University of Tübingen: 3,400-year-old city emerged from the Tigris

A team of German and Kurdish archaeologists has uncovered a 3,400-year-old city from the time of the Mittani Empire on the Tigris, which had emerged from the waters of the Mosul reservoir. This was made possible because the water level in the lake had dropped rapidly due to extreme drought in Iraq. The extensive city complex with a palace and several large buildings could be the old Zachiku. This may have been an important center in the great empire of Mittani (ca. 1550-1350 BC).

Iraq is one of the countries most affected by climate change in the world. The south of the country in particular has been suffering from extreme drought for months. In order not to let the harvest dry up, since December large amounts of water have been drained from the Mosul reservoir – Iraq’s most important water reservoir – for irrigation purposes. This resurfaced at the edge of the lake, at the site of Kemune in Iraq’s Kurdistan Region, a Bronze Age city that had disappeared decades ago before it could be archaeologically examined.

This unforeseen event put archeology under pressure: at least parts of this large, important city complex had to be uncovered and documented as quickly as possible before it sank back into the water. That is why the Kurdish archaeologist Dr. Hasan A. Qasim, director of the Kurdistan Archeology Organization (KAO), and the German archaeologist junior professor Ivana Puljiz from the University of Freiburg and the German archaeologist Professor Peter Pfälzner from the University of Tübingen spontaneously decided to undertake a joint rescue excavation in Kemune. This took place in January and February 2022 in cooperation with the Department of Antiquities in Dohuk, Kurdistan Region of Iraq.

A team for the rescue excavation was put together within a few days. Funds from the Fritz Thyssen Foundation were raised at short notice via the University of Freiburg to finance the work. The German-Kurdish team was under immense time pressure during the excavations because it was not clear when the water in the lake would rise again.

Exposed walls of a large building in the old town, project participants can be seen in the background
The archaeologists and workers uncover the walls of a large building in the old city complex, which is interpreted as a storage building from the time of the Mittani Empire
Within a short time, the researchers succeeded in largely reconstructing the plan of the city. In addition to a palace, which had already been recorded in a short campaign in 2018, several other large buildings were uncovered: a massive fortification with a wall and towers, a monumental, multi-storey warehouse building and an industrial complex. The sprawling city complex dates to the time of the Mittani empire (ca. 1550–1350 BC), which controlled large parts of northern Mesopotamia and Syria.

“The huge warehouse building is of particular importance because it must have stored enormous amounts of goods that were probably brought in from all over the region,” explains Ivana Puljiz. Hasan Qasim concludes: “The excavation results show that the site was an important center in the Mittani Empire”.

What is particularly astonishing is that the walls of these buildings are very well preserved, sometimes several meters high, despite the fact that they are adobe structures that have been under water for over 40 years, according to the research team. The reason for this is that the city was founded around 1350 BC. was destroyed in an earthquake and the collapsing upper parts of the walls buried the buildings.

Ceramic vessels in which cuneiform tablets were stored stand in the corner of a Middle Assyrian room
Ceramic vessels in which cuneiform tablets were stored stand in the corner of a room from the Middle Assyrian period (ca. 1350–1100 BC)
A particularly important discovery are five ceramic vessels in which an archive of over 100 cuneiform tablets was housed. They date to the Middle Assyrian period, shortly after the earthquake catastrophe that hit the city. Some clay tablets, which may be letters, are still in their clay envelopes. The researchers hope that this discovery will provide important information about the end of the Mittani city and the beginning of Assyrian rule in this region. “The fact that the cuneiform tablets made of unfired clay have survived for so many decades under water borders on a miracle,” says Peter Pfälzner.

In order to prevent further damage to the important ruins caused by the reservoir, the excavated buildings were completely covered with tight-fitting plastic foil and covered with gravel as part of an extensive conservation measure financed by the Gerda Henkel Foundation. This is to protect the walls made of unfired clay and any other finds still hidden in the ruins from the water. The site is now completely flooded again.