city with a palace and several large buildings could be the old Zakhiku - which is believed to have been an important center in the Mitanni Empire (ca. 1550-1350 BC).

Aerial view of the Kemune excavations

Aerial view of the Kemune excavations with Bronze Age architecture partially submerged in the lake. Credit: Universities of Freiburg and Tübingen, KAO

The Bronze Age city reappeared due to the 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 the crops from drying out, large amounts of water have been extracted 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 prior archaeological investigations. It is located in Kemune in the Kurdistan region of Iraq.

Archaeologists discover the walls of the ancient city of Kemune

Archaeologists and workers discover the mud brick walls of buildings in the ancient city of Kemune. Credit: Universities of Freiburg and Tübingen, KAO

This unforeseen event put archaeologists under sudden pressure to excavate and document at least parts of this large and important city as soon as possible before it was submerged. Kurdish archaeologist Dr. Hasan Ahmed Qasim, president of the Kurdistan Archaeological Organization, and 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).

Mud bricks of Bronze Age buildings

The mud bricks of Bronze Age buildings are soaked in the water of the reservoir, but can still be easily recognized and exposed. Credit: Universities of Freiburg and Tübingen, KAO

The Fritz Thyssen Foundation supported the excavations

A rescue team was formed in a matter of days. Funding was soon obtained from the Fritz Thyssen Foundation through the University of Freiburg. The German-Kurdish archeological team was under immense time pressure because it was not clear when the water in the tank would rise again.

Large buildings excavated from the Mittani period

The large buildings excavated from the Mitanni period are measured and archeologically documented. Credit: Universities of Freiburg and Tübingen, KAO

Massive fortification, multi-storey storage building, industrial complex

In a short time, researchers were able 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 monumental multi-storey storage building and an industrial complex. The sprawling urban complex dates back to the Mitanni Empire (c. 1550-1350 BC), which controlled much of northern Mesopotamia and Syria.

Archaeologists Dig the Walls of the Mittani Empire Storage Building

Archaeologists and workers are escaping the walls of a large building in the ancient city, which is interpreted as a storage building from the time of the Mitanni Empire. Credit: Universities of Freiburg and Tübingen, KAO

“The huge building of the magazine is of great importance, because huge quantities of goods must have been stored, probably brought from all over the region,” says Puljiz. Qasim concludes: “The excavation results show that the site was an important center in the Mitanni Empire.”

The walls of the Mittani storage building

The walls of the Mitanni storage building are partially kept a few meters high. Credit: Universities of Freiburg and Tübingen, KAO

The research team was amazed by the well-preserved condition of the walls - sometimes up to a few meters high - 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 in an earthquake around 1350 BC, during which the collapsed upper parts of the walls buried the buildings.

Ceramic pots with over 100 wedge-shaped tablets

Of particular interest is the discovery of five ceramic vessels that contained an archive of over 100 wedge-shaped tablets. They date back to the Middle Assyrian period, shortly after the earthquake struck the city. Some clay tablets, which can be letters, are still in their clay envelopes. Researchers hope that this discovery will provide important information about the end of the city in the Mitanni period and the beginning of Assyrian rule in the region. “It’s almost a miracle that the unfinished clay wedge tablets have survived so many decades underwater,” says Pfälzner.

Excavator covered with plastic wrap

Once the research team has completed its work, the excavation is extensively covered with plastic wrap to protect it from the rising waters of the Mosul Reservoir. Credit: Universities of Freiburg and Tübingen, KAO

Conservation project to prevent damage caused by rising water

To prevent further deterioration of the important site due to rising water, the excavated buildings were completely covered with waterproof plastic foil 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 from unripe clay and any other discoveries still hidden in the ruins during floods. The site is now completely submerged again.

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