A joint Iraqi-American team of archaeologists digging in the ruins of an ancient palatial gate destroyed by ISIS have discovered stunning artworks last seen some 2,600 years ago.
The seven carved gypsum panels are believed to originally come from the Southwest Palace at Nineveh, near modern Mosul in northern Iraq, and date to the time of Assyrian king Sennacherib (r. 705-681 B.C.). “It’s something none of us expected,” says Ali al-Jabouri, the retired dean of the University of Mosul’s College of Archaeology who is part of the excavation team.
Similar reliefs, excavated from Sennacherib’s palace in the mid-19th century and now a highlight of the British Museum collections, depict the king’s campaign against King Hezekiah of Judea in 701. Al-Jabouri notes while that the heralded Sennacherib reliefs in the British Museum are viewable yet untouchable, the moment he first laid a hand on the newly discovered reliefs was profound.
“When you discover such things and you're able to touch them with your hand, this is something very, very exciting,” he told National Geographic on a call from Mosul.
'Revolutionary' works of art
Sennacherib is among the most famous leaders of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, which at its height spanned from what is now modern Iraq to the Caucasus and Egypt. His military campaign of 701, recorded in the panels at the British Museum and elsewhere, also appear in biblical accounts.
The king’s reign is also considered a pivotal moment in art history when Sennacherib’s artists threw away binding restrictions of tradition and embraced a sweeping new approach. The Assyrian ruler commissioned large-scale artistic depictions of his military campaigns in continuous narratives that filled every bit of space, paying careful attention to details of landscapes and peoples across his vast empire and beyond.
The newly discovered panels, one of which bears an inscription of Sennacherib, depict Assyrian soldiers and military camps, as well as foreign deportees or prisoners of war.
In an ironic twist for ancient artworks that survived both the Sack of Nineveh by Babylonians and Medes in 612 B.C. and the destruction wrought by the 21st-century Islamic State, the preserved portions of relief appear as if they were just carved, the archaeologists marvel.
“They're better than the ones in the British Museum,” says Michael Danti, professor of archaeology at the University of Pennsylvania and director of the joint Iraqi-American project. “They really show the high-relief carving, the detail of Sennacherib’s sculptures which were revolutionary at the time."
The unlikely site of the remarkable discovery is a place of recent destruction. During a campaign of terror across northern Iraq and Syria between 2014 and 2017, the Islamic State targeted the ancient city of Nineveh. At its height around 700 B.C., it was the capital of the Neo-Assyrian empire and the largest city in the world. The citadel at Nineveh, which contains palaces built by Sennacherib and his grandson Ashurbanipal, was surrounded by a wall more than seven miles long and punctuated by 18 gates.
The Mashki Gate, known as the "Gate of the Watering Places" and situated next to the Tigris River, was restored in the 1970s as a prized monument to the ancient heritage of the residents of modern Mosul. It was destroyed by the Islamic State in April 2016.
The joint project between the University of Pennsylvania’s Iraq Heritage Stabilization Program and the Nineveh Inspectorate of Iraq’s State Board of Antiquities and Heritage, funded in part by the ALIPH Foundation, began excavating the ruins of the Mashki Gate ahead of a planned reconstruction in April of this year. They soon encountered a sealed doorway apparently untouched during the 1970s restoration. Beyond the door was a hallway that no one had entered for 2,634 years—when the Mashki Gate and the entire palace compound was destroyed during the sack of Nineveh at the end of the 7th century B.C.
As the archaeologists dug into the destruction layer, they found the skeletal remains of victims from the sack. As they dug down deep along a wall fashioned from chiseled stone panels, however, something more intriguing emerged. Beneath the floor level, seven seemingly blank panels revealed riotous scenes of carved decoration: powerful Assyrian soldiers and archers, and mountainous landscapes lush with detailed vegetation.
The researchers suspect that the panels were repurposed from Sennacherib’s palace and reused as construction material, possibly during a renovation of Mashki Gate by Shinshariskun, the great-grandson of the king. The roughly 5-by-6.5-foot panels were set sideways against the mud brick walls of the gate, with any visible decorated relief above the floor level subsequently chiseled off.
Assyrian art stays 'home'
This is first significant discovery of known Sennacherib-era reliefs since Austen Henry Layard excavated the Southwest Palace in the mid-19th century. The majority of his finds were sent to European museums. These panels, however, will be the first to remain in Iraq.
Researchers have yet to confirm what specific events or military campaigns are depicted in the newly discovered panels and are continuing to excavate the area. Fragments of chiseled decoration found in the hall will provide archaeologists with additional information to reconstruct the scenes, and the panels also provide important information on how Assyrians recycled and repurposed building materials across their empire.
Zainab Bahrani, a professor of ancient Near Eastern art and archaeology at Columbia University, noted that a figure in one panel has a distinctive, non-Assyrian hairstyle and beard worn by inhabitants of Iran at the time, suggesting it may represent a later campaign of Sennacherib in the Zagros Mountains.
“I found [the discovery] really very heartening because we had lost so much during the ISIS attack,” says Bahrani, who points to other stunning discoveries made beneath Mosul’s ancient shrine of Nabi Yunus, which was destroyed by the Islamic State in 2014. “It did provide some comfort that these things can never be destroyed, because they'll always reemerge in some sense.”
“The land the land is just full of antiquities,” she adds. “It's full of ancient sites. And there is no way that you can erase all that history.”