Photograph by Isabella Finzi Contini
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Ancient reliefs rarely found outside of palaces depict a procession of Assyrian gods, including the main deity Assur and his consort Mullissu, standing on lions, dragons, and other animals.

Photograph by Isabella Finzi Contini

'Extremely rare’ Assyrian carvings discovered in Iraq

Stone reliefs more than 2,700 years old date to the reign of the mighty King Sargon II.

In the eighth century B.C., Assyrian King Sargon II ruled over a wealthy and powerful empire that included much of today’s Middle East and inspired fear among its neighbors. Now a team of Italian and Iraqi Kurdish archaeologists working in northern Iraq have uncovered ten stone reliefs that adorned a sophisticated canal system dug into bedrock. The surprising find of such beautifully crafted carvings—typically found only in royal palaces—sheds light on the impressive public works supported by a leader better known for his military prowess.

“Assyrian rock reliefs are extremely rare monuments,” said Daniele Morandi Bonacossi, an archaeologist at Italy’s University of Udine, who co-led the recent expedition. With one exception, no such panels have been found in their original location since 1845. “And it is highly probable that more reliefs, and perhaps also monumental celebratory cuneiform inscriptions, are still buried under the soil debris that filled the canal.”

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Archaeologists uncovered the stone reliefs while excavating an ancient canal in northern Iraq. The art likely honors the canal's patron, Assyrian King Sargon II.

The site near the town of Faydah, close to the border with Turkey, has been largely closed to researchers for a half century due to modern conflict. In 1973 a British team noted the tops of three stone panels, but tensions between Kurds and the Baathist regime in Baghdad prevented further work. An expedition led by Morandi Bonacossi returned in 2012 and found six more reliefs. The subsequent invasion by ISIS again halted research efforts; the battle line between the Islamic State and Kurdish forces lay less than 20 miles away until the Muslim fundamentalists were defeated in 2017. (Here are the ancient sites ISIS has damaged and destroyed.)

This past autumn, Morandi Bonacossi and Hasan Ahmed Qasim from Iraq Kurdistan’s Dohuk department of antiquities catalogued a total of ten reliefs set along the banks of an ancient four-mile-long canal. The scene they portray is unique, according to the Italian archaeologist.

The panels display a king—who the archaeologists believe is Sargon II—observing a procession of Assyrian gods, including the main deity Ashur riding on a dragon and a horned lion, with his consort Mullissu on a lion-supported throne. Among the other figures is Ishtar, goddess of love and war, the sun god Shamash, and Nabu, god of wisdom. Archaeologists suspect that such images emphasized to passersby that fertility comes from divine as well as earthly power.

“The reliefs suggest that politically charged scenes of royal power and its divine legitimacy might have been commonplace,” said Harvard University archaeologist Jason Ur, who is researching ancient water systems in the region. The discovery shows that these works of art were “not just in the imperial palaces but everywhere, even where farmers were extracting water from canals for their fields.” (Meet the only woman to have ruled the Assyrian Empire.)

The canal skirts a nearby range of hills and was fed by limestone springs. Branches off the waterway provided extensive irrigation for barley, wheat, and other crops. The fields would have helped feed the 100,000 or more residents of Nineveh, then one of the largest cities in the world. The ruins of this vast metropolis lay some 60 miles to the south, across the Tigris River from today’s city of Mosul.

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Some 2,700 years ago the canal provided water to local farms that helped supply food to the teeming city of Nineveh, ancient capital of the Neo-Assyrian Empire.

Sargon II ruled over what historians call the Neo-Assyrian Empire, which dominated the region from 911 B.C. until its destruction in 609 B.C. at the hands of Persians and Babylonians. As the first army to use iron weapons, the Assyrians developed advanced military techniques to overwhelm their enemies.

When Sargon seized the throne in 721 B.C., he immediately conquered the rebellious northern kingdom of Israel and forcibly relocated thousands of captives. The Bible mentions that he overwhelmed the coastal city of Ashdod, and archaeologists recently found a hastily built wall around the settlement that failed to ward off the threat. The southern kingdom of Judah avoided Israel’s fate by becoming a vassal state.

Sargon’s military victories continued across Anatolia and the western Iranian plateau. At home, he constructed a new capital outside Nineveh at Dur Sharrukin, which means “Sargon’s fortress,” but little else is known of his non-military exploits. The Faydah panels, the archaeologists say, point to extensive royal support for improving lands near the Assyrian heartlands.

Sargon’s son Sennacherib expanded this network and built what may be the world’s oldest aqueduct, a structure crossing a river near Nineveh that employed stone arches and waterproof cement. “Over steep-sided valleys I spanned an aqueduct of white limestone blocks; I made those waters flow over it,” he boasted in an inscription.

Oxford University archaeologist Stephanie Dalley has argued that the fabled Hanging Gardens of Babylon actually were built in Nineveh to take advantage of the plentiful water pumped into the city. Though that thesis is controversial, Ur and other researchers say that scholars have underestimated Assyrian technological expertise off the battlefield.

The expedition itself used advanced technologies, including laser scanning and digital photogrammetry, to record every detail of the stone panels and their context. A drone provided high-resolution aerial photos that will allow researchers to map the entire canal network.

But the precious remains of Sargon’s patronage are “strongly threatened by vandalism, illegal excavations, and the expansion of the nearby village,” warned Morandi Bonacossi. One of the reliefs, he added, was damaged by a would-be looter last May. Another panel was battered when a farmer expanded a stable. And in 2018 a modern aqueduct was cut through the ancient canal.

The ultimate goal, he said, is to create an archaeological park that includes other rock reliefs, and to win UNESCO World Heritage Site protection for the entire hydraulic system constructed by several Assyrian rulers a full five centuries before the Romans arrived.