Archaeologists restoring an ancient monument destroyed by the Islamic State in Mosul have just found seven incredibly preserved Assyrian sculptures buried under it


A cache of seven 2,700-year-old marble reliefs has been discovered by archaeologists under the dilapidated gate of Mashki, just east of Mosul in Iraq. The incredibly well-preserved relics show how artists working under Assyrian King Sennacherib, who ruled between 705 and 681 BCE, developed their own style of art.

Michael Danti, Principal of the University of Pennsylvania Iraqi Heritage Stabilization Program, had originally traveled to Mosul to help restore the iconic Mashki Gate, razed by IS bulldozers in 2016, in cooperation with the National Board of Antiquities and Heritage of Nineveh. Erected in the western side of the ancient Assyrian city, the name of the entrance translates to “Gate of the Waterholes”, since the once striking structure led to the Tigris.

When archaeologists began excavating this previously unexplored area, they discovered seven carved marble slabs beneath the ruins. Some show soldiers firing arrows, others are rich with vines, pomegranates and palm trees. All are preserved with shocking clarity, having been buried for centuries, and many appear almost newly carved.

Detail of one of the Assyrian marble sculptures found in Mosul. Photo: courtesy of Michael Danti.

“They date from the time of King Sennacherib and were intended for (or previously housed in) his southwestern palace,” Danti told Artnet News. “The reliefs were later moved to the Mashki Gate in antiquity and installed there.”

Babylonian and Median forces incinerated the southwestern palace during their sack of Nineveh in 612 BC. Archaeologists have since recovered many sculptures lost during the conflict, but others have fallen victim to the elements, as well as looting and deliberate vandalism.

“It is a great loss in terms of understanding this pivotal period in the development of art in Assyria,” Danti said. “Sennacherib artists were experimenting with ways to capture movement, depict realistic landscapes, and enhance storytelling in narrative art that combined imagery with text.”

Detail of one of the Assyrian marble sculptures found in Mosul. Photo: courtesy of Michael Danti.

Ironically, these buried treasures could have remained hidden had ISIS not obliterated the Mashki Gate. “There is indeed a silver lining, but ultimately ISIS inflicted horrific casualties on northern Iraq and Syria,” Danti noted.

The seven slabs will remain in Iraq while archaeologists study them further. With continued sponsorship from the ALIPH Foundation and the Penn Museum, Danti intends to continue restoring Iraqi heritage and learning more about how landforms like these were created.

“We are also investigating how these slabs were installed at Mashki Gate in what appears to be a case of ancient recycling of valuable materials,” he added.

“We will compare our seven slabs showing scenes from Sennacherib’s military campaigns, presumably in the Levant, to historical records and other reliefs illustrating major events of these campaigns, which will help to better understand the history of this important period. ”

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