Libyans recover looted Roman antiquities

November 26, 2011 - 9:25 AM

TRIPOLI, Libya (AP) — Libyan authorities unveiled on Saturday ancient Roman figurines and pottery fragments that they said were seized by revolutionary forces from Moammar Gadhafi's soldiers during the battle for the capital Tripoli.

The director of the state antiquities department, Saleh Algabe, showed the 17 objects to reporters. He hailed the find as an important recovery of national treasures.

The pieces included a striking female figurine and several small human heads in marble, as well as two ornamental clay fragments. Algabe said the figurines were likely used in pagan worship and dated back to the second and third centuries A.D., when a swathe of North Africa belonged to the Roman Empire.

Algabe said the pieces were seized from a truck on the road to Tripoli's airport on August 20, as revolutionary forces were entering the capital. It appeared Gadhafi's forces wanted to smuggle them out of the country and sell them at auction to fund their fight, he added.

The pieces probably do not represent a major component of Libya's wealth of artifacts from the Roman era. Still, officials played up their recovery as significant.

Khalid Alturjman, a representative from the country's National Transitional Council, said the rebels' seizure of them stands as "a great example of the sacrifice of these revolutionary men for this country."

Algabe stressed that although they dated to the Roman era, they exhibited clear signs of local influence.

"This confirms the role of Libyans in civilization," Algabe said.

The conference was held in Tripoli's main archaeological museum, which boasts a collection of ancient Roman statues and mosaics. The museum is housed within the Red Castle, a Crusader fort that faces the Mediterranean Sea.

A museum employee said the recovered objects had once been part of the public collection. However, members of Gadhafi's regime had taken them, saying they were to be exhibited in European museums — and never returned them.

Libya boasts many ancient Roman structures, including the famed seaside ruins of Leptis Magna, east of Tripoli.

Almost all of Libya's ancient archaeological sites and museums were spared damage during the recent civil war. NATO made a point of avoiding them during its bombing campaign, and Agabe said that the revolutionaries also made an effort to protect them.

"The Libyan people decided to protect their heritage," Algabe said.

(This version CORRECTS Adds details, quotes, byline. Corrects the spelling of Algabe's name.)