When builders began digging the foundations of a house in 2017 in Babk, a village in Turkey about 70 miles from the Syrian border, they encountered a curious opening in the limestone bed. Soon, they discovered a ladder that went down more than 20 feet. It led to a cold, damp room, nearly 28 feet wide with a 16-foot ceiling.
Carved into a wall was a 13-foot-long procession of almond-eyed deities, led by Hadad, a storm god, who was identified by his three-pointed lightning bolt and five-pointed star-shaped head covering. He was followed by the goddess Atargatis, a fertility deity with a cylindrical crown with two horns and a star. Six other beings crawled, in various stages of completion.
Discovery, described Wednesday in Antiquity magazine, captures a moment about 2800 years ago when the Neo-Assyrian Empire was the dominant power in the region and its cultural influence was being integrated by entities far from its center. But the finding also highlighted the fragility of archaeological treasures, which are vulnerable to robbery and trafficking before the knowledge they store is studied.
After the room was discovered, residents tried to gain economic advantage, said Selim Adali, a historian and epigraphist at Ankara University of Social Sciences and a co-author of the study.
The property owners built a large gray two-story house on top of the underground complex, complete with a covered balcony and an asphalt ground floor. They then dug a 7 by 5 meter hole in the same floor, giving themselves private access to the site.
Hoping to find a buyer, they distributed photos of the panel and its engravings, but someone in the village informed the authorities and instead they were arrested. Accused of illegal excavations and failure to report the discovery, the property owners were briefly sent to prison, said Mehmet Nal, an archaeologist at Harran University in Turkey and lead author of the study.
In 2018, Dr. Nal and a team of colleagues undertook a two-month site rescue excavation funded by the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism. They widened the passage of the robbers, removed a large portion of the sediment from the large chamber, and restored the panel.
The room was very damp, grounded and slippery under their feet.
In the dim light of the lamp in the gallery carved into the bed stone, I felt like I was in a ritual, when I was confronted with the very expressive eyes and majestic serious face of the storm god Hadad, said Dr. Nal. I felt a slight tremor in my body.
Dr. Adali said the chamber was likely intended to be a place of sacred rituals that included community welfare in the region’s agricultural fertility, longevity of water resources. He noted that the region had struggled with drought.
Having the weather deities in such an environment and as a local worship practice makes a lot of sense, he said.
Archaeologists have suggested that the panel was carved around the eighth century BCE A surprising element was the presence of Atargatis, translated as the Aramaic name Attarata. Associated with a long tradition of fertility goddesses, Dr. Adal said she was the main goddess of the classical region known as Syria (which was not part of Assyria) from approximately 300 BC to 200 AD. Her appearance on the panel suggested she was influential centuries ago. The name we read in this panel gives us a missing link to the story of the goddess, said Dr. Adali.
Also rare are the Aramaic inscriptions one of the local languages at the time near Hadad, Atargaris, and the moon god Sn. They are the first known examples of language used in a rock relief of the Neo-Assyrian period. The rulers of the areas may have created this local attitude towards the imperial gods to associate with neo-Assyrian power. And while there are some examples in the deity region that are partly similar to those in Babk, the closest parallels are in northern Iraq, says Dr. nal.
But the panel seemed to have remained unfinished. The carvings are shallow, none of the gods has a full body and some do not even have hair. Its creators may have made a hasty exit, said Dr. Adali.
Archaeologists also had to leave the site, fearing it might collapse, Dr. said. nal. Once stabilized, their search will continue. The full extent of the underground complex remains to be discovered, including the original entrance.
The robbers are now out of jail and living at home, said Dr. Nal, but probably not for long.
Our next plan is to first expropriate and demolish the house, then do archeological excavations, he said.
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