Mosul: Iraqi troops find Assyrian treasures in network of Isis tunnels

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Archaeologists face race against time to save artefacts uncovered in crumbling labyrinth beneath the war-torn city

Deep under a monument destroyed by Isis in Mosul, Iraqi archaeologists have discovered carvings dating from almost 2,000 years earlier in a network of escape tunnels dug by the extremists.

Archaeologists in the west are avid for more news and better quality photographs of the carved stone reliefs, which appear to represent priests and religious ceremonies. The tunnels were dug under a high mound damaged in 2014 when Isis blew up a beautiful 12th-century mosque, believed to hold the tomb of the prophet Jonah.

The discovery of a previously unknown temple and possible palace entrance, dating back to the Assyrian period and probably carved in the 5th or 6th century BC, is a rare piece of good news in the context of so much deliberate destruction and looting by Isis of pre-Islamic archaeology.

British Museum experts in touch with their colleagues in Iraq led by Saleh Noman who was in the first group of Iraqi archaeologists trained in London to survey and rescue whatever has survived believe that the Isis tunnels ran so deep under the centuries of mudbrick making up the ancient mound of Nabi Yunus, that they hit a temple carved into the bedrock.

An Iraqi troop stands next to archeological findings inside an underground tunnel in east Mosul. Photograph: Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty Images

So far we have only seen poor quality photographs but they are extremely exciting, said Sebastien Rey, lead archaeologist at the Iraq Emergency Heritage Management Programme at the British Museum. I met Saleh at the Unesco conference in Paris 10 days ago, and was able to discuss it with him and look at his photographs, and there is no doubt that they have found something of great significance.

The reliefs are unique, they have features which we have not seen anywhere else they are not at all like the well-known Assyrian hunting and banqueting scenes such as we have in the museum.

We also have reports but as yet no photographs that they have found two lamassu, the famous winged bull figures, which would suggest that they may have been flanking the entrance to a palace, with some form of temple as an annex.

The archaeologists are incredibly brave. They are working in extreme danger, with the mudbrick in danger of collapse at any time. When it is safe to mount a full rescue excavation this will be a major operation, needing a great deal of resources which will certainly mean international support.

Rey is particularly excited by his colleagues reports of inscriptions in the stone: the Assyrian rulers, very usefully to archaeologists, were fond of elaborate and boastful inscriptions that included their names, dates and achievements.

It was known that there were layers of earlier history under the Nabi Yunus mosque, but it had never been fully excavated.

If the tentative dating of the carvings proves correct, they date from the final period of the once vast Assyrian empire, splintering under external attack and internal power struggles after centuries in which it dominated Mesopotamia and the great city of Nineveh was the largest in the world.

Magnificent carved panels and the gigantic winged bulls, from the palaces and temples of the emperor Sennacherib, are in museums across the world, including the British Museum.

According to AFP, Layla Salih, head of the antiquities service for the region, reported that more than 100 pieces of pottery in good condition, believed looted from the tunnels by Isis, have been recovered from a house in Mosul, and many more portable objects are assumed to have been taken.

The Unesco conference in Paris in February was told by the deputy Iraqi culture minister, Qais Rashid, that in the Mosul region alone at least 66 archaeological sites had been destroyed by Isis, some of them converted into car parks. He said that Muslim and Christian places of worship had suffered massive destruction, and thousands of manuscripts had been looted.

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