BOSTON -- Archaeologists working in Iraq found the remains of one of the world's oldest cities, a Babylonian ghost town where 15,000 people lived before the vagaries of war and nature left it deserted forever.
A research team confirmed in January that a desert site about 90 miles south of Baghdad is the location of the lost city of Mashkan-shapir, which was abandoned around 1720 B.C.
The discovery marks the first time archaeologists have found remnants of a major city of that era that was not resettled, and it should provide a wealth of untainted information about early civilization.
'Instead of having 4,000 years of occupation where people are living on top of everything else, you really have a single city. You have just a single period of settlement,' said Elizabeth Stone, an archaeologist at the State University of New York in Stony Brook, who led the team that made the discovery.
'It really allows you to ask specific questions about the organization of Mesopotamian cities,' said Stone, who was in Boston last week to discuss her findings with colleagues from Boston and Harvard universities. 'That's what's really exciting about it as an archaeological site.'
Built around 1843 B.C., Mashkan-shapir was situated between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in what had been Babylon. At its peak during the reign of King Hammurabi, the Mesopotamian city was an important trade center.
The city apparently was abandoned after Hammurabi's death in 1750 B.C. triggered a collapse of his empire and revolts throughout the region in which dikes and dams were destroyed and cities, including Mashkan-shapir, were burned.
The city apparently was never resettled because the Euphrates River shifted too far away to make it valuable any longer as a trade center, Stone said. 'It appears they were left high and dry,' she said.
Stone and her colleagues first found evidence the site might be Mashkan-shapir during visits to the area in 1986 and 1987. Among the clues were symbols of what historical records said was Mashkan-shapir's local god, the evil diety known as Nargal, Stone said.
But Stone did not confirm the area was Mashkan-shapir until Jan. 13 of this year. While walking through the area, she found chunks of baked clay containing ancient Babylonian writing known as cuneiform.
Stone suspected the writings were inscriptions that had been imbedded in the foundation of the walls of the city when the walls were completed and contained the name of the city and the date of the wall's dedication, providing definitive evidence of the site's identity, she said.
Her suspicions were confirmed by Piotr Steinkeller, an expert on ancient Middle Eastern language at Harvard.
'I was kind of stunned,' Stone said. 'It was really a very exciting moment.'
Paul Zimansky, a Boston University archaeologist who co-directed the project, later took aerial photographs of the site by mounting a camera with an automatic timer on a kite that flew as high as 800 feet above the site. Military restrictions prevented him from using an airplane.
'The site is fairly flat, and it's hard to make out much on the ground, so the aerial photographs taken from the kite proved invaluable,' Zimansky said. 'We've been able to make out whole building plans of what must once have been a very wealthy city.'
The researchers already have gathered more than 600 artifacts from the 138-acre site, including copper tools and pieces of statues. 'We're finding tremendous amounts of material,' Stone said. 'It's a tremendously rich site.'
The researchers have determined that the city was not tightly clustered but had many distinct parts that were widely separated, challenging the belief that life in these cities was highly centralized, she said.
The archaeologists plan to return to the site next year to begin excavating parts of the city, especially of a 400-foot-long palace known to be flanking one canal, Stone said.
Robert Adams, the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, who in 1975 found the first evidence that the site may be significant, said the discovery offers several benefits.
'First of all, it gives us a fixed location in a part of the Mesopotamian plain where we haven't had one before,' Adams said. 'When you get a location like that, it allows you to get a total configuration of what's going on.
'The site itself, in terms of what they've been finding there, is suggestive of very rich urban center with very little later material,' Adams said. 'There's every hope we'll be able to develop a very complete urban plan and come away with rich collections. This is a marvelous location to get at urbanism of that period very efficiently.'