Neo-Assyrian complex with rock art unearthed beneath a Turkish village

Likely created around 900-600 BC, the relief represents a rare example of Neo-Assyrian monumental rock art.

Archaeologists have uncovered an Iron Age subterranean complex beneath a house in the village of Başbük in south-eastern Turkey, within which a rock wall panel depicting a procession of Syro-Anatolian deities and accompanying Aramaic inscriptions has been unearthed, shedding new light on cultural fusion in the Neo-Assyrian Empire.

In the early first millennium BC, the Neo-Assyrian Empire expanded into south-eastern Anatolia. The Anatolian kingdoms were converted into provinces, with the Aramean kings assuming vassal status.

The rock panel depicting a divine procession discovered at Başbük. Superimposed interpretations of the deities are shown. IMAGE: M. Önal, C. Uludağ, Y. Koyuncu.

Following its discovery by looters in 2017, a rescue excavation at the complex was initiated a year later with funding from Turkey’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism.

Excavations of the complex, which is carved into the limestone bedrock and stretches for at least 30m, revealed an entrance chamber (3.15m wide and 4.30m tall) leading into an upper gallery via a long, descending staircase. On the west wall of the upper gallery, the team identified the 3.96m-long relief panel depicting a procession of deities.

Likely created around 900-600 BC, the relief features eight figures that are Assyrian in style – making it an extremely rare example of Neo-Assyrian monumental rock art.

Three of the figures are, however, accompanied by Aramaic inscriptions identifying it as a procession of regional Aramean deities.

According to the study, recently published in the journal Antiquity, this tells a story of cultural integration, as opposed to conquest.

The first figure depicted in the procession is the Syro-Anatolian ‘storm-god’ Hadad (or Adad), recognisable from his triple lightning fork and circled-star crown. Hadad is followed by the earliest-known regional depiction of the principal goddess of Syria, Atargatis, who precedes the moon god Sîn.

A section of the artwork featuring the upper halves of storm-god Hadad (right), recognisable from his triple lightning fork, and Atargatis, the principal goddess of Syria (left). IMAGE: the M. Önal, C. Uludag, Y. Koyuncu, Selim. F. Adalı.

It has been suggested that the sun-god Šamaš also features on the panel, as indicated by one figure’s winged sun-disc crown.

The artwork appears to have been left unfinished. Only their upper bodies or profiles are presented, incised to a depth of 1mm and outlined using just black paint.

‘The inclusion of Syro-Anatolian religious themes illustrates an adaptation of Neo-Assyrian elements in ways that one did not expect from earlier finds,’ said Dr Adalı, one of the study’s authors. ‘They reflect an earlier phase of Assyrian presence in the region when local elements were more emphasized.’

The team also identified an inscription closely resembling the name of ‘Mukīn-abūa’ – a Neo-Assyrian official. They theorise that Mukīn-abūa may have been granted control of the region, and used the complex to express power and win over locals through integrating Assyrian courtly-style art with Aramean traditions. The unfinished artwork and abandoned nature of the site, however, suggests such efforts were unsuccessful.

Once the site has been stabilised, investigations of the complex will resume.

Look out for further details in upcoming issues of our magazines.