The limestone wall plaque came from an ancient Sumerian temple – dating to around 2,400 BC – which was looted multiple times since the late 19th century.

A handout picture released by the British Museum in London on September 28, 2020 shows a Sumerian plaque.
A handout picture released by the British Museum in London on September 28, 2020 shows a Sumerian plaque. (AFP)

Britain will hand back a 4,000-year-old sculpture to Iraq after an investigation found that it had been looted, the British Museum has said.

"This important piece was illegally removed from Iraq and discovered by authorities in the UK," the British Museum said on Monday in a statement.

"Temple plaques such as this are rare and there are only around 50 examples known in existence."

The London-based institution said the Iraqi government had "generously permitted it to go on display" at the museum before it is repatriated.

"The British Museum is absolutely committed to the fight against illicit trade and damage to cultural heritage," its director Hartwig Fischer said.

READ MORE: British Museum to return looted Iraqi, Afghan artifacts

'Western Asiatic Akkadian tablet'

Museum experts were called by a specialist London police unit after an online sales platform offered the artifact for sale in May last year with only limited details of its provenance.

Despite the online listing describing it as "a Western Asiatic Akkadian tablet," the experts determined the limestone wall plaque came from an ancient Sumerian temple dating to around 2,400 BC.

The temple had been excavated and looted in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, looted again in the 1990s during the Gulf War and most recently in 2003 during the Iraq War, the museum said, without specifying when the plaque was taken.

Jim Wingrave, of the Metropolitan Police, urged antiquities' buyers to "conduct a thorough due diligence process before every purchase," especially when dealing with items from recent war zones like Iraq.

Museum fails to return disputed items 

The British Museum said in July 2019 that it was working to appraise and return various looted ancient artifacts from Iraq and Afghanistan that had been seized in Britain.

Among the articles it had scheduled for return to Iraq were 154 Mesopotamian texts written on clay in the cuneiform script – one of the earliest systems of writing – and seized on entry in 2011.

However, the museum has faced criticism for failing to return some disputed items to origin countries, most notably the Parthenon Marbles, also known as the Elgin Marbles, which Greece has long claimed.

It is also under pressure to return other precious artifacts looted during the era of the British empire, including the ornate Benin Bronzes statues to Nigeria.

READ MORE: France returns stolen ancient artifacts to Pakistan

Source: AFP