BAGHDAD (Middle East Eye) – Archaeologists have uncovered previously unseen Assyrian reliefs at a site thought to have been destroyed by the Daesh terrorist group, and with the discovery come questions of protection, preservation and appreciation of local, living communities at the root of these cultural treasures.
Researchers unearthed seven slabs of ancient rock carvings at the Mashki Gate during an ongoing restoration of the site in Mosul, led by a team from the University of Pennsylvania. The university’s Iraq Heritage Stabilization Program collaborates on the project with Iraq’s State Board of Antiquities and Heritage, which manages the country’s heritage sites and museums.
“These were completely unknown prior to this,” Michael Danti, a University of Pennsylvania archaeologist directing the excavations, told Middle East Eye.
The Daesh bulldozed a multi-storied 1970s restoration of the Mashki Gate in 2016, leaving little more than a “rubble heap” in their wake, Danti said.
The ancient rock carvings are an estimated 2,700 years old. They were found in what Danti describes as a hallway leading from the main chamber of the gate - impeccably preserved while underground.
According to Danti, the reliefs were not originally located at the Mashki Gate but rather decorated the palace of Sennacherib, the neo-Assyrian king who ruled the empire from 705-681 BCE. The team speculates the carvings were either never installed at the palace, or they were, but later moved to Mashki Gate.
“They’re really revolutionary in terms of Assyrian sculpture in the way that they portray space,” Danti said, noting the detail in the reliefs and their use of a combination of visual art and cuneiform inscriptions to tell stories of Sennacherib’s conquests and significant moments from his reign.
Danti’s team also discovered a door threshold “with a well-preserved cuneiform inscription” dating back to the rule of the Assyrian king Adad-Nerari III. Danti said a similar threshold was housed in the British Museum.
Iraq’s Assyrians are a minority in their home region. An estimated 150,000 remain in the country today, compared with 1.5 million before the U.S. invasion. Along with Izadis and other native minorities and ethnoreligious groups, Assyrians were victims of targeted persecution by Daesh between 2014 and 2017.
Helen Malko, an archaeologist based in Amman, told Middle East Eye that engagement of local communities is crucial to equitable processes.
“If you say this heritage is important for the Iraqi people, then it’s important for Assyrians,” Malko said.
This month, authorities in Iraq’s Kurdistan region unveiled an “archaeological park” in partnership with Italy’s University of Udine. Known as the Faida Archaeological Project, it features 13 slabs of carved Assyrian reliefs along a 1.5km stretch of a 10km canal, dating back to the rule of Sargon II and his son, Sennacherib. It’s part of a five-site archaeological park still in progress.