The guardian was caught in limbo, standing beneath and above the sand, and between warring factions in the desert for several decades. The ancient statue had seen better days—this one was headless.
“The attention to detail is unbelievable,” said Pascal Butterlin, a professor of Middle East archaeology at the University of Paris, working at an excavation near Khorsabad.
The present statue is being preserved by international archeologists from France and Germany—including from the Louvre and the University of Munich.
Immaculately sculpted curls of fur form the statue’s beard. Precise lines define feathers in intricate detail, fanning out from its solid, spread wings.
This colossal beast deity, carved from solid white alabaster, is a lamassu. With the body of a bull, wings of a bird, and head of a man, the monolithic guardians once gazed down on those entering the gates of the ancient Assyrian capital of Dur-Sharrukin, the present-day village of Khorsabad, Iraq.
First excavated in 1993, the lamassu statue was mutilated by looters in the 1990s. Removing its head and chopping it into pieces, they intended to smuggle it out of Iraq. But the thieves were caught, and the head now sits in the Iraq Museum.
The decapitated statue would soon face another peril, however, as it stood in contested territory during the Iraqi-Kurdish Civil War, on the frontlines as factions battled fiercely with tanks and artillery.
In the thick of the fighting, it was in danger of being blown up, so Iraqi authorities, including the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage, earmarked the lamassu for urgent protection.
They surrounded it with a small mud brick wall and buried it in sand, keeping the lamassu safe from mortar shelling and ground combat for several decades. Now it has emerged almost entirely unscathed.
Several lamassus were unearthed in the 19th century by French archeologist Victor Place to become the jewels of collections in the Louvre and the British Museum. Yet the present hybrid beast was largely forgotten in Iraq.
Besides surviving civil war underground the statue was also saved from another scourge. The militant group ISIS captured the region and waged war on Assyrian artifacts between 2014-2017, detonating two of the hybrid monsters in the Mosul Museum. More were also destroyed in the Northwest Palace in Nimrud.
Now that tensions have subsided and the region has become stable, archaeologists internationally are flocking to retrieve important finds. These include well-preserved Assyrian tablets uncovered last year and lamassus found this month in the palace of Esarhaddon.
The historic finds—including, perhaps, the headless guardian near Khorsabad—will go toward repopulating Mosul Museum’s depleted collection.