Ancient city in Iraq unearthed after extreme drought


“It is close to a miracle that cuneiform tablets made of unfired clay survived so many decades under water,” Peter Pfälzner, director of the Department of Near Eastern Archaeology at the University of Tübingen in Germany and a member of the research team, said in a statement.

The archaeological site was uncovered after water levels in the Mosul Dam were drawn down beginning in December to prevent crops from drying out. The region has been plagued by low rainfall and ongoing drought, both exacerbated by climate change.

Over the course of January and February, the archaeologists raced to map and excavate as much of the the ancient city as they could while it remained exposed.

A restorer carefully retrieves the cuneiform tablets from an opened pottery vessel in the laboratory of the excavation team in Duhok.
A restorer carefully retrieves the cuneiform tablets from an opened pottery vessel in the laboratory of the excavation team in Duhok.Universities of Freiburg and Tübingen, KAO

“We were under a lot of pressure since it was unclear how much time we would have and when the water would rise again,” Puljiz said. “We owe the great results to an extremely motivated and dedicated team that worked almost nonstop for several weeks in all kinds of weather including snow, rain, fog, hail and storms.”

Puljiz said scientists have known about the ancient city for some time, but the site has been continuously under water since the Mosul Dam was constructed in the 1980s.

Drought in the region briefly caused part of the settlement to resurface in 2018, allowing Puljiz and her team to excavate sections of the palace. It was during that field work that she said she began to suspect the structure was part of a much larger city at Kemune.

“It was not until mid-December 2021 that the water level of the Mosul reservoir surprisingly dropped for the first time in three years,” she said. “My colleagues and I knew immediately that we had no time to lose.”

To help preserve the ancient settlement, the archaeologists covered the ruins with plastic coating and filled the site in with gravel, which they said will protect the walls of unbaked clay.

Puljiz added that water levels in the dam have been gradually rising since February, and the city is now submerged again.

“It is completely unpredictable when it will resurface,” she said. “The only thing that is certain is that me and my colleagues will be there again when the time comes.”