Hoard of Ancient Tablets Found in Iraq Reveal Location of Lost Royal City of Mardama
In an exciting discovery, archaeologists have found the location of the lost royal city of Mardama. The ancient Hurrian city had laid buried for millennia until archaeologists unearthed the remains of a city on the arid plain of the eastern Tigris in Iraq. The ruins had remained unidentified for five years, but a recent discovery of a hoard of ancient cuneiform tablets enabled experts to identify the site as the once powerful city.
Sci-News reports archaeologists and philologists from the Universities of Tübingen and Heidelberg in Germany made the rare discovery near the town of Bassetki, in the Autonomous Region of Kurdistan in northern Iraq. The team, led by Professor Peter Pfälzner, and working with specialists from the Duhok Antiquities Department, established its location based upon newly-uncovered cuneiform tablets dated to 1300-1200 BC.
The remains of the royal city of Mardama in Bassetki, Iraq. Credit: Matthias Lang/ Benjamin Glissmann, University of Tübingen eScience-Center
The dramatic history of Mardama
It is believed that Mardama was founded between 2800 BC and 2650 BC, and reached its peak between 1900 BC and 1700 BC. It straddled an important trade route, which made it strategically important and prosperous. Mardama was a regional power and a royal centre, which was often at war with the powerful kingdoms in Mesopotamia, to the south.
Mardama, as it was known in Old Babylonian sources, alternated between periods of independence and periods of foreign domination. The city was conquered by the Akkadian Empire but later regained its independence under a Hurrian monarch. It was then destroyed by invaders from the Zagros Mountains. The urban centre was later absorbed by the Mesopotamian and then the Assyrian Empire. It appears that the city was destroyed and rebuilt many times over the course of its long and turbulent history.
Pinpointing the location of the lost city
German Archaeologists form Tubingen University discovered the site in 2013, but were unsure of the ancient name of their discovery. They excavated the Bassetki tell, a large hill, on the arid plain of the eastern Tigris, that is overlooked by the Zagros mountain range. The team digging at the tell soon established that it was a major archaeological site. To their amazement, it appears that it was not touched by either looters or damaged by the many conflicts in Northern Iraq in recent years. However, the most dramatic discovery was only made in the summer of 2017 when over 90 cuneiform tablets were brought to light after over three millennia.
Hoard of ancient tablets found
A total of 92 cuneiform tablets were found hidden in a pottery vessel in the remains of a palace. The clay tablets were photographed, and the images were relayed to Betina Faist, a renowned philologist at the University of Heidelberg in Germany. She is an expert in the Ancient Assyrian language of the tablets and used the photographs to decipher the complex cuneiform writing. When she was translating the text, she found a reference to Mardaman, which is the Assyrian word for Mardama. Professor Pfälzner has stated that “to our surprise, Dr. Faist was able to identify the site as the ancient city of Mardama” [via Sci-News].
3,250-year-old cuneiform tablets were found inside a clay vessel at the archaeological site of Bassetki in the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq. Image credit: Peter Pfälzner, University of Tübingen.
The tablets referred to the city as a part of the mighty Assyrian Empire and that it was the seat of the Assyrian governor. The tablets appear to belong to a governor named Assur-nasir. Professor Pfälzner and this team were amazed, ‘all of a sudden it became clear that our excavations had found an Assyrian governor’s palace”. The cuneiform tablets give an unprecedented insight into the life and times of the people of Mardama. It provides precious information on the administration, economy and the trade of the city.
The tablets were sealed in clay and placed in a large pottery vessel in the governor’s palace. Professor Pfälzner has speculated that the tablets were hidden after much of the city had been burned and that there was deliberate attempt to preserve the tablets. Some of the city’s inhabitants, probably members of the Assyrian administration wanted to preserve the records and they were clearly valuable.
A cuneiform tablet on the floor of an Assyrian governor’s palace. Credit: Peter Pfälzner, University of Tübingen
The find is very important because it not only shows the location of a city that was lost for thousands of years, it also offers exciting insights into the era. For example, it offers proof that Mardama was firmly in the control of the Assyrians in the 13th century BC. The tablets can tell the archaeological community so much more about the culture and civilization of this region. The texts on the cuneiform tablets will be studied over the coming years as they may offer the possibility of identifying other cities in the wider Mesopotamia region.
Top image: Illustration of an ancient city in Mesopotamia. ( Jeff Brown Graphics )