Rare ancient work of art discovered under house in Turkey

An unexpected find has revealed ancient artwork that was once part of an Iron Age complex beneath a house in southeastern Turkey. The unfinished work shows a procession of deities that describes how different cultures came together.

Looters first broke into the underground complex in 2017 by creating an opening in the ground floor of a two-storey house in the village of Başbük. The chamber, carved into the limestone rock, extends 98 feet (30 meters) below the house.

When the looters were arrested by authorities, a team of archaeologists carried out an abbreviated salvage dig to investigate the significance of the subterranean complex and the art on the rock panel in the fall of 2018 before erosion set in may further damage the site. What the researchers found was shared in a study published Tuesday by the journal Antiquity.

Archaeologists followed a long stone staircase to an underground chamber, where they found rare artwork on the wall. Credit: C. Uludag

The artwork was created in the 9th century BC during the Neo-Assyrian Empire, which began in Mesopotamia and grew to become the greatest superpower at the time.

This expansion included Anatolia, a large peninsula in western Asia that includes much of modern Turkey, between 600 and 900 BC.

“When the Assyrian Empire exercised political power in southeastern Anatolia, Assyrian rulers expressed their power through art in the courtly Assyrian style,” said study author Selim Ferruh Adali. , associate professor of history at Ankara University of Social Sciences in Turkey, in a statement.

An example of this style was sculpted monumental rock reliefs, but Neo-Assyrian examples have been rare, the study authors wrote.

Combine cultures

The work of art reflects an integration of cultures instead of a pure and simple conquest. The deities have their names written in the local Aramaic language. The images depict religious themes from Syria and Anatolia and were created in the Assyrian style.

“It shows how in the early phase of Neo-Assyrian control of the region, there was local cohabitation and symbiosis of Assyrians and Aramaeans in one region,” Adali said. “The Başbük panel gives scholars studying the nature of empires a vivid example of how regional traditions can remain vocal and vital in the exercise of imperial power expressed through monumental art.”

The work shows eight deities, all unfinished. The tallest is 3.6 feet (1.1 meters) tall. Local deities in the work include the moon god Sin, the storm god Hadad, and the goddess Atargatis. Behind them, researchers were able to identify a sun god and other deities. The depictions combine symbols of Syrian-Anatolian religious significance with elements of Assyrian depiction, Adali said.

Part of the work features Hadad, the storm god, and Atargatis, the main goddess of northern Syria.

Part of the work features Hadad, the storm god, and Atargatis, the main goddess of northern Syria. Credit: Mr. Onal

“The inclusion of Syro-Anatolian religious themes (illustrates) an adaptation of Neo-Assyrian elements in ways not expected from earlier finds,” Adali said. “They reflect an earlier phase of Assyrian presence in the region when local elements were more emphasized.”

Upon discovering this work of art, study author Mehmet Önal, a professor of archeology at the University of Harran in Turkey, said: “As the dim light of the lamp revealed the deities, I trembled in awe when I realized I was confronted with the very expressive eyes and majestic face of the storm god Hadad.”

The mysteries remain

The team also identified an inscription that may indicate the name of Mukīn-abūa, a Neo-Assyrian official who served during the reign of Adad-nirari III between 783 and 811 BC. Archaeologists suspect that he had been assigned to this area at the time and was using the complex as a way to gain appeal from the locals.

But the structure is incomplete and has remained unfinished all this time, suggesting that something prompted the builders and artists to abandon it – perhaps even a revolt.

“The panel was made by local artists in the service of the Assyrian authorities who adapted Neo-Assyrian art into a provincial context,” Adali said. “It was used to perform rituals overseen by provincial authorities. It may have been abandoned due to a change in provincial authorities and practices or due to political-military conflict.”

Adali was the epigraphist on the team that read and translated the Aramaic inscriptions in 2019 using photos captured by the research team, who had to work quickly to study the site.

“I was shocked to see Aramaic inscriptions on such works of art, and a feeling of great excitement came over me when I read the names of the deities,” Adali said.

The site was closed after the 2018 excavations because it is unstable and could collapse. It is now under the legal protection of the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism. Archaeologists look forward to continuing their work when excavations can safely resume and capture new images of the artworks and inscriptions and possibly uncover other artworks and artifacts.

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