3,000-year-old lion guarding ancient gate complex

A University of Toronto team excavating the ancient site of Tayinat in southeastern Turkey has discovered the ruins of a monumental gate complex and one of the stone lions that adorned it. The lion, who has already been transported to the nearby Antakya Archaeological Museum, is a particularly splendid find, over four feet tall and depicted seated on his haunches mid-roar.

“The lion is fully intact, approximately 1.3 metres in height and 1.6 metres in length. It is poised in a seated position, with ears back, claws extended and roaring,” said Timothy Harrison, professor of near eastern archaeology in the Department of Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations and director of U of T’s Tayinat Archaeological Project (TAP). “A second piece found nearby depicts a human figure flanked by lions, which is an iconic Near Eastern cultural motif known as the Master and Animals. It symbolizes the imposition of civilized order over the chaotic forces of the natural world.”

“The presence of lions, or sphinxes and colossal statues astride the Master and Animals motif in the citadel gateways of the Neo-Hittite royal cities of Iron Age Syro-Anatolia continued a Bronze Age Hittite tradition that accentuated their symbolic role as boundary zones and the role of the king as the divinely appointed guardian, or gatekeeper, of the community,” noted Harrison. The elaborately decorated gateways served as dynastic parades, legitimizing the power of the ruling elite.

The lion at the gate guarded the neo-Hittite citadel of Kunulua (aka Kinalua), the capital of the Kingdom of Patina/Unqi (ca. 950-725 B.C.), one of several Neo-Hittite city-kingdoms that proliferated in the area during the Bronze and Iron Age. The lion failed in his duties when Assyrian forces under King Tiglath-Pileser III conquered the citadel in 738 BCE. They destroyed the citadel, leveled the gate complex and used it as the central courtyard of a newly built temple. Kunulua became an Assyrian provincial capital ruled by a governor with an imperial bureaucracy.

It was in that Assyrian temple complex in the mid-1930s that University of Chicago archaeologist Robert Braidwood discovered a column base decorated with lions that are very similar to the newly-discovered statue. Scholars thought that lion style was Assyrian in origin, duplicated by other peoples under the influence of Assyrian cultural primacy. The fact that this lion was found underneath the Assyrian temple in the Neo-Hittite citadel upends that assumption entirely. The lion design came before the Assyrians, so instead of setting sculptural trends they were copying or even reusing other people’s the sculptures.

The Tayinat Archeological Project is one of the world’s most productive archaeological digs, with as much as 100,000 artifacts discovered each year (most of them fragments and shards, of course). It has been going strong since 2004 and continues to rewrite the history of the area.

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