Precious antiquities up to 5,000 years old are to be returned to Iraq 15 years after they were looted during the 2003 war.
The eight objects were seized by British police in May 2003, two months after the US-led invasion of Iraq, from a now defunct dealer in London who failed to provide any official paperwork.
The British Museum announced today that it is returning the pilfered collection after identifying the exact temple the items came from as a result of a unique piece of archaeological detective work.
Stamp seals, clay cones with cuneiform inscriptions (script of ancient Mesopotamia) and a bull-shaped marble pennant are among the collection.
Three fired clay cones bear Sumerian inscriptions, which gave a clue to their origins.
And, in a remarkable coincidence, they were identical to cones found on a site in the ancient city of Girsu, now known as Tello, in southern Iraq, where the British Museum has been training Iraqi archaeologists since 2016.
‘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,’ said the team’s lead archaeologist, Sebastien Rey.
Identical cones were also found in the walls of a site at the Eninnu temple, pinpointing the looted items’ source with a level of accuracy that Rey said was ‘completely unique’.
‘We could have an idea that maybe these objects came from southern Iraq, but to be able to narrow it down to the particular site, and even to the particular holes, this is extremely rare,’ he told AFP.
He added: ‘If we don’t have any information on the objects, you can’t identify their [place of origin], and that’s the main problem in combating the illicit trade.’
Iraq’s ambassador, Dr 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.’
Rey hopes the objects, which will be handed to the Iraqi embassy on Friday during a private ceremony at the museum, will go on public display after they are sent on to Iraq.
The three cones each have an identical cuneiform inscription which references the god the temple was built for and the king who built it, and date back to around 2200 BC.
Similar cones have been found in many other sites but Rey said that until the Tello excavation began in 2016, no one really knew what they were for.
Finding them in their original positions inside temple walls led experts to conclude they were votive objects, dedicated to the gods by Mesopotamian kings.
The British Museum collection includes a polished, yellowish river pebble and a fragmentary white gypsum mace-head, both of which are inscribed.
There is also a white marble amulet pendant in the form of a reclining bull or buffalo, and a red marble square stamp seal or amulet depicting two similar animals facing in opposite directions, which both date back to 3000BC.
The final item in the collection is a white chalcedony stamp seal with a flat oval face engraved with the design of a reclining sphinx.
The looting at the temple was not as extensive as at other places in southern Iraq, suggesting the objects that ended up in London were taken at night, possibly by a small number of people.
Many artefacts disappeared during and after the 2003 war.
For example, on April 10 in 2003, looters broke into the National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad, ransacking it until employees returned.
Although staff removed and safely stored more than 8,000 artefacts from the site was plundered, about 15,000 objects were stolen.
According to The Conversation, while 7,000 items have since been recovered, more than 8,000 remain unaccounted for, including artefacts thousands of years old from some of the earliest sites in the Middle East.