Ruins of 3,400-year-old lost city uncovered in Iraq from extreme drought

TÜBINGEN, Germany — Archaeologists have rediscovered the ruins of a 3,400-year-old city in the Middle East — thanks to climate change.

A team of German and Kurdish researchers say severe droughts in Iraq led to the drawing down of the Mosul reservoir in order to save local crops. As the reservoir emptied out, the Mittani Empire-era city emerged for the first time in decades.

The expansive city includes a palace and several large buildings, which researchers believe may be the ruins of Zakhiku — an important center in the Bronze Age’s Mittani Empire between 1550 and 1350 BC. The team notes that no one has seen these ruins in over 40 years, since the area along the Tigris River was transformed into a reservoir.

Kemune city
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: University of Tübingen)

Iraq is a capital of climate change

Researchers add that climate change has a particularly strong impact on the environment in Iraq. In the southern part of the country, climate change can bring extreme droughts which last for months. Since December, the nation has been tapping into the Mosul reservoir to keep the land alive. That’s when the ruins at Kemune reappeared.

It provided scientists with a rare opportunity to examine the sight before water levels returned to normal. The team was able to map most of the city, adding to knowledge from a 2018 expedition. That study only found the palace hiding underwater.

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Aerial view of the excavations at Kemune with Bronze Age architecture partly submerged in the lake. (Credit: University of Tübingen)

How did the city survive in the reservoir?

The new study uncovered several other buildings as well as a massive fortification of walls and towers. Archaeologists say a large earthquake destroyed the Mittani city around 1350 BC, causing the upper parts of these walls to come crashing down on the buildings within — burying them. The team also believes this is what helped to keep the structures so well-preserved after all these years under water.

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The walls of the Mittani-period storage building are partly preserved several meters high. (Credit: University of Tübingen)

Researchers also discovered a multi-story storage building and some sort of industrial complex at the site.

“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,” says Dr. Ivana Puljiz from the University of Freiburg, in a media release.

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

Kemune city
Pottery vessels, in which cuneiform tablets were stored, are standing in the corner of a room from the Middle Assyrian period (c. 1350–1100 BC) (Credit: University of Tübingen)

Finding documents from the distant past

Inside the ruins, the team found something possibly even more important. They discovered five ceramic jars containing over 100 cuneiform tablets. Cuneiform is an ancient script used by several cultures in the ancient Middle East.

These tablets date back to the Middle Assyrian period, a time shortly before the earthquake that destroyed the city. Some of the tablets may have been letters and were still in clay envelopes when the team found them.

“It is close to a miracle that cuneiform tablets made of unfired clay survived so many decades under water,” says Peter Pfälzner from the University of Tübingen.

Kemune tablet
View into one of the pottery vessels with cuneiform tablets, including one tablet which is still in its original clay envelope. (Credit: University of Tübingen)

To keep the site from deteriorating, researchers covered much of the site in plastic before covering the buildings with gravel. The Mosul reservoir is now full again, sending the city back to its watery home — until climate change strikes again.

Kemune city
After the research team has completed their work, the excavation is covered extensively with plastic foil to protect it from the rising waters of the Mosul reservoir. (Credit: University of Tübingen)

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