Looted Iraqi Antiquities Can Finally Return Home After Simple Identification by British Museum
It has been announced that a collection of 5000-year-old priceless artifacts that were looted in the wake of the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003 have been identified in London. Local police seized the objects from an illegal dealer in antiquities. The items were identified by experts and this means that they can be returned to the Iraqi government and people. It is hoped that this find and the return of the objects to Baghdad will mark a new phase in the battle against the organized smuggling of antiquities.
Illegal Antiquities trade
There is an international backlash against those who are engaged in the cross-border smuggling of antiquities. In the past, there were no real penalties for smuggling and it took very little to evade those checks that existed. However, there is now more international cooperation on this issue and extra resources are being devoted to the problem, as seen in the recent expansion of the FBI's art-crime unit. Organizations such as the Association for Research into Crimes Against Art (ARCA) are supporting local communities around the world to prevent the illegal excavation and smuggling of antiquities.
The archaeological heritage of Iraq has been systematically looted in recent years. In the anarchy, following the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq in 2003, it is estimated that thousands of precious objects were looted from museums and archaeological sites. It is believed that some 5000 artifacts were stolen from the National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad, alone. Many of these were smuggled out of the country to international dealers. In recent years, so-called Islamic State was also involved in the illegal excavation and sale of historical artifacts.
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The National Museum of Iraq in the wake of looting in 2003. Image: Jamal Saidi
The recovery of the items
The eight pieces are believed to have been smuggled into London sometime in May 2003. The Metropolitan police seized the items because the dealer could not provide any documentation as to how he acquired the objects. However, the police could not establish the origin of the items and they were deposited in a vault for many years.
The identification of the artifacts
That is until experts from the British Museum examined the artifacts and they knew exactly where they came from and even identified the site they came from which is located in southern Iraq. They were identified as originating from the ancient city of Girsu, thanks to their Sumerian inscriptions. As luck would have it, the eight items came from a site where one of their colleagues was working with Iraqis. The Guardian reported that an assistant keeper at British Museum stated that, “Uniquely we could trace them not just to the site but to within inches of where they were stolen from’’. For example, some of the items were from a temple wall.
It has been discerned that the inscribed cones come from a temple wall in Tello, ancient Girsu. (Image: British Museum)
Some of the artifacts are cones that were once placed in holes in the temple of Enninu and according to the Daily Mail, were used to ‘to invoke and capture the powers of the Sumerian Thunderbird, a lion-headed god’. A beautifully crafted amulet made of marble depicting a four-legged animal, possibly a bull was also recovered. There was also a polished river stone with an inscription, relating to a Sumerian deity, a stamp shaped in the form of a sphinx, and a broken mace head was also recovered.
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The recovered artifacts include a tiny marble amulet of a four-legged animal at rest. Image: British Museum
The eight artifacts are going to be handed over by the British Museum to the Iraqi ambassador to the UK and they are expected to be eventually returned to Iraq. The ambassador has praised the work of the Metropolitan police and the British Museum for their role in the recovery of the objects. It is expected that they will be put on display in a museum at some further date.
The importance of the recovery
It is hoped that the recovery and the return of the items herald a new phase in the battle against the organized theft of antiquities. It shows the importance of international cooperation. The experts at the British Museum hope in the future to return more stolen objects to be returned to their country-of-origin. The sharing of information is critical as this allows experts and law enforcement agencies to detect the movement of smuggled antiquities and this will help to make looting much less profitable.
Top image: British Museum staff identified the looted items from cuneiform inscriptions. Source: British Museum
By Ed Whelan