DUHOK, Kurdistan Region – Against the fine yellow dust coating the landscape, the brilliant white of a human skeleton juts conspicuously from the earth.
Dropped into pits, apparently without ceremony more than 2,000 years ago, the bodies uncovered by archaeologists near the town of Bassetki, Duhok province, are just one of the mysteries slowly emerging from what remains of the ancient lost city of Mardaman.
It was only in May this year that the joint Kurdish-German team, which has been working at the site since 2013, learned the name of the once flourishing city, which for millennia straddled the major trade routes of ancient Mesopotamia and Anatolia.
A pottery vessel, deliberately hidden under a mound of clay, was found to contain a collection of 92 cuneiform tablets. This ancient Assyrian archive, dating from around 1,200 BC, finally confessed the city’s identity.
A succession of empires built, conquered, rebuilt, and abandoned this site through antiquity. A Kurdish village most recently sat atop these layered ruins, only to be flattened by a latter day conqueror, Saddam Hussein, to make way for a private helipad.
Now scientists from Duhok’s Directorate of Antiquities and Germany’s University of Tübingen have carved several great gouges into the side of the mound, revealing the complex, overlapping sediment of civilizations.
The oldest of these layers reveals a sprawling Akkadian kingdom, which set root here in the Early Bronze Age, some 5,000 years ago.
Sections of a city wall, believed to date from around 2,800 BC, have emerged around the base of the mound. Beyond this, a lower city is thought to stretch outward to the edge of the highway, which – like in ancient times – links modern-day Iraq and Turkey.
The kingdom is thought to have thrived for 1,000 years.
After the Akkadians, the city appears to have shrunk, becoming the seat of Middle Assyrian and Neo-Assyrian governors. They in turn were following by the vast empires of Alexander the Great and later the Ottomans – each leaving its own mark in stone, brick, and bone.
The two skeletons, exhumed just a day before Rudaw visited the site, are from Alexander’s time – the Hellenistic Period. One, possibly a child, is buried inside a large clay egg. The other, an adult, lies unceremoniously at the bottom of a nearby pit, alongside the remains of at least one animal.
Professor Peter Pfaelzner, who is leading the German team, is surprised to have found bodies right at the heart of the old city.
“These burials which we found this season are very strange,” says Pfaelzner.
“They date to the Hellenistic Period. They are pits with skeletons put into them in a very irregular way. So probably not a regular ceremony for burial.
“Some event of crisis or problematic situation occurred which led the people to maybe abandon the site and then these bodies were left here,” he adds.
They are not the only people who appear to have left the city in a hurry. Pfaelzner speculates on who left the cuneiform tablets and why they may have been deliberately hidden.
“That was most probably a part of a governor’s seat, governor’s residence,” says Pfaelzner, pointing to the brick foundations of a rectangular room, exposed to the mid-afternoon sun for the first time in millennia.
“It was destroyed at a certain point of time, at the end of the Middle Assyrian period, let’s say about 1,200 BC. The whole room was destroyed, the pottery lying broken on the floor. But one jar survived. And this jar contained the archive.”
Once translated, the archive was found to contain the bureaucratic notes, files, and debt records of the Assyrian governor Assur-nasir.
“The people had hoped to come back to the place to continue their administrative tasks. But that obviously never happened,” says Pfaelzner.
The flags of Germany and Kurdistan have been hoisted over the site, apparently at the insistence of Kurdish colleagues.
“This collaboration is more than just working together,” says Pfaelzner. “It’s also exploring together the richness of the history of Kurdistan.”
“Our main interest is to understand the crucial importance of this region here, through time,” he says.
“We are here at the northern edge of Mesopotamia – the link between Mesopotamia and the neighboring cultures. And people came and went. So what we want to find out is what was the importance of this place during time. Why did people always come back here?
“One important period is the Akkadian Period – the empire of Akkad – it was the first known world empire – and the king, Naram-Sin of Akkad, came here, conquered this place. We want to learn more about this event in history. Why did he come here? What traces did he leave here?
“But also for the Middle Assyrian Period, it’s very astonishing, we did not know this was part of the Middle Assyrian Empire before.
“We want to learn more about this governor’s seat. What did the people do here? What was the administration they established here? What were their economic and political activities here?
“The Middle Assyrian and Akkadian Period are very important periods which we hope, and I’m quite sure, we will find more evidence to reconstruct the whole course of the history here of the region and of the site.”