Unearthing an Ancient Mideast City. HISTORIC FIND IN IRAQ

A 4,000-year-old Mesopotamian city found in the writings of King Hammurabi of Babylon but lost to the modern world has been identified by a team of American archaeologists, who have been working on the site since December in what is now a flat, baked desert in southern Iraq. The city, called Mashkan-shapir, is one of the oldest in the world and has been untouched since its destruction in 1720 BC.

Mashkan-shapir was a major urban center of 15,000 inhabitants between 2050 and 1750 BC (a thousand years before the Babylonian exile of the Hebrews) halfway between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers.

The city was identified by Elizabeth Stone of the State University of New York at Stony Brook through royal cuneiform tablets that lay near the surface of what at first appeared to be another of some 2,000 ordinary village sites blown to plain level by severe desert winds.

That it was the lost city of Mashkan-shapir was confirmed by aerial photographs taken by suspending a camera from a kite flown 800 feet over the desert in which the walls outlining the half-mile-square city became apparent. (Aerial photography by plane was not possible because of the Iran-Iraq war).

Quick identification of such a major city is unusual, team members point out. Two other major finds since World War II - the ancient cities of Ebla and Tell Leilan, in Syria - both took more than five years to verify.

``Already in six weeks we know more about the organization of this city than any other in the region,'' says Piotr Steinkeller of Harvard University. One reason is that as a capital city, many of the cuneiform writing tablets were ``royal,'' and thus they were made of baked clay rather than ordinary clay that quickly dissolves.

An important aspect of the Mashkan-shapir find is its untouched status - allowing scientists to study intact the city layout, crafts, manufacturing, and legal contracts of a specific ancient time. ``Other cities [such as Ur and Nippur] have centuries if not millennia of debris on top of them. This city burned in 1720 BC,'' says team member Paul Zimansky of Boston University, where the discovery was recently announced.

Excavation could take several decades. First on the agenda will be the royal palace and the unusual find of an intact bridge with baked-clay foundations, which spanned an internal city canal, a small branch of the Euphrates. The city was a major manufacturing center, judging by the amount of potsherds, copper and bronze fragments, grinding stones, pestles, and mortars already found there.

The team is eager to return to the site before valuable items are pilfered by nomadic Bedouins in the region. The team has already cataloged some 300 items including pottery and statues of lions, horses, and people.

The city was catapulted from a ``nothing place'' in 2000 BC to a major strategic stronghold by 1780 BC, Dr. Zimansky says. The formerly united kingdom of Ur had been split into two factions, and Mashkan lay halfway between them. Hammurabi sent ambassadors to Mashkan to negotiate a coexistence between the regions - though he eventually took over and Babylon became the premier city.

Mashkan was built to the glory of Nergal, the god of Death (``Nergal was a very popular cult at the time,'' says Dr. Steinkeller). The biggest builder of all was a King Sin-summeroth whose plans for the city far exceeded the huge, ornate city walls he built in 1843 BC. It turns out that King Sin was killed in the temple of Nergal by falling debris, while praying to his god. ``Gratitude was not part of Nergal's job description,'' Dr. Stone adds.

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