Archaeologists in Iraq discover Assyrian reliefs not seen for millennia

written by Christian Edwards, CNN

Archaeologists in northern Iraq have discovered extraordinary Assyrian rock carvings dating back some 2,700 years.
The discovery was made in Nineveh, east of Mosul, by a joint US-Iraqi excavation team that completed reconstruction work on the Mashki Gate, which ISIS militants destroyed in 2016

Iraq was home to some of the world’s oldest cities and early civilizations, including the Babylonians, Sumerians, and Assyrians.

Around 700 BC, the Assyrian king Sennacherib made Nineveh his capital and built the Mashki Gate — which means “Gate of God” — to guard its entrance.

The carvings were discovered after ISIS militants destroyed Mashki's ancient gate.

The carvings were discovered after ISIS militants destroyed Mashki’s ancient gate. Credit: Zaid al-Obeidi/AFP/Getty Images

But the gate was one of many historical monuments that fell victim to prolonged military conflicts and acts of cultural vandalism in the area.

It was rebuilt in the 1970s, but was later bulldozed by ISIS soldiers during their occupation of Iraq.

During the occupation, University of Pennsylvania archaeologist Michael Danti “led a project to preserve and protect cultural heritage in Iraq,” he told CNN, adding, “Mashki Gate was one of the sites which I reported on when ISIS deliberately destroyed it.”

When the Iraqi Heritage Stabilization Program, which Danti leads, began work to rebuild the gate, they made a discovery he described as “so rare it was unimaginable.”

Beneath the ruins of the gate were seven ornately carved marble slabs depicting Assyrian soldiers shooting arrows, as well as palm, pomegranate and fig trees, all belonging to Sennacherib’s palace.

“We were all in awe and pretty much speechless. It was like a dream,” Danti said. “No one predicted that we would find reliefs of Sennacherib at the gate of a city.”

Although there had been archaeological digs at the site before, in the 1960s and 1970s, this particular room had never been excavated, according to Danti.

While the gate was destroyed, “these remains were protected because they were buried,” he said.

Archaeologists were "amazed" by the carvings of Nineveh.

Archaeologists were “frightened” by the Nineveh carvings. Credit: Zaid Al-Obeidi/AFP/Getty Images

The discovery offers exciting new opportunities for research, with archaeologists now returning to Mosul to delve deeper into the history of the Neo-Assyrian Empire.

While previous discoveries like this have been taken abroad, such as to the British Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, these slabs will remain in Iraq.

“These slabs are the official property of the state of the government of Iraq and the Iraqi people,” Danti told CNN, adding that his fellow researchers from Pennsylvania and the University of Mosul “are absolutely delighted to have found these reliefs”.

“Access to cultural heritage is a human right, and groups like ISIS want to sever those links forever as part of their campaign of cultural cleansing and genocide,” he said.

An archaeological park

More extraordinary finds in the area were revealed in a ceremony on Sunday.

The archaeological park of Faida, about 30 miles from Nineveh, was discovered after the completion of excavation works that began in 2019.

The Land of Nineveh archaeological project at the Italian University of Udine found 13 reliefs carved into the walls of a six-mile-long irrigation canal.

The carvings ran along irrigation canals in Faida Archaeological Park in northern Iraq.

The carvings ran along irrigation canals in Faida Archaeological Park in northern Iraq. Credit: Land of Nineveh Archaeological Project, University of Udine

Speaking to CNN, Udine archaeologist Daniele Morandi Bonacossi described the reliefs as “unique” and “unparalleled in Near Eastern rock art.”

“The Faida reliefs constitute a monumental assemblage of remarkable interest through which the Assyrian royal power implemented a sculptural program intended to celebrate the creation of the hydraulic system that gave fertility and wealth to the surrounding countryside,” he said.

Although some of the carvings were initially discovered in 1973 by British archaeologist Julian Reade, they were not fully discovered until now.

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