Islamic State fighters digging a tunnel under Mosul uncovered a pair of giant ancient Assyrian winged bull statues, according to archaeologists called to the scene by troops fighting to retake the city.
In a remarkable irony, jihadists who destroyed one set of winged bulls — used to guard entrances to Assyrian royal palaces — at the nearby site of Nineveh led archaeologists to find another, along with other treasures.
Also in the tunnel were a pair of bas-reliefs carved in gypsum and a huge tablet, more than nine feet tall, carved with cuneiform, the script of the ancient Assyrians.
Layla Salih, a former curator at the Mosul museum, said that Isis seemed to have made the discoveries and then left them, neither smashing them as they had objects in the museum and at palaces at Nineveh and Nimrud, nor trying to loot them for money.
“It’s a big question why they destroyed the artefacts in the museum and then found these items and didn’t do the same,” she said.
Archaeologists long knew there was a palace under the shrine of the Prophet Jonah on the site of Nineveh in east Mosul. Some limited excavations had taken place in the past, but none had reached the palace itself.
However, Isis blew up the entire shrine as part of its desecration of sites it claimed were idolatrous after it seized Mosul in 2014. They the group dug defensive tunnels to hide from US-led coalition bombers at key spots, though this one may also have been intended to seek historic items for loot.
Dr Salih has called for help in preserving the finds, which she said were at risk of further tunnel collapse. They are believed to date from the 7th century BC, at the peak of Assyrian power.
Dr Salih and colleagues from around the world, including Britain, are trying to assess the damage from Isis’s attacks on Iraq’s heritage. Some of the damage was known of from Isis videos and satellite photography, particularly of the sites of Nineveh and Nimrud, also now liberated.
Some 107 items, mostly Assyrian, were found in the house of an Isis commander in east Mosul. However, a path opened to the most important assessment of the damage this morning when the museum was recaptured by government forces. It was shown in an Isis video last month in which jihadists smashed up statues and other objects, particularly in the Assyrian room.
However, many of the exhibits that were visible were copies of originals that had been taken abroad in the past, or to the national museum in Baghdad for safe keeping. Other, more important items were out of site, and archaeologists are waiting to discover whether they were left unharmed, destroyed or taken away.
The museum was not the only building associated with the worst depravities of Isis rule to be recovered yesterday.
A surprise attack in the early hours of the morning seized the main compound of the Nineveh provincial government, killing “tens of Isis fighters”, according to the security forces. A little later, the site of the former Turkish consulate, whose entire staff were taken hostage for three months, fell.
Also taken was the national insurance company building, from the top of which Isis threw men whom they believed to be homosexual to their deaths.
The anonymous blogger Mosul Eye, who has been describing life under Isis occupation, called for the building to be turned into a “monument for LGBT rights”.
Mosul Eye’s call was backed by prominent gay rights campaigners. “Solidarity with your freedom struggle,” Peter Tatchell said on Twitter.
Lieutenant-General Abdul Ghani al-Assadi, of the Iraqi counter-terrorism service, said that 60 per cent of west Mosul’s military targets had been recaptured. “The number of places liberated is not as important as the importance of the places,” he said. “The places that have been liberated include the strong Isis defence lines, taken two days ago. Our forces were then able to push deep in.”