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Iron Age Rock Art Discovered Beneath Turkish House

Oct 17, 2023

Archaeologists have discovered rare rock art in an Iron Age subterranean complex, located underneath a house in Başbük, Turkey. The finding, reported Wednesday in the journal Antiquity, depicts a divine processional with eight deities across a 13-foot rock wall panel using a mix of cultural influences from the vast Assyrian Empire and local Syro-Anatolian deities.

The discovery is the first known example of a Neo-Assyrian-period rock relief with Aramaic inscriptions; it contains the earliest-known regional attestation of Atargatis, the principal goddess of Syria.

The site underwent a rescue excavation by archaeologists who dated the rock art during the height of the Neo-Assyrian Empire in the first millennium B.C. Originating in Mesopotamia, the Empire expanded into Anatolia between 900 and 600 B.C.

The entrance chamber, which is carved into the limestone bedrock below the ground floor of the house, leads into an upper gallery via a long descending staircase. After sediment was removed, the wall panel featuring the monumental art was revealed.

According to researchers Celal Uludağ, Yusuf Koyuncu, Mehmet Önal, and Selim Ferruh Adalı, the Assyrian style of art became common as the Empire expanded.

"When the Assyrian Empire exercised political power in south-eastern Anatolia, Assyrian governors expressed their power through art in Assyrian courtly style," said Adalı in a statement.

Despite being in Assyrian style, however, the inscriptions clearly identify the figures as local deities. This seems to suggest a period of integration rather than conquest, with the accompanying inscriptions written in the local language of Aramaic and the artwork featuring religious themes from both Anatolia and Syria.

The rock panel depicts members of the Aramean pantheon, with their outlines incised and painted in black. The figures are all shown in a right-facing profile and are about two feet tall, with the exception of the deity leading the procession—the storm god Hadad—whose head is more than three-and-a-half feet tall.

Researchers were able to determine the inclusion of four of the local deities: Hadad, the earliest regional depiction of Atargatis, the moon god Sîn, and the sun god Šamaš.

Here, Hadad is pictured with his lightning trident and circled star. He is paired with the goddess Atargatis, who wears a double-horned cylindrical crown with an inset pointed star. Sîn is crowned by a crescent and full moon, and is followed by Šamaš, with his winged sun-disc crown.

"The inclusion of Syro-Anatolian religious themes illustrate an adaptation of Neo-Assyrian elements in ways that one did not expect from earlier finds," Adalı explained. "They reflect an earlier phase of Assyrian presence in the region when local elements were more emphasized."

Efforts at integration may not have been entirely successful, as the artwork and underground complex remained unfinished. Researchers discovered an inscription that could refer to Mukīn-abūa, a Neo-Assyrian official during the reign of Adad-nirari III (811–783 B.C.), who may have been given control of the region. It is thought that Mukīn-abūa might have been using the complex to integrate with—and attempt to win over—the local population.

The fact that the site was abandoned before it could be finished seems to suggest that something impacted the builders’ activities, such as a revolt, regional unrest, a transition in power, or simply a disrupted work schedule. Since there was room left to complete the the figures’ bodies, researchers believe these inscriptions may have been outlines that would later have been fully carved and painted relief panels.

Featuring prevalent ear-of-corn imagery in the scene, there is an emphasis on growth and fertility that the team believes is related to an enduring tradition of cultivation in the local lands around Başbük.

"As this was a rescue excavation, we could not fully study the site," said Adalı. Future excavations of lower galleries may reveal more about the underground complex, which altogether is an estimated 100 feet. While authorities work to stabilize the tunnels, archaeological efforts are currently on hold.

"The processional panel, which would have greeted visitors in the upper gallery," the team writes, "has yet to yield all its secrets."