Discovery

Scientists Unearth 3,400-Year-Old City That Emerged From Tigris River in Iraq, Reveal Ancient Clay Tablets

BY Michael Wing TIMEJune 23, 2022 PRINT

Kurdish and German archaeologists in early 2022 explored the remains of a 3,400-year-old city that emerged from the depths of the Tigris River near Mosul in northern Iraq.

Amidst the ruins of the Bronze Age city, once part of the Mitanni Empire which lasted from 1550 to 1350 B.C., they explored a palace previously known to them, but also unearthed several new, large structures and an extensive industrial complex.

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The archaeological site of Kemune at the Mosul reservoir. (Courtesy of Universities of Freiburg and Tübingen, KAO)
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Archaeologists and workers excavate the walls of a large building in the ancient city, thought to be a storage building from the time of the Mitanni Empire. (Courtesy of Universities of Freiburg and Tübingen, KAO)

The city is thought to possibly be Zakhiku, once an important center on the Tigris River, at Kemune where the Mosul reservoir now lies. Due to drought in southern Iraq, since December, large volumes of water were drawn from the reservoir and sent south to irrigate crops, thus falling water levels offered an opportunity for researchers to explore. So a team, led by Kurdish archaeologist Dr. Hasan Ahmed Qasim, chairman of the Kurdistan Archaeology Organization, German archaeologists Dr. Ivana Puljiz, from the University of Freiburg, and Dr. Peter Pfälzner, from the University of Tübingen, spontaneously set out to delve deeper into the ancient city.

They quickly found funding for an emergency excavation from the Fritz Thyssen Foundation through the University of Freiburg, but they were under tremendous pressure to explore as much as they possibly could, as they did not know when water levels would rise again. The site at Kemune is located in the Kurdistan region in northern Iraq.

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Pottery vessels, in which cuneiform tablets were stored. (Courtesy of Universities of Freiburg and Tübingen, KAO)
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Aerial view of the excavations at Kemune. (Courtesy of Universities of Freiburg and Tübingen, KAO)
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Archaeologists and workers uncover mudbrick walls of the buildings in the ancient city at Kemune. (Courtesy of Universities of Freiburg and Tübingen, KAO)

Within a short period of time, in collaboration with the Directorate of Antiquities and Heritage in Duhok, they mapped out a large area of the city through January and February, the University of Tübingen reported. They explored the palace, which had previously been discovered in 2018, and also discovered several new structures—large buildings, including a wall several meters high with fortifications and towers, a monumental, multistory storage facility, and a large industrial complex.

“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,” said Puljiz.

Qasim added, “The excavation results show that the site was an important center in the Mitanni Empire.”

Made of sun-dried brick, the wall is remarkably well preserved, considering that for over 40 years it lay in a watery grave. The good condition of the find could also have to do with an earthquake that ended the Mitanni Empire in 1350 B.C., and destroyed the upper portion of the wall, burying the city in rubble, protecting it from disturbance.

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The mudbricks of the Bronze Age buildings were soaked by the water of the reservoir but can still be easily recognized and exposed. (Courtesy of Universities of Freiburg and Tübingen, KAO)
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The excavated large buildings from the Mitanni period were measured and documented. (Courtesy of Universities of Freiburg and Tübingen, KAO)
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The walls of the Mitanni period storage building, several meters high, were partly preserved. (Courtesy of Universities of Freiburg and Tübingen, KAO)
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One of the vessels with cuneiform tablets is inspected before being recovered. (Courtesy of Universities of Freiburg and Tübingen, KAO)

Of particular interest to the researchers were five ceramic vessels containing an archive of over 100 cuneiform tablets made of unfired clay, which are believed to date from the Middle Assyrian period and could provide valuable information about how the Mitanni Empire ended. Some of the tablets, which could be letters, were still in their clay envelopes.

“It is close to a miracle that cuneiform tablets made of unfired clay survived so many decades under water,” said Pfälzner.

Before waters plunged the city beneath the reservoir once again, the researchers covered the site with tight-fitting plastic and gravel to protect it from further damage—particularly to the unbaked clay wall and other important finds that remain hidden.

The city is now completely resubmerged under the Mosel reservoir. The researchers’ exploration of the 3,400-year-old ruins, part of a project funded by the Gerda Henkel Foundation, is on pause for now, until such time as waters recede, relinquishing the ancient city for future discovery.

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Cuneiform tablets, including one tablet which is still in its original clay envelope, inside one of the vessels. (Courtesy of Universities of Freiburg and Tübingen, KAO)
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A restorer carefully retrieves cuneiform tablets from an opened pottery vessel. (Courtesy of Universities of Freiburg and Tübingen, KAO)
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After the research team completed their work, the excavation was covered with plastic sheeting to protect it from the rising waters of the Mosul reservoir. (Courtesy of Universities of Freiburg and Tübingen, KAO)

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Michael Wing
Editor and Writer
Michael Wing is a writer and editor based in Calgary, Canada, where he was born and educated in the arts. He writes mainly on culture, human interest, and trending news.
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