Ancient Palace From Mysterious Empire Discovered After Reservoir Evaporates in Drought

The Middle East has been home to numerous civilizations over the course of its long and tumultuous history. While the region's past is well-studied, one of these societies we know very little about—the so-called Mittani Empire, which stretched from the Eastern Mediterranean to east of modern-day northern Iraq during the 15th and 14th centuries B.C.

Now, an international team of archaeologists has uncovered the ruins of an ancient palace on the banks of the Tigris in Iraq's Kurdistan region. This discovery could reveal fascinating new details about this mysterious civilization.

The palace site, known as Kemune, was first discovered in 2010. Until recently it was covered by water from the Mosul Dam reservoir. However, last autumn, these waters receded in the face of a drought. A joint German-Kurdish team was then able to investigate the remains for the first time. Kemune is thought to date to the time of the Mittani Empire.

Kemune Palace
Aerial view of Kemune Palace from the west. University of Tübingen, eScience Center, and Kurdistan Archaeology Organization

"The find is one of the most important archaeological discoveries in the region in recent decades and illustrates the success of the Kurdish-German co-operation," Hasan Ahmed Qasim, one of the researchers involved in the excavations from the Directorate of Kurdistan Archaeology Organization (KAO) and Antiquities, said in a statement.

These excavations revealed a palace building, which would have once stood on an elevated terrace, majestically overlooking the river valley. Made of mud bricks, the palace contains huge walls, which in some places are up to 6.5 feet high.

The researchers identified several different rooms, with some even containing plastering on the walls. The team suggests that due to the layout, the palace was likely in use for quite a long period of time.

"We have also found remains of wall paintings in bright shades of red and blue," Ivana Puljiz, another researcher involved in the project from the Tübingen Institute for Ancient Near Eastern Studies (IANES), said in a statement. "In the second millennium B.C., 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."

Kemune Palace
A room in the palace during excavations. University of Tübingen and Kurdistan Archaeology Organization

Intriguingly, the researchers also found several clay tablets containing cuneiform inscriptions—one of the earliest systems of writing, first developed by the Sumerian civilization. These tablets indicate that the site at Kemune likely represents the ancient city of Zakhiku, which was probably founded around 1,800 B.C. Further investigations are being carried out to see if the inscriptions will yield any more details about the Mittani civilization.

"The Mittani Empire is one of the least-researched empires of the Ancient Near East," Puljiz said. "Information on palaces of the Mittani Period is so far only available from Tell Brak in Syria and from the cities of Nuzi and Alalakh, both located on the periphery of the empire. Even the capital of the Mittani Empire has not been identified beyond doubt. The discovery of a Mittani palace in Kemune is therefore of great importance for archaeology."

Kemune Palace
Terrace wall on the western side of Kemune Palace, Iraq. University of Tübingen and Kurdistan Archaeology Organization