Ancient Lost City of Mountain People Unearthed at Gates of Mesopotamia's First Empire

Archaeologists have discovered an ancient lost city beneath modern-day Iraqi Kurdistan. Newly discovered stone foundations, tablets and other artifacts revealed a city that thrived on the edge of the Zagros Mountains some 4,000 years ago.

The hidden settlement surprised the researchers, with one describing the discovery on the Kunara site as “a small revolution.”

Archaeologists with a French mission probed the site on expeditions from 2012 to 2018, the country's National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) reported. The area has opened up to scientists in recent years, following the fall of the late Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and subsequent regional tensions, the center said in a statement.

Excavations at Kunara suggested a thriving city of mountain poeple once stood at the western Mesopotamian border. Researchers found evidence of major livestock farming, irrigation for agriculture and tablets recording the trade of items such as flour.

Stone tablets discovered at Kunara bore symbols resembling those of the ancient region, which stretched from the southeastern edge of modern-day Turkey to the Persian Gulf. The newly located city would have bordered the very first empire of Mesopotamia: the Akkadian Empire.

Arrowheads made from relatively rare material such as obsidian—transported from Anatolia, hundreds of miles away—suggested the city was “fairly prosperous,” CNRS researcher Aline Tenu explained in a statement. The discovery of decorated fragments of ceramics bolstered the researchers' image of a wealthy city.

As well as the bones of farm animals such as sheep and pigs, scientists found the remains of bears and lions, suggesting royal hunts or high-status gifts, the CNRS reported. Researchers argued the city's position, between the Iranian kingdom and Mesopotamia, was lucrative.

Tablets revealed the city's scribes “had a firm grasp of Akkadian and Sumerian writing, as well as that of their Mesopotamian neighbors,” Phillipe Clancier, a specialist in cuneiform writing with CNRS, said in the statement. “You could call [the city's discovery] a small revolution,” he added.

He told Newsweek the tablets, dating from the 22nd to 21st century B.C., are the oldest found in Iraqi Kurdistan. They described a local leader with the Sumerian title of ensi (king or governor) and detailed an administration managing agricultural development.

These small linguistic clues could shed light on the political dynamics between the city and its behemoth neighbor, CNRS reported. Certain shared words may reflect submission, the use of similar administrative models or simply borrowed words.

Amid these phrases, eagle-eyed researchers spotted a never-before-seen unit of measurement on the ancient tablets. Rather than the Mesopotamian “gur,” the city's scribes used their own unit to describe volumes in trading logs. “The use of an original unit could resonate like an act of independence,” Tenu said.

"The use of cuneiform writing to record Akkadian, as well as architectural techniques and the many witnesses of trade…show that Kunara and its region were highly developed when the site was destroyed," Clancier said. Cuneiform is an early system of writing first developed in Mesopotamia.

For now, Tenu told Newsweek, the first tablet the team uncovered back in October 2015 remains her favorite find from Kunara. "No one imagined that we would find cuneiform tablets in the region. They provide extraordinary information," she said. As well as political, administrative and agricultural details, "they give the names of some of the people who lived in Kunara at the end of the third millennium, and also the names of the towns and villages that surrounded the site," she said.

Unfortunately archaeologists are yet to discover the city's original name. “But we will continue to look,” she said.

The team plans to return to the site for further excavations this year, as researchers continue to study architecture, ceramics, archaeozoology and tablets at the site. "Each year brings new discoveries," Clancier said.

This article has been updated with further comment from Aline Tenu and Phillipe Clancier.​

Lost City, Archaeology
File photo: Ancient cuneiform writing is displayed on a stone wall. Similar markings were discovered at an archaeological site in Iraqi Kurdistan. Getty Images