A last-resort strategy by the Iraqi army to save antiquities in the 1990s has paid off.
Last month, an Iraqi-French archaeological team unearthed the body of a 2,700-year-old lamassu, or winged animal, from the Assyrian empire. It had been buried in situ by the Iraqi State Board of Antiquities and Heritage (SBAH) to protect it from the conflict, and it has remarkably emerged unscathed.
Standing 3.8 metres tall and almost 4 metres long, the great animal is intricately carved out of white alabaster stone. Long, overlapping feathers encase its body, each rendered individually, with long, clear stems and precise vanes radiating outward to form its birdlike wings.
Its beard is rendered as spiralling curls of fur, which recall the famous depictions of Assyrian fighters’ curled beards elsewhere. The lamassu would have greeted visitors to Dur-Sharrukin, the ancient Assyrian capital, at one of its main gates, gazing down at them as they entered.
Striking as it is, the lamassu is not a new discovery. It was first found in the 19th century by the French archeologist Victor Place, but it was largely forgotten about – perhaps because Place concentrated on another gate to the city, whose lamassus he took to the Louvre in Paris.
This beast was then rediscovered in the 1980s and came to national attention a decade later when the head was cut off by a gang who attempted to smuggle it out of the country. They were apprehended at the border, and the head – which was by then in pieces – was brought to the Iraq Museum in Baghdad, where it is still on display today.
The body, however, remained in its original location, near the contemporary village of Khorsabad. While the northern Iraqi town was home to Dur-Sharrukin from the 8th century BCE, it was significant for another reason in the 1990s – it sat in between the territory held by the Kurdish peshmerga and that of the Iraqi army during the Iraqi Kurdish Civil War.
“The lamassu was right on the front line,” says Pascal Butterlin, who leads the French side of the dig that excavated it. “Just metres from where it was found was even an anti-tank ditch constructed by the Iraqis to stop the front line from moving.”
Knowing that the statue could be in danger, the SBAH and Iraqi army built a small wall of mud bricks around the body and reburied it in the sand. Over the coming decades, it survived mortar shelling and ground combat between the peshmerga and the Iraqi army – and after that, when the territory was under the control of the peshmerga, the battles between ISIS and the US-led coalition forces, as well as ISIS’s campaign of destruction against antiquities.
Butterlin says that archaeologists were aware the lamassu was under the ground, but had not been sure exactly where it was.
“We knew it was there, but we could not be sure about what condition it was in,” he says. “We are really glad it was not destroyed.”
Lamassu were winged beasts that were protective symbols during the Assyrian age, which stretched in various formations from the 3rd millennium BCE to the 1st millennium BCE. The earliest known examples were hybrids of eagles and either lions or bulls, but by the time of this lamassu, the Assyrians, for reasons unknown, had stopped carving lions and moved entirely to bulls.
Dur-Sharrukin was built by King Sargon II, who reigned from 722 BCE to 705 BCE. The city complex consisted of a walled terrace surrounding temples, pavilions, the royal palace and other residences. The enormous gates that gave entry into the city lay the template for the gates surrounding the better-known Nineveh complex constructed by Sargon's son, Sennacherib.
Writings from the time state that Dur-Sharrukin was accessible through eight gates, though archaeologists have only uncovered seven; four that are undecorated, and would presumably have been for tradesmen or other low-status visitors, and three that are ornately carved and boast the awe-inspiring lamassus.
The lamassu's discovery is a particularly significant achievement given ISIS’s trail of destruction, which involved detonating two lamassus from an earlier period in the Mosul Museum and others at the famous Northwest Palace in Nimrud.
Following a directive given at a press conference last spring at the Mosul Museum, which is in the process of being renovated after its occupation by ISIS, the director of the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage Dr Laith Hussein said that all new finds in the northern province would go towards repopulating the museum. It is likely that the lamassu body will end up there, but it has not yet been confirmed by the SBAH.
After decades of instability and conflict, archaeologists are now able to return in greater numbers to conduct fieldwork in Iraq. Butterlin’s is one of the first French teams to come to the country since 1955, when French archaeologists ceased fieldwork.
As a result of this flurry of activity, a number of new discoveries are coming to light, such as the incredibly well-preserved Assyrian tablets from the Nineveh gates, found last year, and a number of lamassus in the palace of Esarhaddon, the son of Sennarchrib, found last month.
Like others in the area, a large part of the archeological team's work is conducting assessments of damage to the site from the recent battles. It took a year of demining before they could begin to work on the site, as specialised teams removed unexploded ordnance and other remains.
“It’s a bit disturbing,” says Butterlin, a professor of archaeology at Paris-Sorbonne. “You are working on two worlds at once: You have one of contemporary conflict and then the ancient world below.”
Their remit covers Khorsabad more generally, and they have already made several discoveries about the palace complex – including the existence of other minor palaces that surrounded the main one, which were previously unknown, as well as new fragments of reliefs and paintings and inscribed bricks.
“This will be 20 years' worth of study,” says Butterlin. “For me, it’s just the beginning.”