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Ancient Iraqi Relics Find Their Way Home with Help from the FBI

  • Stasia Demarco

As Operation Iraqi Freedom rolled through Baghdad in the spring of 2003, an estimated 15,000 artifacts disappeared from the country's museums and archaeological sites. Many were hidden by museum curators and staff. Others were taken by looters only to appear on the international black market, or as souvenirs offered for sale to coalition troops. Now, some of those stolen antiquities are returning home.

Last month, the Federal Bureau of Investigation announced its first recovery of looted cultural property from Iraq: 8 ancient Babylonian seals, 4,000 to 5,000 years old. A U.S. soldier purchased the tiny stone cylinders - each smaller than a child's thumb - as souvenirs before leaving Iraq. But when he got home he had a feeling the artifacts were more valuable than he originally thought. And he was right.

"Upon his return home," says FBI Special Agent John Eckenrode, "the soldier showed these to an archaeology professor who informed him they were real and that it was illegal to remove them from Iraq. He immediately expressed his desire to give them to the proper authorities so that they could be returned to the people of Iraq." He turned them over to the FBI.

The soldier paid $300 for the seals. Their market value is 100 times that amount. Archeologist Richard Zettler says it's impossible to calculate their value to scholars of the ancient world.

Mr. Zettler, who participated in many digs in Iraq in the 1970's, says cylinder seals were used on a daily basis in the Babylonian communities along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. "Cylinder seals are actually small stone or shell cylinders with incised designs on them that were rolled on malleable material to make a raised, relief narrative. They were used in antiquity to impress on lumps of clay that were used to secure doors, bags, boxes, other types of containers to keep them accessible only to authorized persons." He compares their function to modern notary public seals. "They were also rolled on clay tablets; legal texts, for example, or sales [receipts] to document the authenticity of the text. So they were really one of the first administrative and legal technologies that the ancient peoples of Mesopotamia employed."

The recovered seals were repatriated in a simple ceremony last month at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archeology and Anthropology. Said Ahmad, a member of the Iraqi mission to the United Nations, accepted the antiquities on behalf of his government, thanking everyone involved in the process, "from the FBI and Pennsylvanian professors and the museum and even the soldier [who brought] the articles to the museum and decided to return [them] back to [their] proper country, which is Iraq."

But before being returned home, the seals will be displayed at the archaeology museum. Mr. Ahmad called them the world's "cultural heritage," adding that they "don't belong just to Iraq, [and the] Iraqi people. [They] belong to humanity."

Since the war in Iraq began, there has been an alarming increase in the number of antiquities stolen by syndicates of organized art thieves. According to the FBI, many of those relics end up in the United States, part of a black market that traffics in $5- to $8-billion worth of art treasures each year.

Given the severity of the problem, last year the FBI created the Art Crime Team (ACT). The Bureau's Debra Pierce says it is dedicated to recovering the world's stolen artwork. "This is a multi-national and multi-international agency effort. The FBI's ACT joins France, England, Italy and Spain with their art crime teams to address these problems more effectively."

With this increased cooperation among international authorities and awareness by those who might find antiquities for sale, the hope is that more of Iraq's stolen cultural heritage will come home.

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