Assyrian Clay Tablets Found in Iraq Reveal Location of Lost Ancient City of Mardama

A team of archaeologists and philologists from the Universities of Tübingen and Heidelberg, Germany, has identified the location of the ancient royal city of Mardama thanks to 3,250-year-old cuneiform tablets.

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.

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 cache of 92 clay tablets was uncovered at the site of a large Bronze Age settlement in 2017 by University of Tübingen Professor Peter Pfälzner and colleagues.

The site is now home to the small Kurdish village of Bassetki in the Autonomous Region of Kurdistan.

The clay tablets, which date back to around 1250 BC (Middle Assyrian Empire), have now been read painstakingly by University of Heidelberg philologist Betina Faist.

“To our surprise, Dr. Faist was able to identify the site as the ancient city of Mardama,” the archaeologists said.

“This important northern Mesopotamian city is cited in ancient sources, but we didn’t know where it lay.”

“It existed between 2200 and 1200 BC, was at times a kingdom or a provincial capital, and was conquered and destroyed several times.”

As the cuneiform texts show, it was the administrative seat of a Middle Assyrian governor.

This reveals a new, previously unknown province of the Empire, which straddled large parts of Northern Mesopotamia and Syria in the 13th century BC.

Even the name of the Assyrian governor, Assur-nasir, and his tasks and activities are described in the tablets.

“All of a sudden it became clear that our excavations had found an Assyrian governor’s palace,” Professor Pfälzner said.

“At the same time, the translation reveals the location of the city named as Mardaman in Old Babylonian sources from around 1800 BC, and which is likely to be the Assyrian Mardama.”

“According to the sources, it was the center of a kingdom which was conquered by one of the greatest rulers of the time, Shamshi-Adad I, in 1786 BC and integrated into his Upper Mesopotamian Empire.”

“However, a few years later it became an independent kingdom under a Hurrian ruler called Tish-ulme.”

“A period of prosperity followed, but shortly later the city was destroyed by the Turukkaeans, people from the Zagros Mountains to the north.”

“The cuneiform texts and our findings from the excavations in Bassetki now make it clear that that was not the end,” he said.

“The city existed continuously and achieved a final significance as a Middle Assyrian governor’s seat between 1250 and 1200 BC.”

The history of Mardaman can be traced back even further, to the early periods of Mesopotamian civilization.

Sources from the Third Dynasty of Ur, approximately 2100-2000 BC, portray it as an important city on the northern periphery of the Mesopotamian Empire.

The oldest source goes back to the Akkadian Empire, which is considered the first empire in history. It mentions that the city was destroyed a first time around 2250 BC by Naram-Sin, the most powerful Akkadian ruler.

“The clay tablets of Bassetki make an important new contribution to the geography of Mesopotamia,” Dr. Faist said.

“This discovery may provide clues to the locations of other early cities in Mesopotamia,” Professor Pfälzner added.

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