An Iraqi soldier stands next to archaeological ndings inside an underground tunnel in east Mosul. Photograph: Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty Images

In an astonishing irony, Isis (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria)1 has uncovered valuable inscriptions and other antiquities from the Assyrian empire. Iraqi troops advancing on Mosul alerted archaeologists to ancient objects found in tunnels dug under a mound by Isis. Isis has been notorious for destroying ancient artefacts in museums and desecrating historical sites such as Palmyra, so it comes as a surprise that these antiquities were not all looted or destroyed.

The tunnels were found under a high mound known as Nebi Yunus, which was damaged in 2014 when Isis demolished the beautiful twelfth-century mosque on the site. The site is also the location of the tomb of the prophet Jonah (Yunus). Some items believed to be from the tunnels have been found in Mosul.

Among the discoveries in the tunnels from the Assyrian period are a previously unknown temple and what may be a palace entrance, flanked by two winged bull gures, known as lamassu. Although the palace was built for Sennacherib (705-681 BC), it was renovated and expanded by Esarhaddon (681- 669 BC), and renovated again by Ashurbanipal (669-627 BC), but partly destroyed during the sack of Nineveh in 612 BC.2

Sebastien Rey, lead archaeologist at the Iraq Emergency Heritage Management Programme at the British Museum, said that there is no doubt that what has been found is of great significance. He said the reliefs uncovered are unique, with features not seen before, and quite unlike the well-known Assyrian hunting and banqueting scenes held in the British Museum.3 While it was known that there were layers of earlier history under the Nebi Yunus mosque, little excavation of the mound has been possible because of the sensitive nature of the site.4

There are reports of inscriptions in stone that it is hoped will include the names, dates and achievements of Assyrian rulers. This information is very useful to archaeologists and scholars of the ancient world. In view of so much deliberate destruction and looting of pre-Islamic archaeology by Isis, these discoveries are welcome news.

At a Unesco conference in Paris in February, the deputy Iraqi culture minister, Qais Rashid, said that in the Mosul region alone at least sixty-six archaeological sites had been destroyed by Isis, while Muslim and Christian places of worship had also been destroyed, and thousands of manuscripts had been looted.

A marble cuneiform inscription of King Esarhaddon, thought to date back to the Assyrian empire in 672 BC, was discovered inside one of the tunnels by Iraqi archaeologist and former curator of the Mosul museum, Dr Layla Salih. Photographs of the cuneiform slab examined by a historian, are said to have phrases which were used only to describe Esarhaddon. Very few similar cuneiforms have been found from this period of the Assyrian empire, and most of them at Kouyunjik, the mound just north of Nebi Yunus.

Assyrian stone sculptures of a demi-goddess sprinkling the “water of life” to protect those in her care were discovered in another part of the tunnel. Professor Eleanor Robson, chair of the British Institute for the Study of Iraq, said the large size of these objects was unusual, and did not match descriptions of what archaeologists expected to find in the mound. The discovery of the tunnels provided an opportunity to finally map the treasure-house of the world’s first great empire at the height of its influence, Professor Robson said.5

Iraqi archaeologist, Dr Salih, believes that Isis looted hundreds of objects before Iraqi forces recaptured the eastern side of Mosul. Isis probably stole many of the smaller artefacts to sell, she said, but what was left would be studied and add greatly to the knowledge of Assyrian history. A five-man team is carrying out emergency documentation of the finds under Dr Salih’s supervision, but the work is urgent. As Dr Salih warns, the tunnels were not professionally built, and are at risk of collapse, which would bury and possibly destroy the new discoveries.6

At time of writing, a preliminary scholarly analysis of the discoveries has not been published. However, it is very likely that close study of the finds will provide further evidence of the Bible’s historical accuracy and reliability as an ancient source. We can place full confidence in the biblical record and its revelation of the true God and His purpose.

References:

  1. Also known as Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) and Daesh.
  2. Dates from Gordon G. Garner, Royal Cities of Assyria: Archaeology, the Bible and the Capitals of Ancient Assyria, Melbourne: Australian Institute of Archaeology, 1981, p. 128.
  3. Maev Kennedy and agencies, “Mosul: Iraqi troops nd Assyrian treasures in network of Isis tunnels”, The Guardian, 8 March 2017 [online] https://www.the- guardian.com/world/2017/mar/08/mosul-iraqi-troops-find-assyrian-treasures-in-network-of-isis-tunnels
  4. Gordon G. Garner, Royal Cities of Assyria, p. 101.
  5. Josie Ensor, “Previously untouched 600BC palace dis- covered under shrine demolished by Isil in Mosul”, The Telegraph, 28 February 2017 [online] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/02/27/previously-untouched-600bc-palace-discovered-shrine-demolished/
  6. Richard Spencer, “Assyrian treasures found in IS tunnels”, The Times, 8 March 2017 [online] http:// www.theaustralian.com.au/news/world/the-times/ assyrian-treasures-found-in-is-tunnels/news-story/ae530944b023068cbf3091a13f728770