Ancient Relief Iraq
© Isabella Finzi Contini
Ancient reliefs rarely found outside of palaces depict a procession of Assyrian gods, including the main deity Assur and his consort Mullissu, standing on lions, dragons, and other animals.
In the eighth century BC, Assyrian King Sargon II ruled over a wealthy and powerful empire that included much of today's Middle East and inspired fear among its neighbors. Now a team of Italian and Iraqi Kurdish archeologists working in northern Iraq have uncovered ten stone reliefs that adorned a sophisticated canal system dug into bedrock.

The surprising find of such beautifully crafted carvings — typically found only in royal palaces — sheds light on the impressive public works supported by a leader better known for his military prowess, reported.

"Assyrian rock reliefs are extremely rare monuments," said Daniele Morandi Bonacossi, an archeologist at Italy's University of Udine, who co-led the recent expedition. With one exception, no such panels have been found in their original location since 1845.

"And it is highly probable that more reliefs, and perhaps also monumental celebratory cuneiform inscriptions, are still buried under the soil debris that filled the canal."

The site near the town of Faida, close to the border with Turkey, has been largely closed to researchers for a half century due to modern conflict. In 1973 a British team noted the tops of three stone panels, but tensions between Kurds and the Baathist regime in Baghdad prevented further work.

An expedition led by Morandi Bonacossi returned in 2012 and found six more reliefs. The subsequent invasion by Daesh terrorist group again halted research efforts.ffer

Ancient Water Canal, Iraq
© Alberto Savioli
Some 2,700 years ago the canal provided water to local farms that helped supply food to the teeming city of Nineveh, ancient capital of the Neo-Assyrian Empire.
This past autumn, Morandi Bonacossi and Hasan Ahmed Qasim from Iraq Kurdistan's Dohuk department of antiquities catalogued a total of ten reliefs set along the banks of an ancient four-mile-long canal. The scene they portray is unique, according to the Italian archeologist.

The panels display a king — who the archeologists believe is Sargon II — observing a procession of Assyrian gods, including the main deity Ashur riding on a dragon and a horned lion, with his consort Mullissu on a lion-supported throne. Among the other figures is Ishtar, goddess of love and war, the sun god Shamash, and Nabu, god of wisdom. Archeologists suspect that such images emphasized to passersby that fertility comes from divine as well as earthly power.

Harvard University archeologist Jason Ur, who is researching ancient water systems in the region said the discovery shows that these works of art were "not just in the imperial palaces but everywhere, even where farmers were extracting water from canals for their fields."

The canal skirts a nearby range of hills and was fed by limestone springs. Branches off the waterway provided extensive irrigation for barley, wheat, and other crops. The fields would have helped feed the 100,000 or more residents of Nineveh, then one of the largest cities in the world. The ruins of this vast metropolis lay some 60 miles to the south, across the Tigris River from today's city of Mosul.

Sargon II ruled over what historians call the Neo-Assyrian Empire, which dominated the region from 911 BC until its destruction in 609 BC at the hands of Persians and Babylonians. As the first army to use iron weapons, the Assyrians developed advanced military techniques to overwhelm their enemies.