Archaeologists in Iraq uncover Assyrian reliefs not seen in millennia

Written by Christian Edwards, CNN

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

Iraq was home to some of the oldest cities in the world 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 the entrance.

The carvings were discovered after ISIS militants destroyed the ancient Mashki Gate.

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

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

It was rebuilt in the 1970s, but was then 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 I reported on. when ISIS deliberately destroyed it. “

When the Iraq Heritage Stabilization Program, headed by Danti, began work on rebuilding the gate, they made a discovery that he described as “so rare it is unimaginable.”

Buried beneath the ruins of the gate were seven marble slabs with ornate carvings depicting Assyrian soldiers shooting arrows – as well as palm trees, pomegranates, and figs – all belonging to Sennacherib’s palace.

“We were all amazed and virtually speechless. It was like a dream,” said Danti. “Nobody predicted that we would find Sennacherib reliefs in a city gate.”

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

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

The archaeologists were "dumbfounded" from the engravings of Nineveh.

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

The discovery offers exciting new research opportunities, 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 overseas, such as the British Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, these plates will remain in Iraq.

“These plates are official state property of the Iraqi government 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 findings.”

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

An archaeological park

Other extraordinary finds in the area were unveiled in a ceremony on Sunday.

The Archaeological Park of Faida, about 30 km from Nineveh, was discovered after the completion of the excavation works started in 2019.

The Terra di Nineveh Archaeological Project of the Italian University of Udine found 13 reliefs carved into the walls of a six-mile-long irrigation canal.

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

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

Speaking on CNN, Udine archaeologist Daniele Morandi Bonacossi described the reliefs as “unique” and “without parallel in Near Eastern rock art”.

“The Feida reliefs constitute a monumental complex of considerable interest through which the Assyrian royal power implemented a sculptural program aimed at celebrating the creation of the hydraulic system that gave fertility and wealth to the surrounding countryside,” he said.

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