Ancient Neo-Assyrian artwork showing a procession of deities has been found in an Iron Age tunnel complex carved into the bedrock in Turkey. The unfinished, yet exceptional ancient artwork was discovered under a modern house, and has all come to light thanks to looters.
In 2017, looters broke into a two-story home in the village of Başbük in southeastern Turkey and created an opening in the ground floor. Soon, they were caught by authorities, who conducted an archaeological emergency rescue excavation in 2018. The results of this have now been published in the leading journal, Antiquity.
The subterranean complex excavated so far stretches on for nearly 30 meters (98.4 feet) and the rare ancient carvings of Assyrian and local gods are dated to around 3,000 years ago. The procession includes Hadad, the Mesopotamian god of storms; the moon god Sîn; the sun god Šamaš; and Atargatis, the region’s goddess of fertility. The largest of these is 1.1 meters (3.6 feet) in height!
“I felt as if I was in a ritual. When I was confronted by the very expressive eyes and majestic, serious face of the storm god Hadad, I felt a slight tremor in my body,” says Mehmet Önal, co-lead author and head of archaeology at Harran University in Şanlıurfa. His experience was seemingly out of a movie as he first saw the underground carvings via the flickering light of a lamp!
The Başbük divine procession panel with superimposed interpretative figure drawings Photograph by M. Önal; interpretative drawings by M. Önal, based on laser scan by Cevher Mimarlık. ( Antiquity Publications Ltd)
The Assyrian Empire and Cultural Integration with Local Traditions
At this time, this area was a frontier region for one of the world’s most powerful empires. The Assyrian empire had flourished between 900 and 600 BC, aided by the widespread usage of the metal iron in the Mesopotamian region (modern-day Iraq, parts of Iran, Kuwait, Syria, and Turkey). While warfare was one of its primary expansionist policies, it was its efficient administrative system that allowed newly conquered lands to be so efficiently incorporated into the ruling setup.
This artwork was, the authors postulate, an extension and expression of ‘soft power’, at the time of the Neo-Assyrian empire in the first millennium BC. “When the Assyrian Empire exercised political power in south-eastern Anatolia, Assyrian governors expressed their power through art in Assyrian courtly style,” said study author Selim Ferruh Adali, associate professor of history at the Social Sciences University of Ankara in Turkey.
Interestingly, the researchers interpret these inscriptions as integrative, rather than suggesting conquest, as per a National Geographic report. This is because they are writing in Aramaic, the local language, rather than Assyrian. Additionally, the artwork has religious themes that are from Anatolia and Syria – local deities, though portrayed in Assyrian style. The distant Assyrian rulers were trying to integrate with local leaders, rather than rule by force.
This points to cultural diffusion and integration in some kind of a harmonious way. “The inclusion of Syro-Anatolian religious themes illustrate an adaptation of Neo-Assyrian elements in ways that one did not expect from earlier finds,” said Dr Adalı, “They reflect an earlier phase of Assyrian presence in the region when local elements were more emphasized.”
This is not dissimilar to legendary American anthropologist and ethnolinguist Robert Redfield’s work on ‘Little Tradition’ and ‘Great Tradition’, developed out of his work in Mexico. Redfield posited that civilizations are a complex whole of great and little traditions.
The former is the formal, literate tradition of the society, governed and controlled by the elites of society, while the latter is a reference to the ‘illiterate’ traditions of the poor and the peasantry. There were mediating classes who helped bridge the traditions of the ‘great’ with the ‘little’ and vice versa, allowing for the creation of a new continuum. In this case, it is clearly the continuum created out of the interaction between the Assyrian elites, and local Syro-Anatolian leaders and religious traditions.
An Abandonment: Downfall of an Empire
Precisely this interaction or shared cultural tradition may have also ended up being the reason for the downfall of the system. “The panel was made by local artists serving Assyrian authorities who adapted Neo-Assyrian art in a provincial context,” Adali said. “It was used to carry out rituals overseen by provincial authorities. It may have been abandoned due to a change in provincial authorities and practices or due to an arising political-military conflict.”
The Aramaic text to the right of the storm god’s headgear. (S.F. Adalı / Antiquity Publications Ltd )
The archaeologists identified an inscription that referred to the name Mukin-abua, who was a Neo-Assyrian official under Adad-nirari III (811-783 BC). He potentially had been given control over the region, using the complex to win over the trust of locals and integrate with them. Yet, these deity images lie unfinished, which can only point to either a revolt or some kind of political fallout, which led to desertion of the site.
The authors hope further work could shed light on the culture and politics of the ancient empire . “As this was a rescue excavation, we could not fully study the site,” said Dr Adalı, “Future excavations will eventually take place at Başbük and discover more of the mysterious underground complex.” Indeed, the site has been closed since 2018, fearing damage from erosion and potential collapse in general, and placed under the care and legal protection of Turkey’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism.
Top image: Neo-Assyrian artwork found in a subterranean tunnel complex in Turkey. Source: Antiquity Publications Ltd
By Sahir Pandey