Ancient Cult's Artwork Discovered Under Turkish House Is Earliest Depiction Of Syrian Goddess

Eight ancient deities have been found hiding under some person's house. Image Credit: Önal et al, Antiquity, 2022

You have to feel sorry for the residents of Başbük, southeastern Turkey. It’s probably bad enough to learn you’ve been living above an ancient fertility cult for the best part of three millennia – but to find out because somebody was trying to rob you really suggests Fate might be holding a grudge.

Now, five years after the police originally foiled looters’ attempts to ransack the site, archeologists have revealed the first glimpses of the treasures held inside. In a paper published today in the journal Antiquity, researchers describe “a rare processional panel […] incised on the rock wall,” featuring eight local Iron Age gods and goddesses.

The deities spruced up a bit. Önal et al, Antiquity, 2022

That’s not even the best part. The panel may have been discovered in Turkey, and the artwork includes inscriptions in the local language of Aramaic – but the style of the deities is clearly Assyrian, a culture that originated hundreds of miles further east in Mesopotamia.

While the deities in procession appear to have been purposefully drawn according to local traditions, they include gods from regions throughout the Neo-Assyrian Empire, including the earliest-known depiction of the Syrian goddess Atargatis in the region.

“When the Assyrian Empire exercised political power in south-eastern Anatolia, Assyrian governors expressed their power through art in Assyrian courtly style,” explained Dr Selim Ferruh Adalı, a philologist from the Social Sciences University of Ankara and co-author of the paper, in a statement seen by IFLScience.

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

Hadad and his consort Atargatis. Önal et al, Antiquity, 2022

Four of the deities have been identified so far: “From right to left, the Başbük procession scene begins with the leading male deity, Adad (or Hadad), depicted in the ‘storm-god’ tradition of northern Syrian and south-eastern Anatolian iconography,” explain the researchers. Hadad is “recognizable from his triple lightning fork and circled star,” they note, but especially so from the inscription next to his face that says “Hadad.”

Next comes his consort, an “Ištar-type goddess,” the researchers report. It’s not Ištar herself, though: at this time, local deities were often modeled after the big-name gods and goddesses, the paper notes, so the fact that she has Ištar’s trademark star-topped double-horn crown doesn’t necessarily mean it’s actually her – and thanks to the inscription at her head, we know this is actually Atargatis, the Syrian mother-goddess of fertility.

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The name of Atargatis Image Credit: Önal et al, Antiquity, 2022

Standing behind Atargatis is the moon god Sîn, crowned with a crescent and full moon, and the last of the three labeled deities. Fourth in line is the sun god Šamaš – no inscription here, but recognizable from his winged sun-disc crown, the paper explains.

The other four deities, however, “cannot be clearly identified,” the researchers write. Two are reminiscent of Kubaba and her husband Karhuha, but not quite enough to be sure – Karhuha, fourth from the right, is missing his trademark shield and spear. Kubaba, sixth in the procession, seems to have some kind of lightning symbolism that the researchers haven’t seen associated with her before.

Last of all in the procession is a deity wearing a crown with a large, double-lined circle – possibly “represent[ing] an astral entity,” the researchers explain, adding that “the figure may be a lunar deity.” Although they appear to be a female deity, the researchers think it may be identified with the god Nusku, son of Sîn.

The name of Sîn. Önal et al, Antiquity, 2022

The gods aren’t the only names inscribed on the panel: the team also found what they suspect is the name "Mukīn-abūa". He was an official during the reign of Adad-nirari III, King of Assyria from 811 BCE to 783 BCE, and the team thinks he might have been given control of the region after it fell to the Neo-Assyrian Empire. In an effort to win over locals, the researchers speculate he may have commissioned the panel as a way to integrate the two cultures.

If that was the case, though, the team think he probably wasn’t successful. The panel was never finished, suggesting something happened to stop its construction – a revolt, perhaps, or the installation of a less friendly local ruler.

Whatever happened, the team hopes that future research will reveal more of the story behind the half-finished find.

“The processional panel, which would have greeted visitors in the upper gallery, has yet to yield all its secrets,” they write.

“By illustrating a local cohabitation and symbiosis of the Assyrians and the Arameans in a region and period under firm Assyrian imperial control, the Başbük panel gives scholars studying the imperial peripheries a striking example of regional values in the exercise of imperial power expressed through monumental art.”

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