The ancient city of Assur, once the seat of a mighty empire and now an archaeological window into a key period in the history of human civilization, is on the verge of falling victim to a dam.
The ruins lie in the path of a reservoir that will fill when Iraq completes the Makhoul Dam across the Tigris River some 124 miles south of the city of Mosul. The dam is designed to provide irrigation water to Iraqi farmers who rely on the Tigris, a river whose flow has been reduced by dams upstream.
"The loss of a place like Assur, which was a world capital, would be a catastrophe for archaeology," says Richard Zettler, associate curator of the University of Pennsylvania's Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Philadelphia. "This is in the category of world-heritage sites," although it does not carry that designation officially, he says.
The impending loss of Assur (also known as Ashur), and what Iraqi officials estimate to be at least 100 other ancient sites, is part of an accelerating trend in the region as countries struggling to develop their economies build dams to supply irrigation water and electricity.
"This is part of a larger pattern in the Near East," says Paul Zimansky, associate professor of archaeology at Boston University. "It's not unusual for sites to be flooded. And, in some ways, these are opportunities."
He notes that typically when governments undertake dam projects, it's easier for researchers to get permits and conduct field work because officials want to preserve as much of their countries' heritage as possible while meeting development goals.
Beyond what the finds say about the history of Near East cultures, Dr. Zimansky adds, these sites often present young archaeologists with an opportunity for cutting-edge research they might not be able to perform if they focused on Greek or Roman civilizations, which have been exhaustively studied.
Still, Zimansky says, the loss of Assur and other sites in the surrounding area will be tragic. "There's an enormous amount of information still in the ground."
Although reports of Assur's watery demise first began surfacing about a year ago, researchers say, it quickly became a focus during a scientific meeting in London last month.
There, officials with Iraq's Antiquities Department reportedly pleaded with their Western colleagues to help excavate ruins and record as much information as possible before the reservoir fills in 2007.
Efforts to provide that help are complicated by UN sanctions against Iraq, US and British restrictions on travel to Iraq, and uncertainty over what the United States might do, given President Bush's threats against Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's regime.
Although German archaeologists began working at Assur during the early 1900s, their work was interrupted by two world wars. Work came to a grinding halt during the Iran-Iraq and Gulf wars, and only in the past few years have German, Austrian, and Japanese research teams resumed field work in the country, US researchers say.
Key parts of Assur are built on a rocky outcrop that rises more than 100 feet above the Tigris's flood plain, researchers note. Some find it hard to see that part of the city threatened.
But rising waters could threaten low-lying commercial and residential sections of the city either by inundation or through the effects from a rising water table.
These sections are largely unexplored and have the potential to reveal much about Assur's role as a trading center, which predates its emergence as one of ancient Assyria's capitals.
"Assur is the most famous and oldest documented trade center," notes John Russell, an archaeologist at the Boston College of Art.
Much of Assyria's trade and manufacturing was conducted by powerful families, he says, who often wielded more clout than the kings. Yet much of what is known about Assyrian trade comes from records excavated from sites in what is now Turkey.
Trying to understand the rise and structure of Assyrian manufacturing and trading from these records, researchers agree, would be like trying to understand the US computer industry's "House of Gates" from records gleaned from a local Comp USA store.
"We know very little about the people of Assur," Dr. Russell says, noting that an exploration of the residential and commercial parts of the city could yield a gold mine in finds revealing more about commerce and culture.
The region around Assur marks a transition zone between a wetter climate to the north and drier to the south. Some researchers hold that among the unexplored sites will be those that could yield insights into the rise of agriculture in the region.
Russell, who also notes the accelerating loss of archaeological sites to dams, says he is uncertain that much can be done "in practical terms. If it's the will of the people to build a dam, a dam will be built."
Countries in the region have a crying need for economic development, he adds.
But beyond the well-known if not exhaustively studied sites, lie unexplored "sites that have the potential to enrich us as human beings," he says.
"That's what's lost to projects" such as the Makhoul Dam.