Archaeologists Discover They’ve Been Excavating Lost Assyrian City

Cuneiform tablets revealed the site in Iraqi Kurdistan is the legendary city of Mardaman

Mardaman Tablets
Peter Pfälzner, University of Tübingen

In 2013, archaeologists from the University of Tübingen in Germany began excavations on an ancient Assyrian city in the Kurdistan region of modern-day Iraq. While they were able to establish the city dated back as early as 2800 to 2650 B.C.E., they weren’t sure exactly what city it was that they were excavating, according to Owen Jarus at LiveScience. That is until last summer. While digging in a site that was once a palace, they unearthed 92 cuneiform tablets hidden in a piece of pottery that revealed where, exactly, they were working: the lost city of Mardaman.

According to a press release, the city was once an important commercial hub that's been cited in many writings. Over the course of its 1,000-year history, Mardaman was captured, destroyed and rebuilt several times. Notably, during that time span, its position on trading routes between Mesopotamia, Anatolia and Syria made it a desirable slice of geography. It served for a time as a capital of a Mesopotamian province and at one point was its own independent kingdom.

The crumbling tablets were deciphered by Betina Faist of the University of Heidelberg, who is a specialist of the Assyrian language. Using photographs of the texts, she found that they date from the Middle Assyrian Empire and reveal that Mardaman was the administrative seat of a previously unknown Assyrian province. The texts appear to be documents from a governor of the province named Assur-nasir, and they describe some of his daily activities.

The find adds a coda to the long story of Mardaman. By the time it appears in the historical record around 2250 B.C.E. it was already established and was leveled by Naram-Sin, who ruled the Akkadian Empire, the first multi-national empire in known history. Between 2000 and 2100 B.C. it was an important trade center on the edge of Mesopotamia and the center of its own kingdom, which was conquered in 1786 B.C.E. by Shamshi-Adad I, who acquired much of the ancient Near East, creating the Upper Mesopotamian Empire and proclaiming himself “King of All.”

After that, Mardaman regained its independence and became a prosperous independent kingdom again. But the good times didn’t last; the Turukkaean people from the nearby Zagros Mountains flattened the city. There Mardaman disappeared from recorded history until the new writings were discovered. “The cuneiform texts and our findings from the excavations in Bassetki now make it clear that that was not the end,” Peter Pfälzner of the University of Tübingen, who is heading the excavations, says in the press release. “The city existed continuously and achieved a final significance as a Middle Assyrian governor’s seat between 1,250 and 1,200 B.C.E.”

Pfälzner explains that the tablets may have been a sort of message in a bottle. They were found in the earthenware vessel covered in a thick layer of clay. “They may have been hidden this way shortly after the surrounding building had been destroyed. Perhaps the information inside it was meant to be protected and preserved for posterity.”

Mardaman is not the only lost city in Iraq. Last month, officials revealed that looted artifacts purchased by Hobby Lobby likely came from a lost Sumerian City in the country called Irisagrig. Last year, researchers also revealed that they are using quantitative​ analysis to find the locations of 11 lost Assyrian cities by analyzing 12,000 cuneiform tablets from traders, who moved merchandise between those cities and other known cities in the Bronze Age.

Correction, 5/16/18: In an earlier version of this story, Mardaman was misspelled in the dek. We regret the error.

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