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One of the buildings uncovered at the Sumerian port town of Abu Tbeirah, its function is still unknown.

4,000-Year-Old Sumerian Port Shows the Famed Civilization Excelled at Sea Too

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Now it’s a desert, but 4000 years ago the ancient site of Abu Tbeirah in southern Iraq was a thriving Sumerian port town. It was a hub where ships set sail for distant lands such as the Indus Valley and returned with Indian treasures. The port is helping write a new chapter in Sumerian history – those folks were more than just inventive farmers.

The discovery of the port came about as preparations began for the 2016 excavations. Mission co-leader archaeologist Licia Romano of La Sapienza University in Italy, told Haaretz that the first evidence of the port was not expected. She said, “We weren’t looking for a harbor. But one day, during a survey of the site, we saw this fox-hole, and looking inside it we caught a glimpse of some clay bricks, which told us there was an ancient structure there.”

That lucky chance led to the unearthing of huge brick ramparts around docks and an artificial basin, which Daily Sabah reports measures 130 meters (426.51 ft.) long, 40 meters (131.23 ft.) wide. It has the capacity of nine Olympics-sized pools and archaeologists think that the Sumerians may have used it as a giant reservoir and tank to stop river flooding.

Aerial view of the ramparts and canal of the ancient Sumerian port at Abu Tbeirah, Iraq.

Aerial view of the ramparts and canal of the ancient Sumerian port at Abu Tbeirah, Iraq. ( Licia Romano )

Excavations also unearthed alabaster vases imported to the region and parts of an Indus Valley civilization necklace. Franco D’Agostino, co-leader of the dig and an Assyriologist at La Sapienza, reflected on the evidence of trade, “We are certain that they had contacts with Iran and the Indus Valley. Finding the port helps us look in a different way at the economy of the Sumerian cities, highlighting an element that was never put in the spotlight.”

Excavating ceramics and bones from the 3rd millennium BC.

Excavating ceramics and bones from the 3rd millennium BC. ( Licia Romano )

Co-leaders Romano and D'Agostino agreed “it is the most ancient port ever to be excavated in Iraq, since the only remains of a port to have been investigated are in [nearby] Ur, but are from about 2,000 years later.” In fact, archaeologists believe Abu Tbeirah was a “satellite” town for the ancient Sumerian capital, Ur .

Artist’s reconstruction of the Sumerian city of Ur.

Artist’s reconstruction of the Sumerian city of Ur. ( Kings Academy )

The Sumerians were the first people to settle Mesopotamia some 7,000 years ago. Their homeland between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers has often been called cradle of civilization. The Sumerian culture had an advanced system of writing, spectacular skills in the arts and architecture, and were knowledgeable on topics such as astronomy and math.

An inscription uncovered in the ruins of a 21st century BC building found next to the port at Abu Tbeirah.

An inscription uncovered in the ruins of a 21st century BC building found next to the port at Abu Tbeirah. ( Licia Romano )

Archaeologists say the discovery of the Sumerian port “will help to write a new chapter in the history of Mesopotamia and its civilization, and also to dispel the notion that the ancient Mesopotamian cities were surrounded (only) by fields of grains and irrigation channels.” [via Sputnik]

They think it may also provide more insight on the impact climate change may have had on the region when it caused extreme drought around 2200 BC. Some scholars believe the drought played a role in the fall of the Akkadians and Egypt’s Old Kingdom. D’Agostino says that the team plans to explore if Abu Tbeirah felt the drought too, which should be evident, as “a mega-drought would have negatively impacted a town that was closely connected to such a fragile ecosystem as the marshlands.”

Plans are also underway to explore a building believed to have been the administrative center and to search for any Sumerian ship remains.

Top Image: One of the buildings uncovered at the Sumerian port town of Abu Tbeirah, its function is still unknown. Source: Licia Romano

By Alicia McDermott

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