While constructing a home in Turkey, looters realized they’d been building atop an ancient chamber. Instead of alerting local authorities, they began to dig themselves—and only after the heritage criminals were apprehended did archaeologists arrive to save the day (and the artifacts within).
Now, a stone panel uncovered during their emergency excavation sheds new light on the melting pot of cultures that coexisted during the early days of the expansion of Mesopotamia’s Neo-Assyrian Empire nearly 3,000 years ago.
An article published this week in Antiquity reveals more about the panel, which likely dates to between the ninth and eighth centuries B.C.E. The symbols inscribed there represent a variety of cultures—the inscriptions are written in Aramaic, while its carvings reflect a Neo-Assyrian style with a local Syro-Anatolian flair.
The panel shows a procession of eight Aramean gods. Among them are storm god Hadad, who is depicted with a trident-esque lightning fork and looms larger than the rest. The goddess Atargatis, known as the mother figure and frequently depicted as the companion of Hadad; the moon god Sîn, who wears a crown of a crescent and full moon; and the sun god Šamaš, sporting a winged sun on his head, are also present.
Scholars believe the work was left unfinished, since only the gods’ upper bodies or heads in profile are shown.
The panel shows “ … a local cohabitation and symbiosis of the Assyrians and Arameans in a region and period under firm Assyrian imperial control,” the authors write. They call the panel “ … a striking example of regional values in the exercise of imperial power”—a relationship that could have involved a give and take between Assyrians who wanted to impress their new subjects and Arameans eager to please their new overlords.
The site was likely uncovered when the home in the southeastern Turkish village Başbük was being built, reports National Geographic’s Tom Metcalfe. Instead of notifying authorities, looters cut a hole into the ground floor of the two-story home. On the other end of that makeshift entryway lay an ancient chamber hewn out of the limestone bedrock that led by staircase to another lower room.
Excavations went on for two months in 2018 before archaeologists were forced to stop due to the “instability of the site,” according to the study.
The rock art is from an active time in Assyrian history. Between 900 and 600 B.C.E., the Neo-Assyrian empire expanded its territory within southeastern Anatolia. The region was once largely ruled by city-state dynasties whose residents spoke Aramean and Luwian. But gradually, Neo-Assyrian King Ashurnasirpal II took control of notable Aramean settlements.
This meshing of cultures is evident in not just the language of the inscriptions but the way in which the gods are portrayed. The panel’s dating captures the Assyrian takeover of power “in its early phases,” study author Selim Ferruh Adali, a history professor at the Social Sciences University of Ankara, tells Live Science’s Emily Staniforth.
“Although some features of the gods are distinctly Assyrian—such as their rigid poses, and the particular style of their hair and beards—many details of the carvings show strong influences from the local Aramaic culture,” Metcalfe writes for National Geographic.
Archaeologists also found an inscription that might offer insight into the work’s purpose. Aramaic writing on the panel appears to include the name of Mukīn-abūa, an Assyrian official in charge of the province of Tušhan around 811 to 783 B.C.E. It may mean that the complex was created as a way to engender favor with local residents, says Adali to CNN’s Ashley Strickland.
“The panel was made by local artists serving Assyrian authorities who adapted Neo-Assyrian art in a provincial context,” Adali says. “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.”
Though it’s unclear what caused artisans to abandon the panel, the art they began is effective, even thousands of years later. Even now, its depictions hold an emotional power over those who cast their eyes on them.
“I felt as if I was in a ritual,” says lead author Mehmet Önal, archaeologist at Harran University, to National Geographic. “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.”