In 2018, archaeologists carried out a rescue excavation of an underground complex in south-eastern Turkey, after its initial discovery beneath a house in the village of Başbük by looters the year before. Because of the instability of the site, excavations were put on hold after two months, but research into an intriguing, seemingly half-complete rock relief recorded in the subterranean chambers, recently published in Antiquity (https://doi.org/10.15184/aqy.2022.48), is revealing details about religion and style in the region during the Neo- Assyrian Empire.
Başbük is located in south-eastern Anatolia, where Luwian- and Aramean-speaking populations lived and were loyal to regional city-states. Around 900-600 BC, the Neo-Assyrian empire expanded into the territory, and Assyrian court style became a means of expressing power in the region. The Başbük find is, as authors Mehmet Önal (University of Harran), Celal Uludağ and Yusuf Koyuncu (Şanlıurfa Museum), and Selim Ferruh Adalı (University of Ankara) write, the first example of a rock relief of this Neo-Assyrian period to feature Aramaic inscriptions and bears unique regional variations.
Incised in the upper chamber, and with their outlines also painted in black, are eight Aramean deities. The noses, eyes, and ears of the goddesses are in an Assyrian style, as are the beards of the gods. Headgear, however, differs from that of Neo-Assyrian depictions of gods and instead is in a more local style.
At the head of the procession, and according to the authors ‘the most finely executed’, is Hadad, the storm god, who can control the waters and is therefore also associated with fertility. He is named by an Aramaic inscription, but is identifiable from his triple lightning fork and circled star, according to northern Syrian and south-eastern Anatolian iconography. Next to Hadad is a goddess with a two-horned crown with a star. The iconography again agrees with the inscription, which names her as ’Attar‘ata. This is the earliest-known reference in the region to the goddess, who is later, as Atargatis, the principal Syrian goddess (and associated with fertility). They are followed by the moon-god Sîn, the sun-god Šamaš, and four more elusive deities. Corn imagery is also visible in the panel, further hinting that Başbük may have had some role in a local fertility cult.
Interestingly, only the tops of the figures are preserved. Hadad has plenty of blank space beneath him, suggesting he and the other figures were unfinished. The incisions marking out the figures are only 1mm deep. They may have been draft outlines, strengthened with black colouring to make them visible by lamplight and ready to be fully carved, a project that seems to have been abandoned, whether because of unrest, changes in power, or a different reason altogether.
Once the site has been stabilised, excavations will continue. One of the targets will be recording a longer Aramaic inscription on the panel. A tentative reading of this, according to the paper, gives the name Mukīn-abūa. During the reign of his king, Adad-nirari III (811-783 BC), this Assyrian ruler of Tušhan may have carried out Aramean rituals at Başbük, which was part of his territory.
Images: M Önal, C Uludağ, Y Koyuncu/Antiquity Publications Ltd.