Iraq recovers thousands of antiquities, calls for antiquities law reform

Iraq recovers thousands of antiquities, calls for antiquities law reform
National Museum of Iraq is slowly collecting stolen assets. / bne IntelliNews
By bne Gulf bureau April 25, 2024

Iraq's Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Antiquities has received thousands of returned archaeological pieces following a push by the central government in Baghdad to retrieve stolen assets in the past year.

The sudden urge to claw back lost assets follows years of struggles after the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime following the illegal US invasion of Iraq in 2003. More than 15,000 objects were stolen from the National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad. The Museum raid event was one of the most significant thefts of cultural artefacts of the past century. Many of these items have been recovered over the years, but a substantial number remain lost or unaccounted for despite the best efforts of international search teams. A good number of them have been sold multiple times on the black market in the United Arab Emirates, Lebanon, the United Kingdom, and the US, reports suggest.

Azhar Baha Sabri, head of the Antiquities Receipt Department at the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage, said the department recovered 39 museum-registered ancient pieces within Iraq last year.

As for antiquities received from abroad, Britain handed over ten pieces along with 50 boxes, each containing a collection of artefacts that have not been inspected yet, Sabri told the state newspaper Al-Sabah.

More than 15,000 other pieces were also collected by the Iraqi ministry, in addition to over 10,000 coins and gold artefacts from stolen collections.

However, archaeological discoveries continue to come out of the ground. The expert added that just this week, the National Museum took possession of 499 objects from a British archaeological mission working in the Dhi Qar governorate.

These were found at the Talo Karso site and included 465 clay cuneiform tablets from the Akkadian civilisation and Ur period, cylindrical seals, pottery, jewellery, necklaces and other artefacts.

Sabri noted that 145 new archaeological sites have been discovered, with important finds including a small figurine of the Lady of Warka - only the second example found in the ancient city of Nippurr in Diwaniyah governorate, which sits along the Euphrates River south of Baghdad.

However, Sabri warned that the secret technical committee tasked with assessing stolen antiquities faces significant risks, as lawyers are barred from following up on suspects despite protection from security forces.

Insufficient funding and lack of technical staff also hinder their work, she added.

Sabri stressed the need to update the antiquities law, saying the ministry's technical committee has proposed important points to address gaps through amendments to be presented to the cabinet.

The receipt of antiquities from citizens or through customs seizures by security forces is coordinated through the Interior and Foreign Ministries, with a special archive maintained for received pieces, she explained.

These are then transferred to museum storage through a process involving technical committees of antiquities experts and legal personnel to study and authenticate the objects before secretive committees approve them under legal protection.