Underwater Ruins of Ancient Lost City Emerge Due to Extreme Drought

Archaeologists rushed to excavate the ruins of a 3,400-year-old city in Iraq that briefly emerged above the water of a drained reservoir.
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Aerial view of the excavations at Kemune. Image: Universities of Freiburg and Tübingen, KAO
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Extreme drought exacerbated by human-driven climate change has drained a reservoir on the Tigris River in Iraq, revealing an important ancient city that briefly rose and fell above the waters  that prompted archaeologists to frantically excavate, map, and protect the site before its re-submergence under the waves, according to a statement from the archaeological team released on Monday. 

Though the site’s modern name is Kemune, experts suspect it is the lost city of Zakhiku, a major hub of the Bronze Age Mittani Empire that was destroyed by an earthquake 3,400 years ago. In a surreal twist, the remains of the settlement are periodically reappearing as the result of a different type of disaster, human-driven climate change, which has been particularly devastating to Iraq. Before these recent reemergences, the lost city wasn’t seen for decades. 

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The nation has suffered such extreme heat and scant rainfall that its most important water reservoir, located on the Tigris, has been drained to levels that exposed the ancient city and its treasures, including roughly 100 cuneiform tablets that have luckily remained preserved underwater.

A team of Kurdish and German archaeologists, who have known about Kemune for years, were able to conduct a short visit when the ruins resurfaced in 2018. When water levels dropped again in December, the group hastily sought to return to the tantalizing ruins before they disappeared into the reservoir again. In a matter of months, the collaboration was able to map the contours of the city, document numerous artifacts, and cover the site with plastic sheets to prevent further erosion now that it is, once again, flooded.

"The excavation results show that the site was an important center in the Mittani Empire," concluded Kurdish archaeologist Dr. Hasan Ahmed Qasim, chairman of the Kurdistan Archaeology Organization and a lead of the excavation team, in the statement.

Qasim, along with fellow leads Ivana Puljiz of University of Freiburg and Peter Pfälzner of the University of Tübingen, had already discovered the remains of a palace with 20-foot-tall walls during their 2018 visit to Kemune. In their latest excavation, they documented new buildings, including a defensive wall and towers, an industrial center, and a huge storage center that likely contained imported goods. The team also remarked on the extraordinary preservation of the city’s walls, some of which stand several feet high. 

The discovery of the ancient cuneiform tablets is perhaps the most exciting result of the hurried expedition. These ancient blocks may contain written messages that could open a rare window into the daily life of the Mittani Empire. "It is close to a miracle that cuneiform tablets made of unfired clay survived so many decades under water," said Pfälzner in the statement.

There is something profoundly captivating about the tale of a lost ancient city that rises and falls under the waves of the storied Tigris River. But the ruins at Kemune also offer a dire warning about our own civilization’s vulnerability to human-driven climate change, which is exacerbating extreme droughts in Iraq and poses major threats to other communities around the world. 

Indeed, the German-Kurdish team is not the only archaeological group rushing to preserve artifacts that are being exposed or destroyed by the effects of climate change. Melting glaciers and ice patches are revealing (and sometimes damaging) new finds, and rising sea levels are washing away artifacts at other sites. In this way, as climate change increasingly shapes our future, it is also transforming the record of our past.