Often when archaeologists find a lost city or civilization, they have to puzzle out what life was like there based on buildings and objects like pots and weapons. But the researchers who recently excavated the kingdom of Idu, which is over 5,000 years old, got lucky. They found some written records.

Like many ancient cities in the Mesopotamian region, Idu had long been buried under a mound of dirt called a tell. For thousands of years, people have built new buildings on top of older ones in this region. Over time, this creates the tell, which was about 32 feet high in the case of Idu — and it's currently topped by a village called Satu Qala.


Roughly 5,300 years ago, however, the footprint that Satu Qala occupies belonged to the kingdom of Idu. It was once an outpost of the mighty Assyrian Empire, which ruled the area through bloody military conquest for hundreds of years. But the Assyrians weren't just pillagers. They were also merchants and scholars, spreading their cuneiform writing throughout the region. Indeed, it was because of this writing that archaeologists were able to identify Idu in the first place.

As Leipzig University archaeologist Cinzia Pappi told LiveScience, she and her fellow researchers began their excavation after a Satu Qala resident brought them a clay tablet with the ancient kingdom's name on it.

Now, after three years of careful digging, Pappi and her team have discovered that this humble tell was once home to resplendent palaces and a fiercely independent citizenry. After living under Assyrian rule for hundreds of years, the people of Idu fought for their independence and won. But 140 years of independence ended when the Assyrians reconquered the wealthy city.

Below, you can see a large house that's been excavated at Idu, with two rooms.

Much of Idu's history comes from inscriptions made for its kings on walls, stone plinths, and tablets. Often, the writing is clearly intended to flatter specific rulers — one independent Idu ruler, King Ba'ilanu, is described as having "a palace which he made greater than that of his fathers." In the clay tablet you see at the top of this article, there's another inscription from the years of Idu's independence. The cunieform reads, "Palace of Ba'auri, king of the land of Idu, son of Edima, also king of the land of Idu."


Other inscriptions suggest that the gorgeous palaces of Idu were rebuilt when the Assyrians retook the kingdom.

Relatively little has been excavated in the Idu area, which is today part of the Kurdish region of northern Iraq. But what this find makes clear is that the area was regarded as strategically important. It was likely a place where people could grow rich on trade between the wealthy Assyrians and neighboring kingdoms. Signs of this wealth are everywhere, from the generously-sized houses, to the palaces decorated with glazed brick and bas-relief images.

Pappi and her colleagues intend to continue their work excavating this region. Their work will give us a much better picture of life in the Assyrian Empire, and the struggles for independence from colonization that have been fought in this place for thousands of years.

You can read Pappi and colleagues' scientific paper in the latest issue of Anatolica.

Images via Cinzia Pappi.