Drought has revealed a 3,400-year-old palace from the little-known Mittani Empire at the site of Kemune in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. The remains were covered by the waters of the Tigris in the Mosul Dam reservoir until last autumn when low water levels exposed the mud-brick walls of a large structure. Archaeologists from the University of Tübingen and the Kurdistan Archaeology Organization (KAO) in cooperation with the Duhok Directorate of Antiquities sprang into action and launched an emergency salvage operation to excavate the remains.
The area has been submerged since the Mosul Dam was built in the 1980s making archaeological exploration nigh on impossible. Archaeologists knew there was a Mittani city at Kemune because receding waters in 2010 had exposed a few remains, including a Mittani cuneiform tablet and sections of red and blue wall paintings, but they weren’t able to fully explore the site. Last year’s drought gave the team a window of opportunity to excavate Kemune for the first time.
Beautifully situated overlooking the Tigris Valley, the palace that is now underwater was built on a terrace above the river. The eastern bank of the Tigris was 65 feet from its wall. A massive mud-brick terrace was built against the palace’s west side as a sort of giant retaining wall to keep the grand building stable on the sloping riverbank.
As Ivana Puljiz of the Tübingen Institute for Ancient Near Eastern Studies (IANES) reports, the site shows a carefully designed building with massive interior mud-brick walls up to two meters thick. She says some walls are more than two meters high and some of the rooms have plastered walls. “We have also found remains of wall paintings in bright shades of red and blue,” Puljiz says. “In the second millennium BCE, murals were probably a typical feature of palaces in the Ancient Near East, but we rarely find them preserved. So discovering wall paintings in Kemune is an archaeological sensation.”
The palace ruins are preserved to a height of some seven meters. Two phases of usage are clearly visible, Puljiz says, indicating that the building was in use for a very long time. Inside the palace, the team identified several rooms and partially excavated eight of them. In some areas, they found large fired bricks which were used as floor slabs. Ten Mittani cuneiform clay tablets were discovered and are currently being translated and studied by the philologist Dr. Betina Faist (University of Heidelberg). One of the tablets indicates that Kemune was most probably the ancient city of Zakhiku, which is mentioned in one Ancient Near Eastern source as early as the Middle Bronze Age (ca. 1800 BC). This indicates the city must have existed for at least 400 years. Future text finds will hopefully show whether this identification is correct.
The Mittani Empire ruled the northern Tigris-Euphrates territory from around 1475-1275 B.C., although its power declined sharply after 1350 B.C. when the Mittani kings became vassals of the Assyrian Empire. Its history, chronology, rulers, conflicts and alliances are known almost entirely from non-native sources — Egyptian, Hittite and Assyrian — and from a few surviving inscriptions. Most Mittani archaeological material has been unearthed from only three ancient sites — Tell Brak (Syria), Nuzi and Alalakh (Iraq) — that were minor towns at the edge of the empire. The discovery of a major structure like this palace, complete with cuneiform tablets, is of enormous archaeological significance.