British Museum Cracks Cold Case, Identifies Looted Ancient Artifacts Smuggled During Iraq War


Madison Dapcevich


Madison Dapcevich

Freelance Writer and Fact-Checker

Madison is a freelance science reporter and full-time fact-checker based in the wild Rocky Mountains of western Montana.

Freelance Writer and Fact-Checker

A photo of archaeologist excavating magical cones from the walls of the temple. British Museum 

Based on expert analysis conducted by a specialized team, the British Museum announced it has identified eight 5,000-year-old artifacts believed to have been looted from a temple during the 2003 Iraq War, reports The Associated Press

British police seized the items – including stamp seals, clay cones, and a marble bull-shaped pennant – in 2003 from a London art dealer who did not have proper documentation, did not attempt to reclaim them later, and has since gone out of business. After spending the last decade-and-a-half in police storage, officials brought them to the museum earlier this year. 


By coincidence, archaeologist Sebastian Rey has been working under the museum’s umbrella in leading a response team to restore damage to cultural sites in the aftermath of conflict. The Iraq Emergency Heritage Management Training Scheme – or Iraq Scheme – has been working on revival and rescue archaeology in the very temple the artifacts were stolen from, reports The Guardian

Archaeologists were able to determine where the antiquities came from by reading engraved cuneiform inscriptions, one of the earliest systems of writing. The inscriptions named the Sumerian king who had ordered the commission of the artifacts, the god they were dedicated to, and the temple they belonged to in Southern Iraq’s ancient city, Tello.

Parts of the ancient city of Aleppo in Syria has been destroyed following the country-wide conflict. Smallcreative/Shutterstock

Modern-day Iraq has been called the “cradle of civilization” because it was once an epicenter of the growth of major urban centers. Museums across the country once held collections from the Assyrian, Sumerian, and Babylonian cultures dating back thousands of years. With conflict at their doorsteps, many have shut down or been looted in the days during and after the war. An ongoing list highlights the many ancient sites that have subsequently been destroyed during the Islamic State occupation of a portion of the country a decade later across the Middle East, including everything from Buddhist temples in Afghanistan to entire ancient cities in Lebanon.

In a statement, Iraqi Ambassador thanked the museum for their work in identifying and returning the looted artifacts, saying it is a step in the right direction for collaborative preservation in the face of conflict.


“Such collaboration between Iraq and the United Kingdom is vital for the preservation and the protection of the Iraqi heritage,” the AP reports Iraqi Ambassador Salih Husain Ali saying.

Officials say they will return the items to the Iraq Embassy this week. Afterward, they will make their way back to Baghdad, closing the case file once and for all.

A banded white chalcedony stamp seal with a flat oval face engraved with the design of a reclining sphinx facing right, dating to the Achaemenid period. British Museum

One of three complete fired clay cones, each with an identical cuneiform inscription. British Museum
A polished yellowish river pebble with cuneiform inscription in Old Sumerian script. British Museum
A white marble amulet pendant dating to the Jemdet Nasr period (c. 3,000 BC). British Museum

A red marble square stamp seal and amulet pendant representing a pair of drilled stylised quadrupeds, facing in opposite directions, each with a separate drilled hole in front and an engraved crescentic line behind, dating to the Jemdet Nasr period (c. 3000 BC). British Museum


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