Drought reveals Bronze Age city

Extreme drought in Iraq has given German and Kurdish archaeologists the unique chance to examine an ancient Bronze Age city that was hidden beneath the water of a reservoir for decades. Experts believe the ruins could be those of the ancient city of Zachiku. It was a race against the clock to complete work before the city was once again covered by the reservoir's rising water level. By Alexander Freund

By Alexander Freund

Southern Iraq has been suffering from extreme drought for months. Since December, large amounts of water have been diverted from the Mosul Dam, Iraq's most important water reservoir, to prevent harvests from drying out.

Due to the low water level, the remains of a 3,400-year-old city that disappeared decades ago emerged on the edge of the reservoir. "I saw on satellite images that the water level was falling but it wasn't clear when the water would rise again. So, we had an unknown window of time," says German archaeologist Ivana Puljiz, a junior professor at the University of Freiburg.

But archaeologists knew that the site – known as Kemune – was interesting. They had been there before. So, Puljiz got together with Hasan Ahmed Qasim, a Kurdish archaeologist and director of the Kurdistan Archaeology Organisation, and Peter Pfälzner, a German archaeology professor at the University of Tübingen, to carry out a spontaneous rescue excavation.

They quickly put together a team of German and Kurdish archaeologists to uncover and document as much of the large site as they could. The team surveyed the Bronze Age city for seven weeks in January and February 2022 before it was completely flooded again.

Archaeologists at work on the site of a 3,400-year-old Bronze Age city in Iraq revealed by falling reservoir water levels (photo: Universities of Tübingen and Freiburg/KAO)
كان علماء الأثار الألمان والأكراد في سباق ضد الزمن لتوثيق المدينة الأثرية قبل أن تغمرها المياه من جديد: على وقع ظهور ملامح مدينة زاخيكو التي كانت مغمورة بالمياه منذ عقود، بدأت مهمة بولجيز وحسن أحمد قاسم، رئيس هيئة آثار إقليم كردستان، وبيتر بفالزنر، عالم الآثار الألماني في جامعة توبينغن، بالشروع في أعمال التنقيب والإنقاذ ثم شكلوا فريقا من علماء الآثار الألمان والأكراد للتنقيب وتوثيق أكبر قدر ممكن من هذه المدينة قبل أن تغمرها المياه مرة أخرى.

Emergency excavation reveals large buildings

During a similar dry phase in 2018, the researchers had discovered a fortress-like palace located nearby on a small hill. It was bordered by a large terrace wall.

At the time, Ivana Puljiz's team found the remains of wall paintings in bright red and blue tones, thought to be a typical feature of such palaces. The fact that the pigments were preserved despite the flooding was "an archaeological sensation," Puljiz told DW after their 2022 visit to the site.

"Of course we had high hopes. Based on the things we had found in 2018, we knew that this site could bring interesting findings. But we didn't know what exactly we would find [this time]," said Puljiz.

The team was not disappointed: During this year's excavation, the archaeologist said they were able to uncover other large buildings, such as a massive fortification with a wall and towers that surrounded the city.

German archaeologist Ivana Puljiz, a junior professor at the University of Freiburg, at work on the site of a 3,400-year-old Bronze Age city in Iraq revealed by falling reservoir water levels (photo: Karl Guido Rijkhoel/University of Tübingen)
أكدت عالمة الآثار الألمانية بولجيز على أهمية الكشف الجديد في معرفة أسرار الإمبراطورية الميتانية: وقالت بولجيز إنه بسبب عدم معرفة الكثير عن مدينة زاخيكو العراقية فإن الكشف الجديد سيفتح الباب أمام فك طلاسم هذه الإمبراطورية حيث أنه جرى الإشارة إلى المدينة في مصادر أخرى، لكن على نحو قليل جدا.

A mighty city that dominated the area

The researchers' discovery of a large, multi-story warehouse full of supplies was particularly exciting. "The sheer size of this building alone shows that it had to have housed an enormous amount of goods. And these goods had to be produced and brought there first," said Puljiz. It suggests the city obtained its supplies from a surrounding area it controlled.

Puljiz said their initial findings suggested the extensive city complex could be ancient Zachiku, an important centre in the Mitanni empire (circa 1550 to 1350 BC). Zachiku controlled large parts of northern Mesopotamia and Syria. However, not much is known about ancient Zachiku. "There are very, very few mentions of this city name in other sources, so we are only now bringing new knowledge to light about it," Puljiz said.

The walls and foundations of the building appear to be in surprisingly good condition, said Puljiz, despite their being made of unfired adobe bricks that have been under water for decades.

It's possible that a massive earthquake that struck the city around 1350 BC helped preserve those walls – when the building was destroyed and the rubble fell, it may have covered the lower parts of the wall, thereby preserving them.

Aerial view of the site of the ancient city in Iraq revealed by falling reservoir water levels (photo: Universities of Tübingen and Freiburg/KAO)
ساعد الجفاف في ظهور مدينة أثرية عمرها 3400 سنة تحت خزان سد الموصل: اجتاح موسم جفاف شديد مدن جنوب العراق خلال الأشهر الأخيرة 2022 فيما قامت السلطات العراقية منذ ديسمبر /كانون الأول 2021 بضخ كميات أكبر من المياه من سد الموصل الذي يعد شريان حياة الملايين في العراق وأحد أكبر خزانات المياه في بلاد الرافدين. ويرمي هذا الإجراء إلى منع هلاك المحاصيل جراء الجفاف. ورغم أن موسم الجفاف كان بمثابة نذير شؤم للعراقيين، إلا أن هذا الأمر حمل في طياته بصيصا من الأمل في الكشف عن كنوز العراق التاريخية حيث ساعد انخفاض منسوب المياه في ظهور بقايا مدينة عمرها 3400 عام على حافة السد بعد أن غمرتها المياه لعقود.

One of the most fascinating finds, said the researcher, was the discovery of five ceramic vessels, containing over 100 cuneiform tablets, as if in a kind of archive. Cuneiform is one of the oldest forms of writing. Some of the clay tablets were even found in clay "envelopes."

"When you think that these clay tablets – which aren't fired, they're just solid clay – were underwater for so long and survived and hopefully can soon be read by a philologist, then that's really a sensation," said Puljiz.

The little-known Mitanni Empire

Those clay tablets were created in the Middle Assyrian period, shortly after that devastating earthquake, when people may have started to settle on the ruins of the ancient city again.

The cuneiform texts may now provide information about the end of the Mitanni period and the beginning of Assyrian rule in the region. The kingdom of Mitanni is still considered one of the least explored states of antiquity.

During its heyday in the middle of the second millennium BC, the kingdom stretched from the Mediterranean coast across modern-day Syria to northern, modern-day Iraq.

Some of the ceramic vessels, discovered at the site in Iraq (photo: Universities of Tübingen and Freiburg/KAO)
عثر الباحثون على ألواح مسمارية مصنوعة من الطين غير المحروق، لكنها ظلت في حالة جيدة رغم أن المياه غمرتها لعقود: يرجح علماء الآثار أن الزلزال العنيف الذي ضرب المدينة عام 1350 قبل الميلاد قد ساعد في الحفاظ على جدران المبنى عندما تعرض للتدمير، حيث يُعتقد أن الأنقاض التي سقطت ربما غطت الأجزاء السفلية من الجدران ما ساعد في الحفاظ عليها. وقالت الخبيرة بولجيز إنه جرى اكتشاف خمسة أوانٍ خزفية تحتوي على أكثر من مئة لوح مسماري ما يعد بمثابة أرشيف لهذه الحقبة الهامة، مضيفة أن هذا الاكتشاف يعد واحدا من أهم الاكتشافات.

Heartland of the Mitanni Empire in northern Syria

Mitanni royalty are said to have maintained a lively exchange with Egyptian pharaohs and Babylonian rulers. Around 1350 BC, however, the Mitanni empire was conquered by neighbouring Hittites and Assyrians.

The events that led to the city's fall remain unclear. To learn more about the Mitanni empire, researchers would need to investigate the centre of the former empire – which was probably located in what is now northern Syria – said archaeologist Puljiz. But the many years of war in the region have made such archaeological digs impossible.

"Without finding notable texts from the centre of the empire, it is very difficult to get a picture of how it functioned, what held it together or what landowners did. So far we only have single, spotlight sources from peripheral areas, like now from what is probably ancient Zachiku," said Puljiz. "But the core area remains in the dark."

Before the ruined city was submerged again by the reservoir, the archaeologists covered the excavated buildings with a tight-fitting plastic film and gravel to protect them from further damage. With luck, the lost city of the Mitanni will reappear another time.

Alexander Freund

© Deutsche Welle 2022