British Museum returns looted art treasures

British Museum returns looted art treasures


Eight 5000 year old historic artefacts, which were stolen from Iraq in the chaos of Saddam Hussein’s fall, are to be returned after being identified by the British Museum. The Metropolitan Police initially suspected that the items had been looted and seized them from a now defunct London antiques dealer in May 2003. The dealer failed to supply proof of ownership and subsequently ceased trading, and the eight objects were retained by the state for over a decade until they were passed to the British Museum for analysis this year.

Normally the detailed provenance of such items would be hard to establish, but three of them, fired clay cones, carried Sumerian inscriptions that gave a clue to their origins. As a result museum experts were able to specifically identify them as coming from the site of Tello in Southern Iraq, where by a remarkable coincidence the British Museum’s Iraq Emergency Heritage Management Training Scheme has been conducting archaeological excavations since 2016.

Three of the objects carry Sumerian inscriptions in cuneiform script which identify their origin as the Eninnu temple at ancient Girsu (modern Tello) in southern Iraq. This temple was sacred to the god’s patron deity Ningirsu and is located in the area of Tello known to modern scholarship as Tell A and where current excavations are revealing the plan and extent of this important complex. The other items are also identical to objects known from excavations at Tello and most likely also originate from the same site.

In 2015, a potential crime scene was recorded as part of an initial survey of the site at Tello, and in more detail in 2016 as part of the Iraq Scheme and shown to consist of dozens of shallow pits, usually less than a metre deep and up to three metres across. These are concentrated in certain areas of the site: the largest number are on the northern side in the Sacred City, followed by an area known as Mound of the Tablets where many cuneiform objects had been found previously. The site of Tello then remained untouched until looting began at the beginning of 2003 according to information from the State Board of Antiquities & Heritage authorities (Nasiriyah), Thi Qar archaeological police and local tribesmen.

These 8 objects were removed from the site in 2003. This activity would have been clandestine, probably carried out at night and possibly conducted by a small number of individuals over a limited period of time as the scale is not as extensive or systematic as witnessed at other sites in southern Iraq. Since then looting was brought to an end with the establishment of the archaeological police of the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage in Iraq, and the site of Tello is now protected once again.

Iraq’s ambassador to the United Kingdom, Salih Husain Ali, praised the museum’s staff for their “exceptional efforts” in identifying the antiquities. “Such collaboration between Iraq and the United Kingdom is vital for the preservation and the protection of the Iraqi heritage,” he said in a statement issued by the museum.

“The protection of antiquities is an international responsibility and in Iraq, we aspire to the global cooperation to protect the heritage of Iraq and to restore its looted objects.”


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