Archaeologists Unearth 2,700-Year-Old Stone Carvings in Northern Iraq

They found the beautifully detailed marble reliefs while working to restore the Mashki Gate

carvings detail
The carvings were found on the outskirts of what is now the northern Iraqi city of Mosul. Zaid Al Obaidi / AFP / Getty Images

Archaeologists have discovered stunning Assyrian rock carvings in the Iraqi city of Mosul that date back 2,700 years.

The reliefs, which are in remarkably good condition, feature intricately carved grape vines, warriors with bows and arrows and palm trees. Officials announced that the discoveries will eventually become part of a new archaeological park, per the Agence France-Presse (AFP).

A team of American and Iraqi archaeologists discovered the eight marble slabs while working to restore the Mashki Gate, a structure that was once an entrance to the city of Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian Empire. Researchers were able to date the carvings to the reign of King Sennacherib, who was in power from 705–681 B.C.E.

“We were all awestruck and virtually speechless. It was like a dream,” University of Pennsylvania archaeologist Michael Danti, who directs the Iraq Heritage Stabilization Program, tells CNN’s Christian Edwards. “No one predicted that we would be finding Sennacherib reliefs in a city gate.”

worker with carvings
An Iraqi worker excavates a rock-carving relief recently found at the Mashki Gate. Zaid Al Obaidi / AFP / Getty Images

More than 10,000 archaeological sites are located in Iraq, where some of the world’s earliest cities once stood. But in recent years, many of those sites have become targets.

In 2016, the Islamic State bulldozed parts of the Mashki Gate. This destruction was part of a larger effort to destroy pre-Islamic artifacts and historic sites between 2014 and 2017, as the group seized parts of Iraq and Syria.

“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,” said Danti.

Restored in the 1970s, the Mashki Gate “was an iconic part of Mosul’s skyline, a symbol of the city’s long history,” writes the International Alliance for the Protection of Heritage in Conflict Areas (ALIPH), which is supporting the current restoration efforts, on its website. And that, it adds, is precisely why it was targeted: “because it was a symbol of Iraq’s long history.”

The researchers believe the relics once decorated Sennacherib’s palace, after which they were moved to the Mashki Gate, possibly during his grandson’s rule, as Fadel Mohammed Khodr, head of the Iraqi archaeological team, tells the AFP.

When they were placed at the Mashki Gate, the slabs were partially buried. As a result, the portions of the carvings that remained unground were preserved—even through the destruction in 2016. On the other hand, the sections that were not buried have faded away entirely.

When the restoration is complete, ALIPH intends to transform the Mashki Gate into an education center, where visitors can learn about the history of Nineveh.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.