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The stolen ancient sculpture tablet heading back to Iraq

a carved stone tablet with the bald figure of a seated man in side profile

The looted Sumerian plaque dating to 2400 BC.

A looted Sumerian tablet from an Iraqi temple is heading back to Iraq

This limestone wall plaque has recently been identified by British Museum experts as originating from an ancient Sumerian temple dating to around 2400 BC. Illegally removed from Iraq, after it was recently discovered by authorities in the UK.

The plaque is going on display at the British Museum prior to its return following an investigation by the Metropolitan Police Service (Art and Antiques Unit) who brought the plaque for examination at the Museum, which as well as being one of world’s largest repositories of cultural artefacts and antiquities taken from across the globe, also happens to be the main advisory body in the UK for enquiries over illicit trafficking or export licensing of antiquities.

Offered for sale by an online sales platform, Timeline Auctions, in May 2019 the tablet was inaccurately described as a ‘Western Asiatic Akkadian tablet’ and was said to come from a private collection formed in the 1990s, but without further provenance.

British Museum experts subsequently identified it as part of a votive wall plaque dating to about 2,400 BC and belonging to the Early Dynastic III period of southern Iraq. It is carved from local limestone and shows a large seated male figure, clean-shaven, and wearing a typically Sumerian form of long skirt, known as a kaunakes.

a photo of two men in a desert setting looking at something as two armed soldiers watch them

The archaeological site at Tello.

It is thought the small plaque was once part of a much larger, originally square, plaque, possibly measuring 25cm in width and divided into different scenes which would have shown a ritual banquet. Experts think such plaques were originally attached to the wall by means of a large peg inserted through a hole in the centre.

Temple plaques such as this are rare and there are only around 50 examples known in existence. The British Museum does however have one in its collection, excavated by the renowned archaeologist Sir Leonard Woolley during a remarkable dig at Ur in Mesopotamia in the  late 1920s. 

Others have been discovered at Sumerian city-sites in southern and central Iraq and eastern Syria, including the famous sites of Ur, Nippur, Khafajah and Mari.

The style of this particular piece, however, places it in the Sumerian heartland of southern Iraq, and the traces of burning are said to be a feature found on some previously excavated at the site of Tello/Girsu, where a British Museum/DCMS funded Iraq Scheme has been carrying out archaeological training and excavations.

This site was extensively excavated and looted in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and looted again in the 1990s during the Gulf War, and most recently in 2003 during the Iraq War.

Today, looted objects that are recognised and seized in the UK are now 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 their return.

In 2019 the Museum completed the largest ever handover of looted Iraqi artefacts found in Britain with a collection of 156 inscribed tablets intercepted on import from the Middle East, some of them dating to more than 4,000 years old, from another ancient Sumerian city.

The British Museum also works closely with the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage in Baghdad, and since 2015 has delivered training to over 50 of its employees through the UK Government-funded Iraq Emergency Heritage Management Training Scheme which involves courses at the British Museum and participation on excavations in Iraq, including the site of Tello/Girsu itself.

A survey made of the previous looting at this site indicates a concentration on an area of the site known as ‘Tell A’, which is known now to have been the temple to the Sumerian god Ningirsu. It is therefore probable that, if this fragment does come from this site, then it belonged to this temple. Future excavations may even reveal some, or all, of the missing parts.

The British Museum holds antiquities from Ancient Mesopotamia in its permanent collections, acquired from archaeological digs and collections in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They include objects from Southern Iraq / Tello. Here’s five of them:

a plaque with a carving of a bald man

© The Trustees of the British Museum

Stone plaque showing Enannatum, king or ruler of Lagash, with hands folded in an attitude of worship with a carved inscription. Early Dynastic III 2450BC

circul;ar brick with cuneiform script

© The Trustees of the British Museum

A circular inscribed brick that once formed the core of an elaborate pillar. The inscription commemorates the building by Gudea of the temple of Imdugud (a bird like divinity in Sumerian religion who could breathe both fire and water) and the construction therein of a cedarwood portico where justice was administered. 2190 BC.

a stone conbe with inscriptions carved into it

© The Trustees of the British Museum

A fired clay cone with inscription dating to the Lagash dynasty. Lagash was an important Sumerian city in the late 3rd millennium BC. Cones like these have been found in the recesses of temple walls and are thought to act as markers or evidence that the temple or building was the divine property of the god to whom it was dedicated.

stone with cuneifrom carving on it

© The Trustees of the British Museum

Fired clay brick of Gudea, who was a ruler of the state of Lagash in Southern Mesopotamia c. 2144–2124 BC. The cuneiform inscription records the building of the Temple of the Mesopotamian war god Ningirsu.

a bronze figure of a man with beard

© The Trustees of the British Museum

This copper alloy foundation figure of a bearded man with clasped hands and very long hair is essentially an anthropomorphic nail. Foundation figures like this were used to mark the grounds of a temple, either by being hammered around the perimeter along with an inscribed tablet, or buried in clay boxes under the foundations. The legs of this one are united in a point to make it easier to hammer into the ground. Early Dynastic III. 2400BC

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Founded in 1753, the British Museum’s remarkable collection spans over two million years of human history. Enjoy a unique comparison of the treasures of world cultures under one roof, centred around the magnificent Great Court. World-famous objects such as the Rosetta Stone, Parthenon sculptures, and Egyptian mummies are visited by…

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