Museum stories
Combatting illicit trade: identifying and returning a 4,000-year-old relief to Iraq

People often wonder exactly what curators do. Many imagine it to be a quiet life of bookish research, fieldwork and contemplation of objects. These are important parts of our jobs but there is far more to it than that. We also deal with a variety of queries, from loan requests to press enquiries, and some of us also handle enquiries of another sort, when objects are thought to have been stolen or trafficked illegally.

Our advice is sought in confidence for verification and quick action. Sadly, many of the cases coming to us over the past years have related to regions in the Middle East and Central Asia where I have either worked or have curatorial responsibility. I have therefore helped develop a process by which matters can be dealt with carefully and sensitively. Readers of this blog may have seen other stories about objects being returned to Afghanistan and Iraq. These cases involved working closely with other specialist curators. We can now share another case, again involving Iraq, and how we have worked with the Art and Antiques Unit of the Metropolitan Police Service to identify and return a rare ancient sculpture to that country.

A cream coloured plaque in a purple presentation box with gold clasp.
Sumerian plaque in presentation box.

The object is an important carved Sumerian wall plaque. It appeared on an online sales platform in May 2019, where it was misleadingly described as a ‘Western Asiatic Akkadian tablet’. It was said to come from a private collection formed in the 1990s but without any further provenance. We brought it to the attention of the Metropolitan Police Service (Art and Antiques Unit) who investigated it further with the auctioneers and the consigner, who expressed surprise that it was looted and agreed that it should instead be repatriated to Iraq with the assistance of the Museum. The police then brought the object to us. A small meeting followed as the BM curators discussed it around a table: was it genuine? If ancient, could we determine its age and where it was from? Was it stolen from a museum or could it have been looted from an archaeological site? Has the object been written about before or was it unknown? The meeting was short and the answers were quick.

The plaque showing a ale figure with shaved head and a long skirt.
The Sumerian plaque.

It is part of a votive wall plaque dating to about 2400 BC and belonging to the Early Dynastic III period of southern Iraq. It is carved from local stone and shows a large, seated male figure, clean-shaven, and wearing a typically Sumerian form of long skirt, known as a kaunakes, which was woven in a tufted pattern. The individual is a high-status male, either a high-priest or a ruler. He holds a ceremonial goblet or conical beaker in his right upraised hand, while his left holds a palm frond on his lap. He sits on a decorated stool. It is part of a larger, originally square, plaque probably measuring about 25cm across, divided into different scenes with the uppermost scene showing a ritual banquet. There were probably two further rows below, and comparison with other similar plaques suggests that the central scene may have contained either individuals bringing provisions for the banquet or a row of animals, and the lowest scene soldiers, musicians, dancers or wrestlers.

Temple plaques such as this are rare – there are only around 50 known examples. These are from important Sumerian city-sites in modern-day southern and central Iraq and eastern Syria, including the famous sites of Ur, Nippur, Khafajah and Mari. They are thought to have been originally attached to the wall by means of a large knob inserted through a hole in the centre, although sadly none have yet been found in situ at ancient sites. The style of this particular piece places it in the Sumerian heartland of southern Iraq, rather than the other regions where they have been found.

A photograph of an old wooden door. Large stones piles in front of the doorway. A rope connects the door to the outside wall. The photograph is marked where the rope attaches to the outside wall to indicate where plaques of this type would have been located.
The plaque would have been fixed to a temple wall at the point where a rope was tied around a central peg in order to secure the door shut. The location for this type of fastening is indicated on this photograph of an old house in Iraq.

There are traces of burning on the object which appear to be intentional and target the important figure. Just like the smashing of the plaque in antiquity, it probably marks a violent act in the life of the temple it came from. Sadly, such features are nothing new, and can be seen vividly on many of the late Assyrian sculptures from Nineveh and Nimrud, dating to when the capital and other centres of power across Assyria were stormed and sacked by Babylonian and Median armies in the late seventh century BC. They are also a feature of many Sumerian objects, as statues have been beheaded and royal monuments smashed into fragments. This applies to many previously excavated at the site of the ancient Sumerian city of Girsu (or Tello as it is now called), where my colleague Sébastien Rey has been directing excavations as a core part of the archaeological training provided by the British Museum’s government-funded Iraq Scheme, and it is possible that the plaque comes from there as it was extensively looted in the 1990s during the Gulf War, and most recently in 2003 during the Iraq War. The rarity of the piece and the lack of any detailed history of previous ownership history certainly point to it coming from such looting, rather than being an unremarked mantlepiece ornament for the past century.

Photograph showing an areal view of the desert with an excavation site.
Drone image of recent excavations at the Eninnu temple at Girsu (Tello), an area previously looted in 2003. Dani Tagen © Tello/Girsu Archaeological Project, Iraq Scheme.

This piece is an exciting and important new discovery, has not been previously published, nor is it known to be listed on any museum inventory. Since its recovery, the Minister of Culture in Baghdad generously permitted it to go on display at the British Museum. We are delighted that, following his official visit to the Museum on 23 October, the Prime Minister of Iraq, His Excellency Mustafa al-Kadhimy, proposed that we extend its display until 6 January so that more of our visitors could see it after the second lockdown. The plaque will then be returned to Iraq at the beginning of next year.

A photograph showing muddy ground with round pits, indicating where looting has taken place.
The pits on this photograph from 2018 show the extent of looting at an important site in southern Iraq.

We have a unique relationship and a great joint cooperation with the British Museum in various fields including returning stolen Iraqi antiquities, training Iraqi archaeologists, and the reconstruction of archaeological sites damaged by terrorism. We extend our gratitude to the British Museum staff for their efforts and cooperation with us and look forward to our continued and remarkable cooperation well into the future.


His Excellency Mohammad Jaafar Al-Sadr, ambassador of the Republic of Iraq.

The British Museum has a very long history of working with the cultural heritage sector abroad, as well as in the UK. It also advises on official export papers and cases where there is concern that objects may have been stolen or trafficked. In addition to the Metropolitan Police, we work very closely with the UK Border Force. Objects that are seized are brought to the British Museum for identification, analysis and cataloguing. The Museum then liaises with colleagues in the national museums and antiquities organisations of the countries concerned to arrange the return of these objects. This process has proved highly successful, is endorsed officially by countries across the Middle East and Central Asia, we are delighted to have been able to repatriate thousands of stolen objects seized or handed over in this manner to Iraq, Afghanistan and Uzbekistan, and this work is continuing.

You can see this plaque on display in Room 53 until 6 January 2021.

Read more about the work that the British Museum does in helping to stop the illegal trade of antiquities, in this blog on identifying and returning looted objects and this blog on the illicit trade of fake antiquities.

The Museum also runs the Circulating Artefacts (CircArt) project, a groundbreaking initiative launched in 2018 against the widespread global trade in illicit antiquities from Egypt and Sudan. Find out more here