Britain is to hand back an ancient Sumerian plaque to Iraq after it was looted and smuggled out of the country and offered for auction. The artefact was seized by the Metropolitan Police after being tipped off by the British Museum.
The ancient item dates back around 4,000 years and appeared on an online sales platform in May last year, described incorrectly as a “Western Asiatic Akkadian tablet”. However, museum experts established that it was ancient Sumerian in origin and believed to be have been linked to a temple dating back to around 2400 BCE.
The Sumerians were the first Mesopotamian civilisation and the world’s first urban civilisation, which flourished in the third and early second millennia BCE. They are credited with developing the world’s first writing system, the cuneiform script.
“We’re used to coming across tablets, pots, metalwork, seals and figurines on the art market or in seizures that have been trafficked,” explained Dr St John Simpson, the British Museum’s senior curator. “But it’s really exceptional to see something of this quality.”
The site in what is now modern Iraq was excavated and looted between the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It was looted again during the Gulf War and most recently in 2003 during the Iraq War, although it has not been established exactly when the plaque was stolen.
“There are only about 50 examples of these known from ancient Mesopotamia,” said Simpson. “So that immediately places it on the high-rarity scale. We can be fairly sure that this object comes from the Sumerian heartland. That is the area that got very badly looted between the 1990s and 2003.”
The sculpture carved from local limestone depicts a seated male figure believed to be either a high priest or a ruler. It will be displayed at the British Museum for two months before it is returned to Iraq. Last July, the museum oversaw the repatriation of more than 150 looted artefacts to institutions in Iraq and Afghanistan.