Lost Sumerian palace uncovered in Iraq

Known today as Tello, Girsu is one of the oldest cities in the world.

In the ancient Sumerian city of Girsu, southern Iraq, archaeologists have discovered traces of a lost palace dating back at least 4,500 years to the 3rd millennium BC.

left Aerial view of the temple mound at Girsu, looking south, with the walled sacred precinct in the distance. above An Old Akkadian administrative clay tablet from Tablet Hill at Girsu (c.2350-2200 BC), listing quantities of barley.
Aerial view of the temple mound at Girsu, looking south, with the walled sacred precinct in the distance. IMAGE: photo by Sébastien Rey © The Girsu Project

Known today as Tello, Girsu is one of the oldest cities in the world. Explorations carried out at the site from 1877 to 1933 brought to light material evidence of the Sumerians, a civilisation that flourished between 4500 and 2000 BC in the Mesopotamian region of the Fertile Crescent. Cuneiform tablets from Sumerian sites offer the earliest evidence for the invention of writing, as well as the first codes of law. 

Remains of the palace were discovered through the Girsu Project, a joint initiative led by the British Museum in partnership with the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage (SBAH) of Iraq and funded by Getty. Launched in 2015, the project aims to address the damage caused by 19th-century excavations and modern looting at the ancient city. The programme delivers training to Iraqi archaeologists and students in cultural heritage management and rescue fieldwork – skills necessary for addressing the destruction caused in recent years by the Gulf Wars and Islamic State to the country’s wider historic landscape.

An Old Akkadian administrative clay tablet from Tablet Hill at Girsu (c.2350-2200 BC), listing quantities of barley. Image: The Girsu Project

Last year, preliminary remote sensing and drone survey work in an area of Girsu designated as Tablet Hill identified the remains of a vast, previously unknown complex below ground. Subsequent excavation revealed the first mud-brick walls of the palace, and in a 19th-century spoil heap more than 200 cuneiform tablets containing administrative records of the ancient city were identified. The tablets are now housed in the Iraq Museum in Baghdad.

Fieldwork carried out over the last several years in the sacred precinct known as the Urukug has also uncovered the remains of a long-lost great temple dedicated to the Sumerian god Ningˆirsu, from whom the city takes its name. Until these investigations, the temple of Eninnu, meaning the White Thunderbird, was known only from ancient inscriptions unearthed at the site 140 years ago. The search for the temple has intrigued generations of archaeologists, and its discovery represents a significant milestone in the renewed exploration of southern Iraq.

Hartwig Fischer, Director of the British Museum, said: ‘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 civilisation, shedding light on the past and informing the future.’