Treasure hunt starts to pay off
* Martin Chulov and Maev Kennedy
* The Guardian, Tuesday 24 February 2009
* Article history
Persistent efforts to recover thousands of looted artefacts and works of art have started to bear fruit with the return of around 5,500 pieces. The recovery effort has spanned six continents, and artefacts have been recovered from destinations as far flung as Peru, London, Spain and North Africa. Jordan has returned 2,466 pieces, Syria 750, the US around 1,000 and Italy 11.
Hundreds of objects are still undergoing conservation work, including some exquisitely carved ivories, thought safe from bomb damage in a vault but damaged by sewage-contaminated flooding as water pumps failed.
But in the joyful headlines over the recovery of iconic pieces such as the 5,500-year-old Warka Mask, a serenely enigmatic alabaster head, it was almost overlooked that thousands of small metal and clay pieces, inscribed tablets and amulets, seal cylinders, easy to smuggle, hard to trace, of little commercial value but priceless to historians, have almost certainly gone for ever. Among them are the Nimrud Lioness – a pearl and gold foot long piece depicting a lion attacking, and countless other little scraps of history – the poems and spells, star charts and family histories, shopping lists and tax bills inscribed on scruffy little lozenges of mudbrick or cough drop sized cylinder seals, which seeped into the world’s antiquities markets.
“I’m not aware of any major recovery of these pieces,” said Irving Finkel, curator of the current exhibition on Ancient Babylon at the British Museum. “I’m not holding my breath for one.”
The treasures in his exhibition include a broken tablet recording Nebuchadnezzar’s capture of Jerusalem in 597BC, and a cylinder seal from 1300 BC, illustrating a ziggurat, almost certainly the origin of that wonder of the world, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.
There must be answers to gaps in the story of his exhibition in the thefts from the Baghdad museum – including objects never even catalogued, never mind published. But today curators like Finkel are celebrating. The museum is open. Tomorrow the work of patchworking together lost history resumes.