4,000-Year-Old "Lost" City That Bordered Ancient Mesopotamian Empire Discovered


Katy Evans

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One of Kunara's public buildings during the excavations. Only a small part is known of this 25m x 40m building, which is believed to date from the end of the 3rd millennium (around 2200 BC). (c) A. Tenu/Mission archéologique française du Peramagron

An ancient “lost city” has been discovered in Iraqi Kurdistan, that apparently thrived nestled next to Mesopotamia’s first empire, the Akkadians, 4,000 years ago.

The discovery of the settlement surprised French archaeologists working at the Kunara site in modern-day Kurdistan, despite working there since 2012. They weren’t expecting to find the remains of a city dating back to the third millennium BCE.


“We weren’t expecting to discover a city here at all,” admitted Christine Kepinski, who was the first to identify the site as a potential area to explore, in an article published in the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) journal.

The excavation of Kunara only became possible for researchers to explore after the overthrow of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in 2003 and the subsequent settlement of Kurdistan as its own autonomous region. Now, it’s revealing the secrets of a people who lived around 2200 BCE.

“The city of Kunara provides new elements regarding a hitherto unknown people that has remained at the periphery of Mesopotamian studies,” project leader Aline Tenu of the Mission archéologique française du Peramagron said.

Located at the base of the Zagros Mountains, five excavation sites at Kunara have revealed large stone foundations stretching dozens of meters and evidence of major livestock farming, irrigation, and agriculture, suggesting a successful city of mountain people that lived alongside the western border of the Akkadian Empire, the first and oldest empire in the world.


A collection of clay tablets, around 10 centimeters (4 inches) square, inscribed with cuneiform writing – one of the earliest systems of writing, using wedge-shaped stylus marks in clay – were also discovered, recording things like the trading of flour.

The first cuneiform tablet discovered in Kunara. It is an administrative text recording deliveries of different types of flour. A. Tenu / Mission archéologique française du Peramagron

These cuneiforms are of particular significance, as they showed the city’s scribes “had a firm grasp of Akkadian and Sumerian writing, as well as that of their Mesopotamian neighbors,” according to CNRS cuneiform specialist Philippe Clancier. These linguistic clues could reveal the political dynamics between the city and its giant neighbor.

Other items found also indicate the city was wealthy and prosperous and had commercial relations with regions far away. As well as bones from sheep and pigs, they found the remains of lions and bears, which were prestigious animals back then (think of the infamous lion hunts of the Assyrians) suggesting the city either held royal hunts or received reverent gifts.

Tools and ceramics made from materials that could only have been bought or traded were also discovered. 

Fragment of an arrowhead made of obsidian. The obsidian comes from Anatolia several hundred kilometers from Kunara. (c) F. Marchand / Mission archéologique française du Peramagron

“The city must have even been fairly prosperous,” Tenu said, “as rare stones such as obsidian [and carnelian, a semi-precious gems stone] were used to produce entirely commonplace tools.”

“The city most likely took advantage of its strategic location on the border between the Iranian kingdom in the east and the Mesopotamian kingdom in the west and south,” Kepinski suggests.

The team will carry on excavating to try and uncover the fate of this unusual city, curiously successful despite being on the periphery and not part of a giant empire. Unfortunately, they haven't uncovered anything yet that suggests the city's original name. 

“But we will continue to look,” Tenu says.