While Building a House, They Dug Up a Chamber for Ancient Gods

When the builders started digging the foundation of a house in 2017 in Başbük, a village in Turkey about 70 miles 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.

Etched into one wall was a 13-foot-long procession of almond-eyed deities, led by Hadad, a storm god who was identified by his three-pronged lightning rod and headdress with a five-point star. The goddess Atargatis, a fertility deity with a double-horned cylindrical crown inset with a star, followed. Six more beings trailed, in various stages of completion.

The discovery, described Wednesday in the journal Antiquity, captures a moment some 2,800 years ago when the Neo-Assyrian Empire was the dominant power in the region and its cultural influence was being integrated by subjects distant from its center. But the find 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 tried to gain economic advantage,” said Selim Adali, a historian and epigrapher at the Social Sciences University of Ankara and a co-author of the study.

The owners of the property constructed a large, gray two-story house atop the subterranean complex, complete with a covered balcony and a paved ground floor. They then cracked a 7-by-5-foot 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 etchings, but someone in the village tipped off the authorities, and instead they were arrested. Charged with illegally digging and failing to report the discovery, the property owners were briefly sent to prison, said Mehmet Önal, an archaeologist with 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 rescue excavation of the site funded by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism in Turkey. They enlarged the looters’ passage, removed much of the sediment from the large chamber and restored the panel.

The chamber was intensely humid, redolent of earth and slippery beneath their feet.

“In the dim light of the lamp in the gallery carved into the bedrock, I felt as if I was in a ritual, when I was confronted by the very expressive eyes and majestic serious face of the storm god Hadad,” Dr. Önal said. “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 well-being of the community in the region — agricultural fertility, the longevity of water resources.” He noted that the region had struggled with drought.

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

The archaeologists suggested the panel was carved around the eighth century B.C. One 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 principal goddess of the classical region known as Syria (which was not part of Assyria) from roughly 300 B.C. to A.D. 200. Her appearance on the panel suggested she was influential centuries earlier. “The name that we read on this panel gives us a missing link for the history 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 Sîn. They are the first known examples of the language being used on a Neo-Assyrian-period rock relief. The area’s rulers may have created this local take on imperial gods to associate themselves with Neo-Assyrian power. And while there are a few examples in the region of deities that are partially similar to those at Başbük, the closest parallels are in northern Iraq, says Dr. Önal.

But the panel seemed to have been left unfinished. The etchings 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.

The archaeologists also had to leave the site, fearing it might collapse, Dr. Önal said. Once it has been stabilized, their explorations will continue. The full extent of the subterranean complex remains to be discovered, including the original entrance.

The looters are now out of prison and living in the house, Dr. Önal said, but perhaps not for long.

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