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Iraqi dig uncovers Mesopotamian city.

Iraqi dig uncovers Mesopotamian city

Nergal, the ancient Babylonian god of death and king of the netherworld, has resurfaced in a desert in southern Iraq, and archaeologists are delighted.

The reason for their elation: Nergal survives in the form of a city built in his honor 4,000 years ago in Mesopotamia and identified Jan. 13 by a scientific team led by Elizabeth C. Stone of the State University of New York at Stony Brook and Paul E. Zimansky of Boston University.

Unlike other Mesopotamian cities under excavation, the dewly discovered site -- one of the world's oldest cities -- was not reoccupied after its destruction around 1720 B.C., Stone told a press conference in Boston last week. With the original city ruins undisturbed, she notes, "we've determined the location of the major activity areas of this important ancient city and recovered an extraordinary number of artifacts in only about six weeks."

Called Mashkan-shapir, the walled city lay between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. First settled in 2050 B.C., it was an important trade center and capital of a city-state in its prime.

The researchers initially surveyed the site, first spotted in satellite photos, in May 1987. Traces of architecture were obvious among the flattened ruins, as were clay figurines, metal implements and other artifacts, but the city's identity was unknown.

A second season of field work last December and January began with aerial photographs of the site taken by a camera with an automatic timer mounted on a kite that soared over the ruins. Military restrictions prevented the use of an aircraft for photographs.

To the scientists' surprise, this simple approach revealed building plans, city walls and gates not immediately apparent from the ground.

As Stone traced the city wall on foot last Jan. 13, she found fragments of clay cylinders inscribed with Sumerian cuneiform, a writing system used throughout ancient Mesopotamia. She recognized the name Mashkan-shapir on one of the pieces and felt certain Nergal's city had been found. Nearly 150 clay fragments confirm the construction date of the city was as 1843 B.C.

Mashkan-shapir ballooned into a major city around 2000 B.C. when the king of Larsa, a city in southern Mesopotamia, built a channel joining the Tigris and Euphrates for trade purposes just north of the small settlement. The cuneiform on the clay fragments says the city wall was a contribution of King Sin-iddinam, who ruled Larsa from 1849 to 1843 B.C., according to Piotr Steinkeller of Harvard University, a project member who is translating the ancient text. The clay cylinders were originally embedded in the wall as "official propaganda" for Sin-iddinam, Steinkeller says. For example, the text on the cylinders describes lavish workers' wages for the time, which were probably greatly exaggerated, he notes.

Stone and her colleagues have identified the remains of a large palace, a religious quarter, a cemetery, several canals, two harbors and four gates through the city wall. Occasional concentrations of copper slag and kiln wastes suggest the city consisted of distinct neighborhoods, each with its own coppersmith and potter, Stone says.
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Title Annotation:Mashkan-shapir
Author:Bowers, Bruce
Publication:Science News
Date:Apr 1, 1989
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