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British Museum to Return Looted Antiquities to Iraq

Category: Middle East,World

LONDON — The looting of ancient artifacts was so widespread in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003 that it became symbolic of the chaos that followed the American invasion.

More than 15 years later, Britain returned a handful of objects, some up to 5,000 years old, that were seized by the police from an art dealer in London in 2003 and identified by staff from the British Museum only this year.

The dealer, who has now gone out of business, had no documents to prove he owned the items legally, the museum said in a statement. They were held unclaimed by the London police for more than a decade, and passed to the British Museum for analysis this year.

The artifacts were handed over to Iraqi officials during a ceremony in London on Friday. They will be displayed at the National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad.

The objects were not stolen in the notorious free-for-all at the National Museum in 2003, an event that Donald H. Rumsfeld, the defense secretary at the time, once brushed off with the words “stuff happens.” They came instead from Tello, in southern Iraq, the site of the Sumerian city of Girsu, which was abandoned about 2,000 years ago.

Among the eight restituted objects were three fired-clay cones, around 4,000 years old, featuring Sumerian script that helped Sebastien Rey, an archaeologist at the British Museum, to identify them.

Mr. Rey was leading an excavation as part of a program at the museum, funded by the British government, that trains Iraqi archaeologists. He found identical cones in the mud-brick wall of a temple in Tello. The team also found traces of looting.

The cuneiform inscriptions all contain the name of the city, its king and the main god worshiped there, as well as a prayer “to make everything work as it should.”

“These objects were magical objects,” Mr. Rey said of the cones in a telephone interview. “They protected the sacred space of the temple against outside evil forces.”

“It’s a real historic event that happened this morning,” Mr. Rey said, adding that it was the first time in years that the museum was able to identify and restitute looted objects to Iraq.

“Such collaboration between Iraq and the United Kingdom is vital for the preservation and the protection of the Iraqi heritage,” Salih Husain Ali, Iraq’s ambassador to Britain, said in a statement. “In Iraq we aspire to the global cooperation to protect the heritage of Iraq and to restore its looted objects.”

The rest of the objects returned on Friday are 5,000 to 2,000 years old. They include a fragmentary white ceremonial weapon made from gypsum, a white marble pendant in the form of a seated four-legged animal, and a white quartz seal engraved with a seated sphinx.

“The objects may be small, Mr. Rey said, “but they have important symbolic value.”


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