Archaeologists in Iraq have discovered Assyrian reliefs unseen for millennia

Written by the author Christian Edwards, CNN

Archaeologists in northern Iraq have discovered some unique Assyrian stone carvings that are about 2,700 years old.
The discovery was made in Nineveh, east of Mosul, as a joint US-Iraqi excavation team was completing the reconstruction of the Mashki Gate, which was destroyed by ISIS militants in 2016.

Iraq was home to some of the world’s oldest cities and oldest 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. Credit: Zaid al-Obeidi/AFP/Getty Images

But the gate was one of many historical monuments that fell victim to acts of cultural vandalism and prolonged military conflict in the area.

It was rebuilt in the 1970s, but was later 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 the cultural heritage of Iraq,” he told CNN, adding, “Mashki Gate was one of the sites I denounced when ISIS deliberately destroyed it.”

When the Iraqi Heritage Stabilization Program, led by Danti, began work to rebuild the gate, they made a discovery he described as “so strange it was 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 from Sennacherib’s palace.

“We were all stunned and almost speechless. It was like a dream,” Danti said. “No one predicted that we would find Sennacherib reliefs at a city gate.”

Although there had been previous archaeological digs at the site in the 1960s and 1970s, this particular room had never been excavated, according to Danti.

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

They were archaeologists "amazed" For the carvings of Nineveh.

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

The discovery opens new avenues for research as archaeologists return to Mosul to delve deeper into the history of the Neo-Assyrian Empire.

Although such finds have previously been taken abroad, such as to the British Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, these slabs will remain in Iraq.

“These slabs are official state property of the Iraqi government and the Iraqi people,” Danti told CNN, adding that his researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and Mosul are “absolutely delighted to have found these reliefs.”

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

An archaeological park

More extraordinary finds from the area were unveiled at a ceremony on Sunday.

The Faida Archaeological Park – about 19 miles from Nineveh – was discovered after the completion of excavations that began in 2019.

The Nineveh Rural Archeology Project at the University of Udine in Italy discovered 13 reliefs carved into the walls of a six-mile-long irrigation canal.

The carvings were carried out along irrigation canals in the Faida Archaeological Park in northern Iraq.

The carvings were carried out along irrigation canals in the Faida Archaeological Park in northern Iraq. Credit: Nineveh Field Archaeological Project, University of Udine

Udine archaeologist Daniele Morandi Bonacossi, who spoke to CNN, said the reliefs are “unique” and “unparalleled in Middle Eastern rock art.”

“The Faida reliefs form a monumental complex of remarkable interest, through which the Assyrian royal power established a sculptural program to celebrate the creation of the hydraulic system that brought fertility and wealth to the surrounding countryside,” he said.

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