Happy endings are rare for looted archaeological materials. This may well be why a private ceremony at the British Museum on Aug. 10 grabbed headlines around the world. Eight objects from Iraq, five of them inscribed in Sumerian cuneiform, were handed over to Salih Husain Ali, Iraqi ambassador to the UK. In a matter of months, they will arrive at the Iraq Museum, where they will likely be put on display.
For archaeologists, it is very hard to accurately establish the provenance of looted objects. Vital contextual information — information that provides insights into an object's creation, meaning and use — is usually painstakingly gathered during excavations. When objects are looted, this information is missing; when this information is missing, ancient materials can easily be misidentified.