(Inside Science) -- Almost 3,000 years ago, an ancient people called the Assyrians dug an irrigation canal near their capital city of Nineveh. It brought water from the surrounding mountains to the fields outside the city walls.
This fall, a team of Italian and Iraqi archaeologists dug around an area called Faida and uncovered some of the sculpted rock reliefs that lined a canal running through it.
The reliefs showed images of their gods astride sacred animals. Protecting the deities were images of their king, Sargon II (he reigned from about 721-705 B.C.), that appeared at both ends of the god line.
“The impressive irrigation systems across the core region of the Assyrian Empire not only changed the economic foundation of the regions involved … but also profoundly modified the space and settlement patterns in the core of the Assyrian empire, along with the mental and symbolic perception people had of this newly created cultural landscape and its collective memory,” said Daniele Morandi Bonacossi from Udine University in Italy and part of the archaeological team.
The Assyrian empire originally began about 4,000 years ago, but the final phase, often called the Neo-Assyrian Empire, lasted from about 911-612 B.C. It fell after a few hundred years, in part, perhaps, because of environmental change, and the Assyrians were absorbed into a newer civilization, the Babylonians. They are best known today from the Old Testament's stories of the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple and the exile of 10 of the tribes of Israel. Sargon himself appears in the book of Isaiah by name as conquering the city of Ashdod.
The Faida canal is located near the Kurdish city of Duhok, in Iraq. It is 4.4 miles long, with an average width of 3 feet. It was dug into limestone but now it is mostly covered by rocks that eroded from the mountains. Secondary canals branch off, presumably to spread the water to fields and for other uses.
The canal was fed by karst springs, and despite centuries of upheaval in the area, the water still flows in the canal.
In 2012, the Iraqi war did get to within about 15 miles of the dig, which potentially endangered the sites. However, Faida is not threatened by violence at the moment. The main threats are vandalism and the expansion of a nearby village, said Bonacossi.
The reliefs are around 16 feet high and 6.5 feet wide. The researchers used a drone to investigate the site before they went to uncover the reliefs, which were first discovered by a British expedition in 1973. Nearby warfare made excavation dangerous, and the reliefs were left buried over the decades for their protection, although the uppermost part was visible before excavation. More recently, using imaging technology, the researchers were able to record what was on the reliefs in case they became damaged.
There are not many other Assyrian remains left. These are the first Assyrian reliefs to be discovered since 1845.
From 925-725 B.C., the area had unusually high precipitation that scientists have dubbed the Assyrian megapluvial. The area was lush and productive. It was followed by a drought that lasted until 550 B.C., coincidental to the decline of the empire.
The drought was also accompanied by tensions between the Assyrians and the nearby Babylonians, and another group called the Medians, Bonacossi wrote in an email.
Nabopolassar, king of Babylonia and the father of Nebuchadnezzar, finally defeated the Assyrians with the help of the Medians, and they were absorbed into the new Babylonian empire. After the Assyrians drove the Hebrews into exile the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar eventually let them return.
The Assyrians were almost indistinguishable from the Babylonians, said Tammi Schneider, professor of religion at Claremont Graduate University in California.
Their languages were so similar that Babylonians and Assyrians could probably understand each other. Their alphabets were also similar. They had essentially the same religion; their gods had different names but were very similar.
“The current political situation has not impeded research,” Bonacossi wrote, “but at certain moments made it more difficult.” At times in the past decade, ISIS was active in the area, which led the Italians and Iraqis to leave the reliefs buried to reduce the chance that ISIS would destroy them as they have other cultural sites.
One goal of the archaeologists is to eventually turn the area into an archaeological park, something like the ruins of Nineveh were before war broke out.