A rare example of art dating to the Neo-Assyrian Empire (1st millennium BC) has been found in a subterranean complex below a house in the village of Başbük, in south-east Turkey.
The complex is made up of a series of spaces carved into the bedrock, stretching for at least 30m. It was discovered in 2017 by looters who cut a large hole into the floor of the house to access the space beneath illegally. During rescue excavations in 2018, archaeologists removed some of the sediment filling the underground chambers and identified an engraved panel on a smoothed rock-face on the west wall of the complex’s upper gallery.
The panel is 3.96m long and features a procession of eight deities from the Aramean pantheon, three of whom are accompanied by Aramaic inscriptions identifying them, as well as a longer inscription that has not yet been fully deciphered. The figures are all shown in profile, facing right, and are depicted as half-body, bust, or head only, suggesting that they were left unfinished for some reason. The deity leading the procession is the largest and most finely executed figure; identified in the inscription as Hadad, the storm god, he is depicted with northern Syrian and south-eastern Anatolian iconography. Next to Hadad is an Ishtar-type goddess consort named in the inscription as ’Attar‘ata, believed to be an early variant of the goddess who would later become known as Atargatis, an important deity in Syria. Hadad and ’Attar‘ata are followed by the moon god Sîn, the sun god Šamaš, and four more unidentified deities.
Themes of fertility are common throughout the panel; ears of corn are featured in the headgear and accessories of many of the figures, and the gods Hadad and Sîn, in particular, both have strong associations with fecundity. It has therefore been suggested that the underground complex may have been related to a local cult connected to cultivation.
Perhaps the most fascinating thing about the engraved panel, though, is that while the figures depicted are Aramean deities, the style is which they are depicted is distinctly Assyrian. Between c.900 and 600 BC, the Neo-Assyrian empire expanded across south-eastern Anatolia, establishing rule over many Aramean city-states, and using Assyrian art to express and consolidate their power. This is reflected in the merging of cultures shown in the Başbük panel, which draws on local, Aramean traditions while incorporating the typical Assyrian courtly style. Researchers have suggested that the engraving may have been commissioned by an official in command of the local area who later fell out of power, possibly explaining why the panel was left unfinished.
Excavations in the underground complex were halted for safety reasons, but it is hoped that future work, once the space is stabilised, will shed more light on the inscriptions and the complex’s history. The rescue excavation was supported by Turkey’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism and was led by S¸anlıurfa Archaeological Museum Director Celal Uludag˘, carried out by museum experts Yusuf Koyuncu and Aziz Ergin, and six workers, all with the supervision of Mehmet Önal from Harran University’s Department of Archaeology. The results of the recent work have been published in Antiquity (https://doi.org/10.15184/aqy.2022.48).