The British Museum Returns Iraqi Antiquities Looted During the US Invasion

British authorities seized the artifacts and sent them to the museum to analyze.

The British Museum. Photo ©the Trustees of the British Museum

The British Museum has repatriated a trove of 5,000-year-old antiquities that were looted from an ancient site in Iraq shortly after the US invasion in 2003.

British police seized and impounded the eight objects, which include jewelry, inscribed cones, a decorated seal, and a mace head, from a London dealer who is suspected of illicit antiquities trading, according to the Independent. Earlier this year, police transferred the items to the museum to be identified.

British Museum staff identified Sumerian inscriptions on some of the artifacts, indicating that they were taken from the Eninnu temple at an ancient site in the city of Tello. “The other items are identical to objects known from excavations at Tello and most likely from the same site,” the museum said in a statement.

Iraq suffered huge amounts of looting during the American-led invasion, as soldiers were unable to sufficiently protect ancient sites. According to FBI estimates cited by the Independent, tens of thousands of artifacts were stolen from the National Museum of Iraq alone.

The British Museum says the present items most likely disappeared around the same time: “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 added that the illicit antiquities market was flooded by such items in the early years of the war. “Analysis shows that similar inscribed cones were offered for sale during the same period.”

The repatriation was praised by the Iraqi ambassador to Britain Salih Husain Ali, who thanked the British Museum for their “exceptional efforts.”

“Such collaboration between Iraq and the United Kingdom is vital for the preservation and the protection of the Iraqi heritage,” Ali said. “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.”

The objects were officially returned to Iraqi embassy officials in a repatriation ceremony at the British Museum in London on Friday.

“The British Museum is absolutely committed to the fight against illicit trade and damage to cultural heritage,” British Museum director Hartwig Fischer said in a statement. “This is an issue which concerns us all.”


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