After experts at the British Museum determined the exact temple in southern Iraq from which an unidentified art dealer looted a group of ancient artifacts, the U.K. repatriated the 5,000-year-old ceramics during a ceremony in London Friday. The objects will be returned to their home country and held in the collection of the national museum in Baghdad.
The Iraqi ambassador to the U.K., Salih Husain Ali, was quoted in The Guardian praising the antiquities experts “for their exceptional efforts in the process of identifying and returning looted antiquities to Iraq.” The ambassador added: “Such collaboration between Iraq and the United Kingdom is vital for the preservation of Iraqi heritage.”
The small conical works were taken during the period of chaos following the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, a period of widespread looting of ancient sites throughout the country. And while experts have on some occasions returned stolen items to the country, it is very rare to pinpoint the exact temple where the items once resided—and in this case, the experts were helped out by something of a coincidence. A British Museum archeologist just happened to be leading a team through a temple in Tello, the modern Arabic name for the ancient Sumerian city of Girsu, and noticed that there were holes in the wall, and discarded material that suggested items were looted from the premises.
“Uniquely we could trace them not just to the site but to within inches of where they were stolen from,” St John Simpson, who works at the Middle East department of the British Museum, told The Guardian. “This is a very happy outcome, nothing like this has happened for a very, very long time if ever.”
The experts claim that the cones were originally placed in the mudbrick to capture the powers of a god with the head of a lion. The objects will soon go on display at Baghdad’s national museum alongside work from other recent excavations.