A Bronze Age City That Was Flourishing For 1,200 Years Has Been Discovered in Northern Iraq


In the Autonomous Region of Kurdistan, the small Kurdish village of Bassetki was recently found to be the site of a large Bronze Age city in about 3000 BC. Bassetki is close to the town of Dohuk in northern Iraq. Archeologists from the Institute for Ancient Near Eastern Studies (IANES) at the University of Tübingen made the discovery and noted that the city was able to flourish for more than 1200 years. Settlement layers dating from the Akkadian Empire period (2340-2200 BC) were also uncovered. Archeologists believe the Akkadian Empire is the first world empire in human history.

Bassetki was uncovered between August and October 2016 and the team was led by Dr. Hasan Qasim from the Directorate of Antiquities in Dohuk and Professor Peter Pfälzner from the University of Tübingen. This find has preempted the construction work on a highway on this land.

Finds discovered during the excavation work has highlighted the former significance of the settlement. From approx. 2700 BC onwards, the city had a wall running around the upper part of the town to protect its residents from invaders. Large stone structures were also erected in about 1800 BC. The existence of a temple dedicated to the Mesopotamian weather god Adad is suspected due to fragments of Assyrian cuneiform tablets dating from about 1300 BC being found at the site. A lower town of about one kilometer long was also discovered outside the city center.

Stele of weather God Adad standing on a bull with a thunderbolt in his hand
Stele of a weather God Adad standing on a bull with a thunderbolt in his hand

The archeologists used geomagnetic resistance measurements and found various residential districts, grand houses, indications of an extensive road network and some type of palatial building dating from the Bronze Age. The settlement was linked to the neighboring regions of Anatolia and Mesopotamia via an overland roadway dating from about 1800 BC. The town’s dead were buried at a cemetery outside the city.

Bassetki is only known to the public because of the “Bassetki statue,” which was discovered there by accident in 1975. The statue is a piece of a bronze figure of the Akkadian god-king Naram-Sin (about 2250 BC). Although it was stolen from the National Museum in Baghdad during the Iraq War in 2003, US soldiers later rediscovered it. Up until this new find was made, researchers have not been able to explain the location of the Bassetki statue. The assumption that an important outpost of Akkadian culture may have been located there has now finally been substantiated.

It was possible to conduct the archeological work without any disturbances even though the excavation site is only 45 kilometers from territory controlled by the Islamic State (IS). Professor Peter Pfälzner, Director of the Department of Near Eastern Archaeology at the IANES of the University of Tübingen, explained that the protection of their employees is always their top priority. He added that there is a great deal of security and stability in the Kurdish autonomous areas in Iraq, in spite of it being close to IS. During the excavation work, the 30 strong research team lived in the city of Dohuk, 60 kilometers north of Mosul.

Unravelling down to the Bronze Age layers in the upper part of Bassetki. (Image Credit: P. Pfälzner)
Unravelling down to the Bronze Age layers in the upper part of Bassetki. (Image Credit: P. Pfälzner)

Pfälzner’s team is also involved in another project that is being managed by the “ResourceCultures” collaborative research center (SFB 1070). Since 2013, they have been conducting an archeological inspection of the region in the area surrounding Bassetki as far as the Syrian and Turkish borders. More than 300 sites that have previously been unknown have been discovered. The research work and excavations in the region are scheduled to continue in the summer of 2017 and will be funded by the Fritz Thyssen Foundation.

Pfälzner explained that the area surrounding Bassetki has proven to be an unexpectedly rich cultural region. During the Bronze Age, it was located at the crossroads of communication ways between the Mesopotamian, Anatolian and Syrian cultures. He added that they are planning to establish a long-term archeological research project in the region in collaboration with their Kurdish colleagues.