ERBIL (Kurdistan 24) – The British Museum is returning 5,000-year-old antiquities after being looted from an ancient site in Iraq soon following the overthrow of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003 and later confiscated from a dealer in London.
They were seized by Scotland Yard in May 2003 after they were suspected of being stolen and the dealer failed to provide ownership documents for the eight objects, which included jewelry, inscribed cones, a decorated seal, and a mace-head. Their origin was unknown, however, so they sat in storage for nearly fifteen years.
In early 2018, the relics were sent to the British Museum for analysis, according to museum officials as quoted by The Independent. The task of identifying them was aided by three items carrying inscriptions in cuneiform, one of the earliest systems of writing, invented by the Sumerians.
The Sumerian text shows that the objects came from the Eninnu temple in the ancient city of Girsu, now known as Tello and located in southern Iraq.
The British Museum has extensive archeological expertise in the area and they have been training Iraqi archaeologists at excavation sites in Tello since 2016.
“The other items are identical to objects known from excavations at Tello and most likely also originate from the same site,” the museum said in a statement.
The seizure of the eight antique objects in May 2003 came just two months after the first phase of the US-led military operation to “disarm Iraq of weapons of mass destruction," and was followed by massive looting in the oil-rich Mesopotamian country. Though many government buildings were guarded by US, British, and other forces in 2013, many buildings and sites of cultural significance were not, and the plundering of antiquities became all too common.
The National Museum of Iraq was almost entirely ransacked, with some people smashing statues too large to carry to instead take parts of them. In one tragic example, the heads of several giant, priceless sculptures of a mythical lion-like figure known as the lamassu were crudely smashed off the bodies. According to FBI, tens of thousands of items went missing.
The eight objects from Tello were removed at around the same time, according to the British Museum.
“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,” the museum stated.
“Analysis of the art market shows that similar inscribed cones were offered for sale during the same period.”
The group of eight artifacts consists of five Sumerian inscribed objects, two Jemdet Nasr stamp-seal amulets in the form of a reclining sheep or showing a pair of quadrupeds facing in opposite directions, and an Achaemenid stamp-seal showing a reclining sphinx, The Independent reported.
Iraqi Ambassador to the UK Salih Hussain Ali commended the museum’s staff for their efforts in identifying the antiques.
“Such collaboration between Iraq and the United Kingdom is vital for the preservation and the protection of the Iraqi heritage. 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.”
Director of the British Museum Hartwig Fischer stated that the museum “is absolutely committed to the fight against illicit trade and damage to cultural heritage. This is an issue which concerns us all.”
“I am delighted that we are able to assist in the return of these important objects to Iraq, via the Embassy of the Republic of Iraq in London … The return of these objects is particularly poignant given the connection to Tello, one of the sites currently being excavated by the Iraq Scheme,” Fischer added.
The objects were planned to be formally handed over to the Iraqi Embassy in a small ceremony held at the British Museum on Friday.
Editing by John J. Catherine