Drought Exposes 3,500-Year-Old Palace Belonging To The Mysterious Mittani Empire

(c) University of Tübingen, eScience Center, and Kurdistan Archaeology Organization

A team of Kurdish and German archeologists has excavated a Bronze Age palace in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, one they say can be dated to the Mittani Empire 3,500 years ago.

"The find is one of the most important archaeological discoveries in the region in recent decades and illustrates the success of the Kurdish-German cooperation," Hasan Ahmed Qasim, an archaeologist involved in the dig, said in a press release

Eberhard Karls Universität Tübingen

The grand reveal took place after a drought caused water in a reservoir checked by the Mosul Dam to retreat, exposing the remains of an ancient building. This required an intensive effort to survey the site before the water returned and buried the remains (once again).

Within a short time-frame, the team was able to partially excavate eight of the 10 rooms – finding floor slabs made of fired bricks and murals painted with red and blue pigments.

The excavations on the shore of Mosul Dam; a room in Kemune Palace in which murals were found. University of Tübingen, eScience Center, and Kurdistan Archaeology Organization
Mural fragments. University of Tübingen, eScience Center, and Kurdistan Archaeology Organization

"In the second millennium BCE, murals were probably a typical feature of palaces in the Ancient Near East, but we rarely find them preserved," Ivana Puljiz of the Tübingen Institute for Ancient Near Eastern Studies (IANES) explained.

"So discovering wall paintings in Kemune is an archaeological sensation."

Archeologists also discovered 10 cuneiform tablets, which they hope will divulge something of the politics, economy, and history of the empire. 

Cuneiform is a system of writing that was first developed by the ancient Sumerian scribes of Mesopotamia some 5,000-6,000 years ago. The script is named after the pointed, wedge-shaped tool used to carve the text into clay tablets – “cuneiform” translates to "wedge-shaped" in English – and was first adopted by accountants as a means to tally up pig fat jars and other tradable goods. Later on, storytellers used cuneiform to record tales and parables, as in The Epic of Gilgamesh, the earliest known example of literature. Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP(Glasg)/Wikimedia Commons

These tablets are now being translated but the archaeologists have already said one suggests the site (Kemune) may, in fact, be the ancient city of Zakhiku. Zakhiku has been name-dropped in an Ancient Near Eastern source dating to 1,800 BCE. And so this new find, the archeologists say, suggests the city must have existed for 400 years or more. This, they hope, will be confirmed (or disproven) when more of the text is translated. 

They say the palace would have once stood on an elevated terrace overlooking the valley and just 20 meters away from what was then the eastern bank of the Tigris River. The palace ruins are preserved to a height of some 7 meters. Two phases of usage are clearly visible, Puljiz says, indicating that the building was in use for a very long time.

"The Mittani Empire is one of the least researched empires of the Ancient Near East," said Puljiz. 

"Information on palaces of the Mittani Period is so far only available from Tell Brak in Syria and from the cities of Nuzi and Alalakh, both located on the periphery of the empire. Even the capital of the Mittani Empire has not been identified beyond doubt" – making this new discovery a hugely important find.

While we might not know all that much about the Mittani Empire, we do know it covered a vast area centered on what is now northeastern Syria, stretching from the eastern Mediterranean coast to the east of modern-day Iraq from the 15th to mid-14th century BCE. 

Akkadian cuneiform texts found in Tell el-Amarna (a site in modern-day Egypt) show that their kings interacted as equals with the Egyptian pharaohs and kings of Babylonia and Hatti, with one Mittani king (Tushratta) even offering his daughter as a bride to Pharaoh Amenophis III.

Unfortunately for the Mittani people, the empire lost political significance sometime around 1350 BCE, when its land was swallowed up by the neighboring Hittites and Assyrians.

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