The Bassetki Statue at the Iraq Museum

Iraq Museum Unveils Recovered Antiquities

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The Bassetki Statue was discovered in the 1960s during construction work on a road between Duhok and Zakho near the town of Bassetki in Duhok Governorate, northern Iraq. The Bassetki Statue was among the many artifacts that were looted from the Iraq Museum during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. During the theft, it had been dropped several times, as could be determined from a trail of cracks in the floor of the museum. It was listed number 2 on a list of the 30 most-wanted antiquities that were stolen from the museum. Its recovery came about after the American 812th Military Police Company raided a house and arrested three people in October 2003. They revealed the location of the Bassetki Statue, which turned out to be coated in axle grease and hidden in a cesspool. It was subsequently fished out and displayed in the Iraq Museum on 11 November, together with over 800 stolen small objects that had also been retrieved. [2] [3]

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Important Iraqi Museum Artifacts Recovered - 2003-11-11

Museum officials in Baghdad say Iraqi policemen and U.S. soldiers have recovered two of the most important artifacts stolen by looters following the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime.

Officials at the Iraqi National Museum say Iraqi policemen and U.S. military police recovered the priceless artifacts eight days ago, hidden at two locations in the Iraqi capital.

The most important recovered item is the 4,300-year-old copper Bassetki statue, considered the museum's second most important relic. The 150 kilogram statue, showing the lower part of a seated boy, is believed to have stood at the door of the palace of an Akkadian king in present-day southern Iraq.

The other relic, a mobile heater used by Assyrian kings to warm themselves in cold weather, is made of wood and bronze and dates back to the 9th century BC.

The museum's director, Donny George Youkhana, said he cannot overstate the importance of the recovery of the statue and the warmer. "We had two masterpieces, not only in the Iraq Museum but masterpieces in the history of art of mankind. So it's a great day today," he said.

Three men were arrested after U.S. soldiers and Iraqi police received a tip about the whereabouts of the artifacts. U.S. Army Corporal Cory Hassler said one of the men led him to the Bassetki statue, which the man had buried in a cesspool. "The guy took us to where he said he had hidden it and it happened to have just been buried in human feces. So, we dug it up, loaded it up in a Humvee, and drove it back," he said.

Museum officials say many of the most important pieces originally reported missing have since been recovered.

The museum's top-listed piece, the Lady of Warka, was recovered in September in an orchard on the outskirts of the capital. The 5,000-year-old statue is known as the Sumerian Mona Lisa.

5,000 year old city from the Akkadian Empire found in northern Iraq

In the eastern slope of the upper region of Bassetki, fragments of the Assyrian cuneiform tablets were found.

The remnants of an ancient city have been found inside northern Iraq. The settlement, close to the town of Dohuk, is thought to have served as a post for the Akkadian Empire, dating back 5,000 years ago. Archaeologists have faith that the Akkadian Empire was the first world empire in human history.

Excavating down to the Bronze Age layers in the upper part of Bassetki Photo Credit

This Bronze Age city was excavated by archaeologists from the Institute for Ancient Near Eastern Studies, also known as IANES. A crew from the University of Tübingen did the unearthing work at the Kurdish Village of Bassetki in the middle of August and October this year.

Their discoveries prove that the city was started in 3,000 BCE. The settlement layers show that it flourished for 1,200 years, with some indicating that the settlement was occupied during the Akkadian Empire period, from 2340 to 2200 BCE.

A city wall was put up around 2,700 BCE, while the huge stone structures were created in 1,800 BCE.

Excavation work on the Bronze Age overland roadway outside the village of Bassetki. Photo Credit

On the outer parts of the city, the team discovered a town that stretched about 1 kilometer (0.62 miles), along with a number of luxurious houses that dated back to the Bronze Age.

It seems the city continued to thrive after the Akkadian Empire fell. There’s proof of extensive road networks that were built in 1800 BCE. Uncovered during the dig, these roads would have connected to the city to Anatolia and Mesopotamia.

They also found Assyrian cuneiform tablets that dated back to 1,300 BCE. These tablets have indicated that there was a temple inside the city, dedicated to the Mesopotamian rain and storm god, Adad. Even though the statue was stolen from the National Museum in Baghdad during the Iraq War of 2003, U.S. soldiers located it. Until this new discovery was made, researchers haven’t been able to explain the location of the Bassetki statue. The premise that an important post of the Akkadian culture might have been located there has now finally been verified.

The team is also part of another project that is being managed by the Resource Cultures Collaborative Investigation Center (SFB 1070). Since 2013 they have been managing an archaeological inspection of the region surrounding Bassetki as far as the Turkish and Syrian borders. More than 300 sites have been found that no one knew about before. The research work and excavations in the region are scheduled to continue during the summer of 2017. It will be funded by the Fritz Thyssen Foundation.

The excavations went down to the Bronze Age layers up to the parts of Bassetki. Bassetki had been first recognized as a site of archaeological significance in 1975 following the finding of the Bassetki statue. This was a piece of a bronze figure of the Akkadian god-king Naram-Sin, and it was dated to 2250 BCE. The latest unearthing helped the archaeologists explain why the figure was discovered on the site. They believe that the city served as an important post for the Akkadian Empire throughout its short history.

More excavations have been planned in the area that surrounds Bassetki. Researchers are expecting to start work during the summer of next year.

Assyrian soldiers of Ashurbanipal carrying a statue of Adad (also known as Ramman), the god of tempest and thunder.

Peter Pfälzner led the latest dig. He said that the area around Bassetki is providing unexpected cultural riches for the region.

This place was located at the crossroads of communication routes between the Anatolian, Mesopotamian, and Syrian cultures during the Bronze Age. They’re planning to launch a long-term archaeological research project in the region in union with their Kurdish colleagues.

Worldwide Iraqi treasure hunt

The looting of Iraq's National Museum was one of the greatest scandals of the U.S. invasion in 2003.

Archaeologists had repeatedly warned Washington that, without protection, the Baghdad museum – which held the priceless cultural heritage of not just of Mesopotamia, but of mankind – would be ransacked by looters.

. The oldest known sculpture of a natural human face, the Warka Head, known as the Sumerian Mona Lisa, gone. A 4,500-year-old bronze figure of an Akkadian king, gone. At least 5,000 Sumerian cylinder seals engraved with the earliest form of writing, all gone.

. Five to seven years is the average lag time for famous stolen art or antiquities to surface and it's now six years since the museum's plunder. But despite an ongoing international crackdown on smuggled Iraqi artifacts, fewer than half the stolen treasures have been recovered.

Many were returned in the first few months, after the U.S. snapped into action and appointed Marine Reserve Col. Matthew Bogdanos, a Manhattan district attorney in private life, to head a 13-member investigation team.

Bogdanos announced an amnesty, and by the fall of 2003 more than 3,000 items were returned voluntarily by locals, including the famed alabaster Warka Vase, albeit brought back in 14 pieces in a plastic bag. Another 900 objects were seized in raids and at checkpoints, among them 10 of the 42 most valuable artifacts. They included the Warka Head, found buried at a farmhouse, and the Bassetki statue, a 4,300-year-old copper lower torso and legs of a seated male figure. It had been hidden in a cesspool, submerged.

Stolen-Treasure Hunter Matthew Bogdanos

U.S. Colonel Matthew Bogdanos


As the tanks rolled into Iraq in March, 2003, Marine Colonel Matthew Bogdanos and his counterterrorism team followed right behind. Tasked with investigating battle-related criminal activity, the team was soon redirected to Iraq's National Museum when news broke that priceless artifacts were being looted. They camped out in the museum for the remainder of his tour of duty, tallying the artifacts stolen and hunting down the thieves. It was, perhaps, serendipity or kismet, that Bogdanos, who holds advanced degrees in law and classics from Columbia University, would be present to take on the task of recovering some of the world's greatest stolen treasures. In his book Thieves of Baghdad, Bogdanos describes the looting, and the ongoing investigation, with passion, erudition and candor. TIME sat down with Bogdanos on the eve of the sixth anniversary of the beginning of the Iraq war. (Watch the interview with Bogdanos.)

Let's chat first about the reopening of the Iraqi museum recently in Baghdad. When you saw that on the news, what was on you mind?

It was an extraordinary first step. The Iraq museum is home to the single finest collection of Mesopotamian antiquities the world has ever seen: The Vase of Warka, the first naturalist depiction of human life in stone The Mask of Warka, the first naturalist depiction of the human face The Bassetki statue, the first known lost-wax method of copper casting. On and on and on. Every step you take in the Iraq museum, you get to say "the first." If there were truly a cradle of civilization, you can't get closer to it than the Iraq museum. Its opening proclaims to the world that Iraq is more than just a bunch of bombers and people who would murder each other in the name of religion. It's not perfect. There are 28 galleries two were opened. They were only open for a couple hours. But it was a beginning.

And this museum has not been open like that in some time, right?

Correct. In fact the museum was closed in September of 1980 when Saddam Hussein invaded Iran and Iran started lobbing missiles into Baghdad. So the museum was closed from that time until opening for a day in 2003 and then until this opening. [It's] only been open fewer than a half dozen times and never open to the general public. The museum itself, in the last several decades has been called Saddam's gift shop by the average Iraqi. (See pictures of treasure hunting in Afghanistan.)

What has it taken since 2003 to get to this point?

I lived in the museum for my entire first tour in Iraq in 2003. What it took to get from there — a devastated, closed, sealed-shut museum that had been looted by neighborhood residents, government officials and some museum staff members — to today where it's able to open a couple of galleries for a couple of hours relied almost exclusively on the extraordinary heroism, conscientiousness and integrity of the Iraqi people. From April of 2003 until November 2003 — the last time I physically hand-counted the items — almost 2000 different antiquities stolen from the museum were returned to the museum under our amnesty program by almost 2000 Iraqis. That's exceptional that's courage.

But it also took some courage on the part of the Iraqi government. There is controversy within the government. The minister of culture believes that the museum should not be opened until all galleries are able to be opened and the security situation improves. That's a legitimate, fair argument. I disagree with that argument, but it's a fair one. The ministry of tourism and antiquities, on the other hand, shares my belief, which is: open it today, one gallery for one hour. And tomorrow it's one gallery for two hours. And on and on. And you enable all of Iraq to take ownership of their museum and you enable, you force the world to sit up and take notice. Iraq is more than just bombs and war. It's about history.

One thing I was struck by in your book was how many people actually brought these items back because they realized that this was their heritage.

It's impossible to narrow down the list of motives as to why Iraqis returned the items. Having spent many years now in the Middle East, in Iraq in particular, I have learned if you're ever given a multiple choice test in Iraq, and one of the choices is "All of the Above," always pick "All of the Above." You're never going to be wrong. That's pretty much how it was with the return of the antiquities.

Even today, news articles cite the looting in 2003 as a symbol of the chaos that followed the invasion. Is that fair?

I do think it is fair to say the looting of the Iraq museum is symbolic of the chaos in 2003. Perhaps it is another reason why the Iraqi government felt so strongly about opening it to proclaim, if you will, "The chaos is over." Or that the chaos has been controlled to the extent that we can control chaos.


Babylon, a small port town situated on the Euphrates River, grew to become one of the most prosperous cities within Mesopotamia. Today, Babylon is located within modern-day Iraq, roughly 50 miles south of Baghdad. The city originally dates to around 2,000 BCE, and over several millennia it has encompassed a blend of artistic, architectural, and cultural achievements under different empires.

Babylon has also been the seat of famous and powerful rulers, such as Hammurabi, who is known for having enacted the Code of Hammurabi, and Nebuchadnezzar II, who is credited with building the mythical Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Babylon’s position within the cradle of civilization has also connected it to the larger cultural legacy of the area, including the development of cuneiform and written language. For thousands of years, Babylon has repeatedly popped up in myths and Abrahamic stories as a significant site for history and religion, and its global fame has resulted in it becoming the source of inspiration for countless literary and artistic works.

Despite emanating such renown, the city has been subject to violation and destruction in recent history. In 1980, the president of Iraq, Saddam Hussein, chose to invade Iran in hopes of solidifying his position as the leader of a unified pan-Arabist state. Despite being tired from its own 1979 revolution, Iran managed to turn the tides of the war and launched an offensive against Iraq. As the conflict continued, Iraqi people were starting to question their faith in their leadership and the seemingly never-ending battles. Saddam Hussein’s massive building project emerged out of this moment as a method of inciting nationalism and garnering support for the war.

Fig. 2. A mural of Saddam Hussein, opposite Nebuchadnezzar, overlooking Babylon as it appeared in ancient times. (Source: Tom Stoddart/Getty Images)

Saddam Hussein imagined himself as the modern reincarnation of Nebuchadnezzar II, and he spent millions on reconstructing Babylon as it was during his reign in 605 BCE. The building program was not intended for conservation and restoration but instead as a tool to legitimize his own regime reconstructing the archaeological site was not about saving Babylon for Babylon’s sake, but about saving Babylon for Saddam’s sake. The goal was ultimately to conflate his own image with that of Nebuchadnezzar II and push the idea that he was continuing a legacy of greatness in Arab history. By establishing Babylon as under his own dominion, Saddam Hussein claimed its fame and power as his own.

Fig. 3. Saddam Hussein's initials inscriped in a traditional Arabic style at his palace. (Source: Pesha Magid/Atlas Obscura)

Similarly to Nebuchadnezzar, Saddam Hussein chose to have a personal palace erected, and the decoration of the site clearly embodies how the entire building project embodied his own narcissism. The walls of the palace are carved with Arabic calligraphy that resembles religious iconography, but upon closer inspection it becomes clear that these shapes are actually Saddam’s initials. Painted images in the space that supposedly depict highlights of Iraqi civilization range from traditional Babylonian imagery to Saddam’s own towers in Baghdad. Other carvings depict him leading soldiers on the battlefield, and his face is chiseled into stones around the site using techniques that imitate ancient reliefs. After discovering that Nebuchadnezzar had bricks stamped with a declaration of his power and built within the walls, Saddam Hussein ordered the same. His bricks read:

“In the reign of the victorious Saddam Hussein, the president of the Republic, may God keep him the guardian of the great Iraq and the renovator of its renaissance and the builder of its great civilization, the rebuilding of the great city of Babylon was done in 1987.”

Fig. 4. One of many stamped bricks at Babylon describing Saddam Hussein's power and rule. (Source: Dr. Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin)

Saddam Hussein’s reconstruction symbolizes more than just his arrogance, but actually speaks to the dangerous and problematic tradition of re-envisioning the past. In plastering over Babylon with his own image, Saddam has essentially violated its history -- the idea is not to preserve the past, but to reimagine it entirely. Capitalizing upon the memory of ancient ruins is a familiar tactic of fascist rulers, and this strategy is used to construct a narrative that manipulates audiences into conflating present conditions with the glory of the past. The reimagining of art, architecture, and culture are key facets to a tyrannical rule, and the introduction of something new to an ancient site endangers its true memory.

Fig. 5. A relief of Saddam Hussein's profile alongside traditional king imagery, all in imitation of ancient carving styles. (Source: Ali Al-Saadi/Getty Images)

Additionally, the physical space itself and its historical integrity is harmed in this process. Since Saddam’s fall from power in 2003, the entire site has been abandoned and uncared for. The Ministry of Culture, Tourism, and Antiquities has enacted an Iraqi Antiquities and Heritage Law that seeks to protect, conserve, and manage archaeological sites within Iraq. Part of this law includes the documentation of these sites, as well as their presentation to the public, and Babylon falls under its jurisdiction. Babylon’s careful conservation is critical and urgent, and a comprehensive plan was developed in 2011 and officially adopted by 2018. Both the federal and provincial governments have pledged their funding for the conservation project.

However, Saddam Hussein was not the only destroyer of Babylon. In 2009, a delegation from the World Monuments Fund and the United States State department surveyed the archaeological site of Babylon. In a report following the visit, UNESCO stated that there had been serious damages inflicted to the site as a result of U.S. troops and contractors, such as the digging, cutting, and leveling of key structures.

Fig. 6. An interior hall at Saddam Hussein's palace that has since been vandalized since its abandonment. (Source: Ameer Al Mohammedaw/Getty Images)

Following United States President Bush’s orders to invade Iraq in 2003, military helicopters landed directly on the site. Saddam’s palace became occupied as the command center, and American soldiers graffitied and vandalized the interior. An army base was also erected under U.S. direction, resulting in the construction of guard towers and fences in and around Babylon, as well as the presence of heavy tanks that caused damage to the city.

In addition to damages to an archaeological site, U.S. foreign presence in Iraq also led to the loss of other treasured cultural heritage during the U.S. occupation, the Iraq Museum of Baghdad was looted. Nearby conflict in the area compelled curators and staff to evacuate the museum, and thousands of precious objects were stolen from both the galleries and storage units during the museum’s closure. Among these artworks were some of the most prized possessions to the museum, including the Warka Vase, the Mask of Warka, the Bassetki Statue, the state of Entemena, all of which are thousands of years old. There was international criticism of the United States' handling of the theft given the close proximity of individuals who could have prevented the looting, as well as the general disregard and lack of protection for the museum after occupying Baghdad. The majority of these objects have yet to be recovered, and the existing trails are hazy. The Iraq Museum has already resorted to buying lost pieces back from the looters themselves.

The deliberate destruction or erasure of heritage is a weapon used for suppression, domination, and exploitation, and these events largely surround countries engaged in armed conflict. In other cases, the destruction of cultural heritage qualifies as collateral damage. Regardless of the scenario, the threat of war and opposition endangers cultural property, and it is imperative that its protection is prioritized during periods of conflict. UNESCO's 1954 Hague Convention on the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict encourages parties to "adopt peacetime protective measures for the safeguarding of cultural property," in addition to outlining these strategies. Despite the existence of this document, it is clear that states and organizations often don't uphold its principles and face no genuine consequences. It becomes up to the international community to ensure that there is accountability for these transgressions, as well as the need for the protection of cultural heritage to be emphasized.

Iraq’s National Museum in Baghdad had been closed to the public by Saddam Hussein for over two decades when his regime fell in April 02003. Iraqis felt no connection to the world renowned cultural treasures inside. Like every other government building, it was trashed and looted.

Marine Col. Matthew Bogdanos, then in Basra leading a counter-terrorism group, volunteered part of his team to attempt recovery of the lost artifacts. He arrived at the museum with 14 people to protect its dozen buildings and 11 acres in a still-active battle zone. Invited by the museum director, they took up residence and analyzed the place as a crime scene.

Missing were some of civilization’s most historic archeological treasures. From 3200 BC, the Sacred Vase of Warka, the world’s oldest carved stone ritual vessel. From 2600 BC, the solid gold bull’s head from the Golden Harp of Ur. From 2250 BC, the copper Akkadian Bassetki Statue, the earliest known example of lost-wax casting. From 3100 BC, the limestone Mask of Warka, the first naturalistic depiction of a human face. From 800 BC, the Treasure of Nimrud— a fabulous hoard of hundreds of pieces of exquisite Assyrian gold jewelry and gems. Plus thousands of other artifacts and antiquities, including Uruk inscribed cylinder seals from 2500 BC.

Bidding on the international antiquities black market went to $25,000 for Uruk cylinder seals, $40 million for the Vase of Warka.

Since the goal was recovery, not prosecution, Bogdanos instituted a total amnesty for return of stolen artifacts—no questions asked, and also no payment, just a cordial cup of tea for thanks. Having learned from duty in Afghanistan to listen closely to the locals, Bogdanos and his team walked the streets, visited the mosques, played backgammon in the neighborhoods, and followed up on friendly tips (every one of which turned out to be genuine). 3,000 items had been taken from the museum by random looters. Local Iraqis returned 95% of them.

The prime pieces stolen by professional thieves took longer to track down. Raids on smuggler’s trucks and hiding places turned up more items. The Bassetki Statue was found hidden in a cesspool the Mask of Warka had been buried in the ground. Some pieces began turning up all over the world and were seized when identified. (Bogdanos noted that Geneva, Switzerland, is where that kind of contraband often rests in warehouses that law enforcement is not allowed to search.)

It turned out Saddam himself had looted the museum of the Treasure of Nimrud and the gold bull’s head back in 01990. Tips led to a flooded underground vault in the bombed-out Central Bank of Iraq, and the priceless items were discovered.

Everything found was returned to the Iraq National Museum, where the great antiquities are gradually being restored to public display. Iraq, and the world, is retaking possession of its most ancient heritage.

Bogdanos quoted Sophocles: “Whoever neglects the arts… has lost the past and is dead to the future.”

(This talk was neither recorded nor filmed, because material presented in it is part of a still on-going investigation. You can get the full story from Bogdanos’ excellent book, Thieves of Baghdad.)

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Watch the video: Iraqi museum. Baghdad (January 2022).