Gatekeeper lion dates back 3,000 years

U. TORONTO (CAN) — Archaeologists have discovered a gate complex adorned with stone sculptures, including a magnificently carved lion that dates back to the end of the second millennium.

The find brings to light the innovative character and cultural sophistication of Iron Age states that emerged in the eastern Mediterranean following the collapse of the great civilized powers of the Bronze Age.


The lion is transported to the Antakya Archaeological Museum. (Credit: Lynn Welton)

Located in southeastern Turkey, the gate complex served as access to the citadel of Kunulua, capital of the Neo-Hittite Kingdom of Patina (ca. 950-725 BCE), and is reminiscent of the citadel gate excavated by British archaeologist Sir Leonard Woolley in 1911 at the royal Hittite city of Carchemish.

“The lion is fully intact, approximately 1.3 meters in height and 1.6 meters in length. It is poised in a seated position, with ears back, claws extended and roaring,” says Timothy Harrison, professor of near eastern archaeology at the University of Toronto and director of the 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 elaborately decorated gateways served as dynastic parades, legitimizing the power of the ruling elite.

“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,” says Harrison.

The gate complex appears to have been destroyed following the Assyrian conquest of the site in 738 BCE, when the area was paved over and converted into the central courtyard of an Assyrian sacred precinct.

“The stylistic features of the lion closely resemble those of a double-lion column base found in the 1930s in the entrance to one of the temples that formed the Assyrian sacred precinct,” says Harrison.

“Whether reused or carved during the Assyrian occupation of the site, these later lion figures clearly belonged to a local Neo-Hittite sculptural tradition that predated the arrival of the Assyrians, and were not the product of Assyrian cultural influence as scholars have long assumed.”

The project is funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and the Institute for Aegean Prehistory (INSTAP), and receives support from the University of Toronto.

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