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The leader of the excavation, archaeologist Daniele Morandi Bonacossi, and one of the Assyrian relief carvings unearthed in the northern Kurdistan region of Iraq.    Source: Alberto Savioli / Land of Nineveh Archaeological Project / University of Udine

3000-Year-Old Assyrian Reliefs Unearthed in ISIS Stomping Ground

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Archaeologists have unearthed ancient carved Assyrian reliefs of a king in a procession of gods and goddesses riding on animals and mythical creatures.

The Assyrian carvings are almost 3,000 years old and were uncovered late last year by Italian and Iraqi archaeologists excavating in the Faida district, south of the city of Duhok, about 300 miles (480 kilometers) north of Baghdad, in the Kurdistan region in the north of Iraq.

The Land of Nineveh Archaeological Project is led by Dr. Daniele Morandi Bonacossi, of the  University of Udine  in Italy, collaborating with archaeologists from the Duhok Directorate of Antiquities. According to the university’s excavation leader at Faida, with the exception of the carvings at the archaeological site of Khinnis discovered near the city of Mosul in 1845, there exists “no other” comparable Assyrian rock art.

The excavation site where the Assyrian relief carvings were found, cut into the bedrock above an ancient irrigation canal in the Faida district of Iraq's Kurdistan region. (Alberto Savioli / Land of Nineveh Archaeological Project / University of Udine)

The excavation site where the Assyrian relief carvings were found, cut into the bedrock above an ancient irrigation canal in the Faida district of Iraq's Kurdistan region. (Alberto Savioli / Land of Nineveh Archaeological Project / University of Udine)

The Assyrian Relief of Kings and Gods

Dating from about 2,800 years ago and cut ‘from’ the bedrock, in relief, located above an ancient irrigation canal, the story is set in a period of expansion in the  Assyrian Empire and shows the Assyrian king Sargon II at both ends of a procession with the seven main Assyrian gods and goddesses. All the gods and goddesses are riding animals and mythical creatures including horses, bulls, lions and dragons and each faces the direction the water once flowed in the ancient canal beneath them.

The unearthed Assyrian relief carvings showing a procession of the seven main Assyrian gods and goddesses, standing or seated on mythical animals, and the Assyrian king Sargon II. (Alberto Savioli / Land of Nineveh Archaeological Project / University of Udine)

The unearthed Assyrian relief carvings showing a procession of the seven main Assyrian gods and goddesses, standing or seated on mythical animals, and the Assyrian king Sargon II. (Alberto Savioli / Land of Nineveh Archaeological Project / University of Udine)

According to an article in Live Science , Dr. Morandi Bonacossi said the carving feature: the sun god Shamash on a horse and the moon god Sin is on the back of a horned lion. Furthermore, the god of wisdom is mounted on a dragon, while the weather god is on a horned lion and a bull. Ishtar, the goddess of love and war sits on a lion and Ashur, the chief Assyrian god, is perched upon a dragon and a horned lion, while his wife Mullissu sits on a decorated throne supported by a lion.

Digging in the Shadow of Terrorists

The famous Assyrian king Sargon ruled from 722 BC until 705 BC and according to the Hebrew Bible , he invaded and defeated the  Kingdom of Israel . It was under his rule that the canal had been built for local irrigation. His son and successor, Sennacherib, ruled until 681 BC and rebuilt the ancient city of Nineveh alongside the Tigris River, on the outskirts of modern Mosul. He integrated his father’s canal into a much more expansive irrigation network that transformed the Assyrian Empire into an agricultural giant.

Close up of the Assyrian relief carvings showing some of the gods and goddesses standing or seated on a mythical creature. (Alberto Savioli / Land of Nineveh Archaeological Project / University of Udine)

Close up of the Assyrian relief carvings showing some of the gods and goddesses standing or seated on a mythical creature. (Alberto Savioli / Land of Nineveh Archaeological Project / University of Udine)

In a National Geographic article about the new discovery, Hassan Ahmed Qasim Duhok from the Directorate of Antiquities, said the carvings were first seen in 1973 by a British team who noted the tops of three stone panels but tensions between Kurds and the Baathist regime in Baghdad prevented further work. Then, in 2012, Dr. Morandi Bonacossi identified six more reliefs but all archaeological work was abandoned in 2014, when ISIS captured nearby Mosul. However, a full scientific excavation resumed in 2017 after the terrorist organization was finally driven out of the region.

The Future for Ancient Faida

You would think such an incredible discovery would more than satisfy archaeologists, but it only seems to have peeked their exploratory natures, as they now suspect more might lie beneath. Dr. Morandi Bonacossi told Live Science that the 4-mile-long (6.5 km) canal, which once carried water to farmland in the Faida district during the eighth century BC, had been filled in a long time ago. However, the archaeologist says it's “highly probable” that more reliefs and maybe monumental celebratory cuneiform inscriptions are still buried under the soil debris that filled the canal, waiting to be uncovered.

The Faida archaeological site has traditionally been the focus of vandalism and looting caused by rapid and urban expansion, including the construction of a modern aqueduct nearby, which now threatens the site, according to Dr. Morandi Bonacoss. However, Faida is currently undergoing a major salvage and restoration project, and a new archaeological park is being created nearby, which will help protect the site from further incursions.

Top image: The leader of the excavation, archaeologist Daniele Morandi Bonacossi, and one of the Assyrian relief carvings unearthed in the northern Kurdistan region of Iraq.    Source: Alberto Savioli / Land of Nineveh Archaeological Project / University of Udine

By Ashley Cowie

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