1. The site of Mardaman at Bassetki tell with the Zagros mountains behind.

Lost cities of Iraq

Two long-lost cities in Iraq have started to emerge: one in the Autonomous Region of Kurdistan; the other is thought to be somewhere in the south.

The first suspicions of the existence of a city in the north of the country were aroused when fragment of a bronze statue of the Akkadian sun-king Naram-Sin was found during road building near the village of Bassetki in 1975. Dated from around 2250 BC, it had an inscription on the base indicating that it stood in the doorway of a palace.

In 2016, after five years of field work, archaeologists from the Institute for Ancient Near Eastern Studies (IANES) at the University of Tübingen, under lead researcher Professor Peter Pfälzner, did indeed uncover a large Bronze Age palace here. Then, last year, 92 cuneiform tablets were found stashed inside a vessel covered in clay.

Now deciphered, they show that, several centuries after the collapse of the Akkadian empire, this was the royal city of Mardaman, which Babylonian sources date to around 1800 BC when it was a commercial hub and centre of the Assyrian kingdom of Shamshi-Adad I.

'The clay tablets of Bassetki make an important new contribution to the geography of Mesopotamia,' explains Assyriologist Betina Faist of Heidelberg University, who translated them. They date from circa 1200 BC, when the palace was destroyed, and show that this was the administrative seat of a previously unknown Assyrian province that once covered large parts of Northern Mesopotamia and Syria in the 13th century BC. The governor, Assur-nasir, is named, along with his tasks and activities. The settlement was established circa 3000 BC and had lasted under various rulers, including Naram-Sin, who was king during the height of the Akkadian empire.

2. Archaeologists uncover the cuneiform tablets buried in clay inside urns.

'The city existed continuously and achieved a final significance as a Middle Assyrian governor's seat between 1250 and 1200 BC,' says Professor Pfälzner.

'Mardaman certainly rose to be an influential city and a regional kingdom, based on its position on the trade routes between Mesopotamia, Anatolia and Syria. At times it was an adversary of the great Mesopotamian powers. So the University of Tübingen's future excavations in Bassetki are sure to yield many more exciting discoveries.'

Pfälzner believes his team has identified 300 previously unknown sites in the area around Bassetki, extending as far as the Turkish and Syrian borders, and excavations have been continuing this summer, but archaeological work here clearly has to take the region's conflicts into account. Bassetki was only 45km from territory controlled by IS when the excavations ended last year, as the pushback against the city of Mosul began. The statue of the Akkadian king Naram-Sin was stolen from the National Museum in Baghdad during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, but has now been returned.

Other ancient artefacts looted after the Iraq invasion include around 3800 items amassed by Steve Green for his company Hobby Lobby and exhibited in his Museum of the Bible, which opened in Washington DC last year.

Seized by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), they included around 450 cuneiform tablets from another lost Iraqi city called Irisagrig. After ICE imposed a $3million fine, US experts were allowed to work on the tablets for a short time before they were returned to Iraq in April. But the site of Irisagrig has never been excavated and its location remains unknown.

Roger Williams




Roger Williams