Archaeologists Make The Remarkable Discovery Of A 4,000-Year-Old Sumerian Port In Iraq

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Archaeologists working on excavations in Dhi Qar, in the southern region of Iraq, have recently made the astonishing discovery of a 4,000-year-old Sumerian port near the ancient city of Ur.

The Italian team who discovered the port have been busy since 2011 working on locating the city of Abu Tbeirah, believed to have once been a satellite town of Ur, when they stumbled upon the oldest Sumerian port to have ever been found in Iraq, according to Haaretz.

The city of Ur was once a massive and thriving urban center in Mesopotamia filled with both mansions and basic houses constructed out of mud plaster and reeds. It is noted for having had strong and structured legal and economic systems in place, which has been verified by a large number of texts that have been recovered from various sites around the city.

Sumerians originally inhabited Iraq over 6,000 years ago, and this resourceful group of people can be credited with the invention of the wheel, the 24-hour day, the world’s first writing system, the creation of the plow and the introduction of regions known as city-states. Having established the world’s first farming systems, after the discovery of the 4,000-year-old Sumerian port, it looks like we may also be able to now add seafaring to this long list of Sumerian accomplishments.

It was when archaeologists were making their final preparations in 2016 to begin work in Dhi Qar that a member of the team decided to look inside a foxhole that they had found around the northwestern edge of the settlement. It was inside of this foxhole that the surprising discovery of the ancient Sumerian port was made.

As archaeologist Licia Romano recalled, as soon as the team saw baked clay bricks inside of the animal’s burrow, they knew they were looking at something ancient.

“We weren’t looking for a harbor. But one day, during a survey of the site, we saw this foxhole, and looking inside it we caught a glimpse of some clay bricks, which told us there was an ancient structure there.”

After the initial discovery of the Sumerian port in 2016, archaeologists spent the next two years excavating the site. A canal was found that had been constructed along with an artificial basin, and brick ramparts were discovered to have been built around the area of the docks.

While cuneiform tablets have specifically noted the creation of Sumerian ports, with satellite imagery proving their existence, the harbor found in Dhi Qar is the oldest Sumerian port ever to have been discovered so far in Iraq.

Featured image credit: Hadi MizbanAP Images

When it comes to the depth of this Sumerian harbor, it is estimated that it was large enough to have easily held nine of the swimming pools that are used in the Olympics.

As the harbor would have been situated by the Euphrates River next to where it would have joined the sea, it has been surmised that this harbor may have also acted as a reservoir for the protection of freshwater during particularly dry seasons. It may also have been used as a method of preventing floods, as Assyriologist Franco D’Agostino has suggested.

It may appear that the remains of Abu Tbeirah are now sitting on a dry and dusty plain, this is because for nearly a thousand years Mesopotamian rivers have been depositing huge amounts of silt straight into the Persian Gulf. This means that the coast has been pushed back considerably from where it would have once been at the time of this 4,000-year-old Sumerian harbor.

As D’Agostino also explained, further excavations at the site have revealed a mix of objects such as alabaster vases and necklaces which would not have been at all common in Mesopotamia. This shows that Sumerians at this time clearly would have been trading with groups such as those living in the Indus Valley, as well as other vital regions at the time.

“We are certain that they had contacts with Iran and the Indus Valley. Finding the port helps us look in a different way at the economy of the Sumerian cities, highlighting an element that was never put in the spotlight.”

After such an important discovery, archaeologists will continue working on the site of the 4,000-year-old Sumerian port and are now focusing on excavating what may have once been an administrative building.