While Building a House, They Dig a Chamber for the Ancient Gods


In 2017, when builders began digging the foundation for a house in the village of Başbuk, about 70 miles from Turkey’s border with Syria, they stumbled upon an interesting opening in the limestone bedrock. Soon, they uncovered a ladder descending more than 20 meters. It led to a cool, damp room with a width of about 28 feet and a ceiling of 16 feet.

Engraved on a wall, a 13-foot-tall procession of almond-eyed deities led by Hadad, a storm god identified by a three-pointed lightning rod and cap and a five-pointed star. He was followed by the goddess Atargatis, a fertility god with a double-horned cylindrical crown and a star. Six more assets were tracked at various stages of completion.

Discovery, announced on Wednesday in the journal Antiquity., captures a moment about 2,800 years ago, when the Neo-Assyrian Empire was the dominant power in the region and was integrated by subjects far from the center of its cultural influence. But the find also highlighted the fragility of archaeological treasures, which were vulnerable to looting and smuggling before the information they protected could be investigated.

“The invaders tried to gain economic advantage,” said Selim Adalı, a historian and epigrapher at Ankara Social Sciences University and co-author of the study, after he discovered the room.

The owners built a large, gray two-story house over the underground complex, complete with a covered balcony and a paved ground floor. They then drilled a 7-by-5-foot hole on the same floor, giving them exclusive access to the site.

They distributed photos of the board and the engravings, hoping to find a buyer, but someone from the village informed the authorities and they were instead arrested. Mehmet Önal, an archaeologist from Harran University and the lead author of the study, said that the owners, who were accused of conducting illegal excavations and failing to report the discovery, were sent to prison for a short time.

In 2018, Dr. Önal and a team of crews conducted a two-month rescue excavation at the site funded by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism in Turkey. They widened the looters’ passage, removed most of the sediment in the large compartment, and restored the panel.

The room was heavily damp, smelled of earth, and was slippery under his feet.

Önal said, “When I was faced with the very expressive eyes and majestic serious face of the storm god Hadad, in the dim light of the lamp in the rock-cut gallery, I felt like I was in a ritual.” . “I felt a slight tremor in my body.”

Dr. Adalı said the room was most likely designed as “the site of sacred rituals involving the well-being of the community in the region – agricultural productivity and the longevity of water resources.” He noted that the region is struggling with drought.

“It makes a lot of sense in such an environment and to have weather gods as a local worship practice,” he said.

Archaeologists have suggested that the board was carved in the eighth century BC. A surprising element was the presence of Atargatis, rendered by the Aramaic name of Attar’ata. Linked to a long tradition of fertility goddesses, Dr. Adali said she was the principal goddess of the classical region known as Syria (not part of Assyria) from about 300 BC to 200 AD. It was effective centuries ago. Dr. “The name we read on this panel gives us a missing link for the history of the goddess,” Adalı said.

Near Hadad, Atargaris, and the moon god Sîn, inscriptions in Aramaic, then a local language, are also rare. These are the first known examples of the language used in a Neo-Assyrian rock relief. The region’s rulers may have created this local approach to imperial gods to associate themselves with Neo-Assyrian power. While there are a few examples in the region that partially resemble the deities at Başbuk, the closest parallels are in northern Iraq, says Dr. frontal.

But the panel seemed unfinished. The engravings are shallow, none of the gods have a complete body, and a few even have no hair. Dr. Adalı said that its creators may have made a hasty exit.

Dr. Önal said that archaeologists had to leave the area for fear that it would collapse. Once stabilized, their exploration will continue. The entire underground complex, including the original entrance, is waiting to be explored.

Dr. Önal said that the looters are now out of jail and living at home, but maybe it won’t last long.

Our future plan is to expropriate and demolish the house first, and then to carry out an archaeological excavation,” he said.


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