When builders began digging the foundations of a house in 2017 in Başbük, a Turkish village about 110 km from the Syrian border, they came across a curious opening in the limestone bedrock. Soon they unearthed a staircase that descended more than 20 feet. It led to a cool, damp chamber nearly 28 feet wide with a 16-foot ceiling.
Carved into one wall was a 13-foot-long procession of almond-eyed deities, led by Hadad, a storm god identified by his three-pointed lightning rod and headdress with a five-pointed star. The goddess Atargatis, a fertility deity with a star-encrusted cylindrical double-horned crown, followed. Six other beings followed, in various stages of completion.
The find, described Wednesday in the journal Antiquity, captures a time some 2,800 years ago when the Neo-Assyrian Empire was the dominant power in the region and its cultural influence was absorbed by subjects far from its center. But the discovery also highlighted the fragility of archaeological treasures, which are vulnerable to looting and trafficking before the knowledge they preserve can be studied.
After discovering the chamber, “the occupants attempted to gain economic advantage,” said Selim Adali, a historian and epigrapher at Ankara University of Social Sciences and co-author of the study.
The owners of the property have built a large two-storey gray house at the top of the underground complex, with a covered balcony and a paved ground floor. They then drilled a 7ft by 5ft hole through that same floor, giving themselves private access to the site.
Hoping to find a buyer, they circulated photographs of the panel and its carvings, but someone in the village tipped off the authorities and they were arrested instead. Accused of digging illegally and failing to report the find, the owners were briefly sent to jail, said Mehmet Önal, an archaeologist at the University of Harran in Turkey and lead author of the study.
In 2018, Dr Önal and a team of colleagues undertook a two-month salvage excavation of the site funded by Turkey’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism. They enlarged the looter passage, removed much of the sediment from the great chamber, and restored the panel.
The room was intensely damp, smelling of earth and slippery under their feet.
“In the dim lamplight of the gallery carved into the bedrock, I felt as if I was in a ritual, when I was confronted with the very expressive eyes and the majestic and serious face of the god of the storm Hadad,” said Dr Önal. . “I felt a slight tremor in my body.”
Dr Adali said the chamber was likely intended to be “a place of sacred rituals involving the welfare of the community in the area – agricultural fertility, longevity of water resources”. He noted that the region had struggled with drought.
“Having weather deities in such an environment and as a local practice of worship makes a lot of sense,” he said.
Archaeologists have suggested that the panel was carved around the 8th century BC. A surprising element was the presence of Atargatis, rendered with the Aramaic name of Attar’ata. Linked to a long tradition of fertility goddesses, Dr Adali said, she was the primary goddess of the classical region known as Syria (which was not part of Assyria) from about 300 BC to 200 AD. Her appearance on the panel suggested she was influential centuries earlier. “The name we read on this panel gives us a missing link for the story of the goddess,” Dr Adali said.
Also rare are the inscriptions in Aramaic — one of the local languages at the time — near Hadad, Atargaris and the moon god Sin. These are the earliest known examples of the language being used on rock relief from the Neo-Assyrian period. The rulers of the region may have created this local version of the imperial gods to associate themselves with Neo-Assyrian power. And while there are a few examples in the region of deities partially similar to those of Başbük, the closest parallels are found in northern Iraq, says Dr Önal.
But the panel seemed to have been left unfinished. The carvings are shallow, none of the gods have full bodies, and a few don’t even have hair. Its creators may have made a hasty exit, Dr. Adali said.
Archaeologists also had to leave the site, fearing it would collapse, Dr Önal said. Once stabilized, their explorations will continue. The full extent of the underground complex remains to be discovered, including the original entrance.
The looters are now out of jail and living in the house, Dr Önal said, but maybe not for long.
“Our future plan is to first expropriate and demolish the house, then proceed with archaeological excavations,” he said.