Ancient Sumerian Palace Discovered in Iraq

A 4,500-year-old palace from the Kingdom of Lagash unearthed in modern-day southern Iraq could hold the keys to a greater understanding of Sumerian history.

That’s because the site holds over 200 cuneiform tablets that contain administrative records concerning the city of Girsu, The Guardian reported. Archaeologists with the British Museum are calling it the Lord Palace of the Kings.

Girsu is one of the oldest cities humankind has ever discovered. Home to an estimated 15,000 Sumerians, its construction could date to the transition from village settlements to urbanization.

The city was “the cradle of civilization and the birthplace of urban society,” Sebastien Rey, who has led multiple British Museum digs at the site, told Dutch website Hunebed Nieuwscafe.

One pivotal structure consists of a pair of opposing crescent-shaped walls about 40 meters long, that create a bottleneck in the middle. Satellite imagery and substrate samples revealed an ancient canal likely ran between the walls. The bottleneck could have been the site of a bridge.

the crescent-shaped walls of the bridge canal structure in Girsu

Photo: David Stanley via Flickr


Monumental discovery

Rey suggested that could have been the entryway to a “sacred precinct,” where religious festivals occurred in Girsu several times each year.

“That’s why the bridge was so monumental,” Rey told the Archaeological Institute of America. “It had the same significance as the temple or a city gate or a city wall. It was built by a king and was meant to be visible in the landscape.”

Now, the British Museum could have an even more significant discovery on its hands. Alongside the discovery of the Lord Palace of the Kings and the tablets, the team also identified the “main” temple dedicated to a Sumerian god known as Niingirsu, The Guardian said.

Before the recent fieldwork, all that substantiated its existence was a set of inscriptions near the first excavation of the city, which took place 140 years ago.

Over the years, the site’s integrity has suffered from looting and illegal excavations. That’s one reason this fresh discovery — and the preserved documentation it contains — could be so pivotal.

The Sumerian civilization doesn’t hold the spotlight quite like some of its contemporaries do, such as Egypt and ancient China. But that shouldn’t tarnish its historical significance.

World’s oldest written laws

Sumer produced the world’s first code of law, the Code of Ur-Nammu, sometime between 2100–2050 BC. Its artisans played important roles in advancing some technologies, like the wheel, the plow, and mathematics. And the epic of Gilgamesh, the world’s oldest-known surviving literary document, derives from several Sumerian poems.

“While our knowledge of the Sumerian world remains limited today, the work at Girsu and the discovery of the lost palace and temple hold enormous potential for our understanding of this important civilization, shedding light on the past and informing the future,” said British Museum director Hartwig Fischer. He added that Girsu is “one of the most fascinating sites I’ve ever visited.”

Sam Anderson

Sam Anderson takes any writing assignments he can talk his way into while intermittently traveling the American West and Mexico in search of margaritas — er, adventure. He parlayed a decade of roving trade work into a life of fair-weather rock climbing and truck dwelling before (to his parents’ evident relief) finding a way to put his BA in English to use. Sam loves animals, sleeping outdoors, campfire refreshments and a good story.