Dwindling water levels reveal another surprise: An ancient lost city

The ruins of a 3,400-year-old lost city — complete with a palace and a sprawling fort — have been unearthed in Iraq after extreme drought severely depleted water levels in the country’s largest reservoir, archaeologists announced Monday.

The Bronze Age settlement, long engulfed by the Tigris River, emerged earlier this year in the Mosul Dam, and researchers raced to excavate the ancient city before the dam was refilled. The discovery is just the latest example of how drought conditions fueled by climate change are yielding unexpected finds: last month, in Nevada, falling water levels in Lake Mead turned up a pair of decades-old skeletal remains.

The Iraqi ancient city, located in the Kurdistan region at a site known as Kemune, was documented by a team of German and Kurdish archaeologists. The settlement was likely a key hub during the Mittani Empire, from 1550 to 1350 B.C., said Ivana Puljiz, a junior professor of Near Eastern archaeology at the University of Freiburg in Germany and a member of the research team.

“Since the city was located directly on the Tigris, it may have played an important role in connecting the core region of the Mittani Empire, which was located in present-day northeastern Syria, and the empire’s eastern periphery,” Puljiz said.

Aerial view of the excavations at Kemune with Bronze Age architecture partly submerged in the lake. (Universities of Freiburg and Tübingen, KAO)
Aerial view of the excavations at Kemune with Bronze Age architecture partly submerged in the lake. (Universities of Freiburg and Tübingen, KAO)
Towers, a monumental palace and several other large buildings are among the surviving ruins of the fortified outpost. The archaeologists said the settlement is thought to be the ancient city of Zakhiku, once a buzzing political center in the region.

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The researchers said the fortification walls — standing several meters tall in some places — are surprisingly well preserved despite being constructed of sun-dried mud bricks. The Bronze Age city was destroyed in an earthquake that struck the region sometime around 1350 B.C., according to the archaeologists. The natural disaster likely caused the upper parts of the walls to bury most of the surviving buildings, keeping them in relatively good condition over millennia, they added.

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