This chrome-plated Kalashnikov AK-47 assault rifle with Saddam Hussein's image is one of 540 stolen Iraqi artifacts recently returned to the country.
The repatriated items—displayed at the Iraqi Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the capital city of Baghdad on Tuesday—include priceless historic treasures, such as gold earrings made for an Assyrian queen and a 4,000-year-old headless statue.
More than 30,000 looted Iraqi antiquities and artworks have been confiscated inside and outside the country since 2003, according to the New York Times. But the total number of items that have been stolen from Iraq is anyone's guess, archaeologist Brian Rose told National Geographic News.
"We'll never be able to determine how many pieces have been stolen," said Rose, of the University of Pennsylvania, "because many of the pieces were taken clandestinely from archaeological sites."
A statue is displayed at a ceremony in Baghdad on Tuesday to showcase more than 500 stolen archaeological treasures that were returned to Iraq this week.
Likely from the New Sumerian period, about 4,000 years ago, the scultpture is a "foundation statue" that carries inscriptions telling who the current king was, what building it was placed in, and when that building was built, according to Donny George, a former director of Iraq's National Museum and currently a professor at Stony Brook University in New York.
Many of the items had been stolen after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, but large-scale looting of Iraqi artifacts from archaeological sites can be traced back to the first gulf war in the 1990s, experts say.
"The sanctions that followed the first gulf war crippled the middle class, because many businesses were no longer able to function," the University of Pennsylvania's Rose explained. "People needed income anyway they could get it, and many of them took to plundering archaeological sites."
Figurines of men, likely from the Sumerian period, about 4,800 years ago; a roughly thousand-year-old flask-like vessel; and an unidentified artifact (lower left) are among the repatriated Iraqi items displayed in Baghdad Tuesday, according to Stony Brook's George.
Treasures like these are regularly plundered from archaeological sites all over the Middle East, and it's often difficult or impossible to tell where they originally came from.
"The looting of archaeological sites is akin to the murder of history," said the University of Pennsylvania's Rose.
"We go to the site and what we see is a hole. When something comes on the market, we can say that we think it was stolen from this particular site. ... But it's still just a guess."
Photograph by Karim Kadim, AP
A U.S. soldier looted the AK-47 with Saddam Hussein's image from one of the late ruler's palaces in 2003.
The pearl-gripped gun had been displayed as a war trophy at the headquarters of the Third Stryker Brigade of the Second Infantry Division in Washington State until the AK-47 was retrieved by U.S. Customs agents and returned to Iraqi authorities.
Of the 540 looted artifacts recently returned to Iraq, one of the oldest and most famous is a 330-pound (150-kilogram), headless statute of the Assyrian King Entemena, who ruled more than 4,000 years ago in what is now Iraq.
A team from the University of Pennsylvania is creating a replica of the statue, which will be placed in the Iraqi embassy in Washington, D.C. "A 3-D scan of the statue has been made, so that a copy of it can be prepared," Rose said, "with which we will certainly offer assistance."