After being identified by experts at the British Museum, eight priceless 5,000-year-old artifacts are returning home to Iraq from the United Kingdom after being looted in the early 2000s, the BBC reports.
In 2003, amid the chaos that followed the fall of Saddam Hussein, a selection of Iraqi artifacts from thousands of years ago disappeared from their rightful homes. Eight of these found their way into the hands of a London dealer. Later that year, London’s Metropolitan Police confiscated the items, none of which had any documentation to explain what they were, where they came from—or whom they belonged to.
For 15 years, they languished in police storage. The dealer, now defunct, made no attempt to reclaim the artifacts. Finally, in 2018, police brought the collection to London’s British Museum, a world-renowned institution with some eight million works in its permanent collection.
Without proper documentation, experts had to rely on the inscriptions on the items to ascertain which archaeological site they belonged to—and even which part of building remains they might have been snatched from. Three clay cones from around 2,200 B.C. bore Sumerian cuneiform script, one of very earliest forms of writing. The wedge-shaped marks told scholars the name of the Sumerian king who had commissioned them, which temple they came from, and which god that temple honored. Incredibly, they were identical to the cones found in the ancient city of Girsu, now known as Tello, in southern Iraq. Since 2016, by coincidence, the British Museum has been training Iraqi archaeologists at this site.
“The broken objects the robbers left next to the looting holes were broken cones with exactly the same inscription that we have on the cones that were seized,” the team’s lead archaeologist, Sebastien Rey, told Al Jazeera. These identical cones helped scholars to pinpoint the looted items’ source down almost to the square foot.
Other items included a marble pendant in the shape of a bull, an inscribed river pebble, polished to a shine, two stamp seals, and a mace head, made out of gypsum. These are estimated to date from around 3,000 BC.
On Friday, the items will be presented in a formal ceremony including British Museum curators and the Iraq ambassador to the UK, in the Iraqi embassy, before making their way back to Baghdad next week.
In a statement, ambassador Salih Husain Ali praised the museum’s staff for their efforts. “Such collaboration between Iraq and the United Kingdom is vital for the preservation and the protection of the Iraqi heritage,” he 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.” Speaking to the BBC, British Museum’s director, Hartwig Fischer, said the organization was “absolutely committed to the fight against illicit trade and damage to cultural heritage.”