WASHINGTON (June 6, 2003)—A National Geographic team working with Iraqi and U.S. military authorities has assisted in the recovery of one of the greatest archaeological treasure troves of all time. In a vault below the Central Bank in Baghdad, priceless objects from royal tombs excavated at the ancient Assyrian capital of Nimrud and the royal cemetery of Ur were discovered in sealed cases that were opened this week. The Nimrud treasures — which date from the eighth and ninth centuries B.C. and consist of gold jewelry, precious metals and other artifacts — have been hailed by a British archaeology authority as the most significant discovery since Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1923. Experts theorize that the artifacts were sealed for safety with the advent of the Gulf War in the early 1990s. The story of the find broke in the Wall Street Journal today.
The cases were not located until last week, because the bank was flooded up to the ground level, possibly deliberately by bank officials to protect the cases from looters. A team from the television series National Geographic Ultimate Explorer in Baghdad organized the draining of well over half a million gallons of water from the flooded bank vaults. A documentary producer for National Geographic Ultimate Explorer, Jason Williams, had been following the treasures of Nimrud story for nearly a decade. Ultimate Explorer host Lisa Ling traveled with Williams and a crew to Iraq to investigate what happened to one of the greatest archaeological finds of all time for a documentary to air on MSNBC on July 6 at 8 p.m. ET/PT.
In May, the National Geographic Society’s Committee for Research and Exploration led the first trip to survey conditions of Iraq’s archaeological sites since the war there in April. Findings will be released next week.
“National Geographic Society has made a significant commitment to the recovery and preservation of the world’s cultural and historical antiquities,” said David Royle, executive producer of Ultimate Explorer and senior vice president of production for National Geographic Television & Film. “At a time when there are fears so much of Iraq’s cultural heritage has been looted, this is akin to finding the country’s crown jewels. Jason Williams’ tenacity on the story of the treasures of Nimrud and National Geographic’s resources combined to help authorities solve this mystery. In addition to Jason’s group a number of others representing the Society have been in Iraq during the past month to assist in the assessment and protection of that region’s vast archaeological treasures.”
Williams said, “These are national treasures for Iraq that go to the very heart and soul of the Iraqi people. It is a thrill for me to be involved in their rediscovery and to bring them to the attention of the world.”
It took three pumps and three weeks to drain all of the water, which was flooding into the bank as fast as it was being pumped out. Finally, a member of the National Geographic Ultimate Explorer crew discovered that a valve was open, which was immediately shut. The water started to drain and the bank officials were able to gain access to the vaults. The boxes containing the treasures were found in the seventh vault that was inspected, exactly where they were believed to be. An Iraqi archaeologist immediately confirmed that the seals placed on the boxes more than a decade ago had not been broken.
“We had assistance from our friends at National Geographic who bought a pumping system and hired people to do this job for us free of charge,” said Ahmed Muhammad, deputy governor of Iraq’s Central Bank. “We thank them very much for this favor.”
“We had a crisis situation where we needed to get access to the dinars in the vaults of the Central Bank to pay salaries, and thanks to National Geographic we’ve been able to open the vaults, to pump out the water, and pay the salaries,” said Jacob Nell, U.S. advisor to Iraq’s Ministry of Finance.
The Nimrud treasures were discovered from 1988 to 1990 in ancient tombs were found below floors in the royal site known as the Northwest Palace, built by Assyrian king Ashurnasirpal II in the ninth century B.C. The first tomb was discovered largely by accident in 1988, when Iraqi archaeologists noticed an uneven floor in a palace room and began excavating. Two additional tombs were excavated in 1989, and a fourth in 1990. The finds were exhibited briefly at the Iraq National Museum in Baghdad until they were taken off display with the onset of the first Gulf War.
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