Nobody at the Iraqi National Museum in Baghdad knows exactly how the three stolen Sumerian tablets got all the way to Lima, Peru. All authorities in Lima told Iraqi museum officials was that the three tablets, more than 2,000 years old and each small enough to hold in the palm of one's hand, were found roughly a year ago in the luggage of an American traveling in the country and seized at the airport. "I'm not involved in the other details," says Dr. Amira Edan, who heads of the museum's efforts to reclaim lost artifacts and flew to Peru to retrieve the tablets. "What was important for me was to take the items back."
Edan finally brought the tablets from Peru to the Baghdad museum about three weeks ago, adding them to more than 4,000 Iraqi artifacts the museum has recovered since the chaos that followed the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. Peru appears to be the farthest that purloined Iraqi treasures have traveled. Most other recovered items have come from neighboring countries. More than 2,500 artifacts have returned to Iraq from Jordan, along with more than 760 from Syria. Many stolen items have made it to further west. Thirteen pieces were found in Italy; and at least another dozen have surfaced in the United States, including a large statue of a Sumerian king.
Not all of the artifacts now being recovered were stolen from the Baghdad museum after its infamous looting in 2003. The tablets found in Peru, for example, were taken from an open archeological site in southern Iraq, one of eight such areas museum officials say remain vulnerable to looters even now. Edan estimates that Iraqi authorities have managed to retrieve as many as 17,000 artifacts lifted from the open sites, in addition to roughly 4,700 pieces taken from the museum when it was sacked in 2003.
Museum officials say securing the archeological sites is increasingly a concern as the Baghdad collection gradually comes back. For the first time in Iraq, efforts are underway to form a special police task force dedicated to protecting archeological sites. Museum officials expect to see the first police from the force on duty in the coming weeks. About 400 officers are to guard various archeological sites around Baghdad initially, and the force is supposed to number as many as 10,000 officers across Iraq eventually. For now, however, Iraqi officials acknowledge that priceless artifacts are likely leaving the country in large numbers even as efforts to recover them go forward with increasing success. "I don't think we can stop it completely," says Qais Hussen Rashied, the director of investigation and excavation at the Iraqi ministry of antiquities. "But we can limit it at least."
Baghdad museum officials are not sure exactly what the tablets found in Peru say. They eventually hope to have Sumerian language experts decipher the writing, which is etched in great detail over the faces of smoothed stones. But the items will be on display when the Baghdad museum reopens Monday with a special exhibition featuring items that have left Iraq but found their way home.