Libyans recover looted Roman antiquities

November 26, 2011 - 10:20 AM

TRIPOLI, Libya (AP) — Moammar Gadhafi's forces tried to flee Tripoli with a sack of ancient Roman artifacts in hopes of selling them abroad to help fund their doomed fight, Libya's new leaders said Saturday as they displayed the recovered objects for the first time.

The director of the state antiquities department, Saleh Algabe, hailed the find of 17 pieces, mostly small stone heads, as an important recovery of national treasures.

The pieces included a female figurine evocative of ancient fertility symmbols, several small stone human heads and two ornate terracotta 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 car on the road to Tripoli's airport in August as revolutionary forces were sweeping into 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 said. Officials did not know how much the objects were worth.

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 anti-Gadhafi's fighters' seizure of them stands as "a great example of the sacrifice of these revolutionary men for this country."

He formally handed them over to the antiquities department Saturday.

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," he 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 medieval fort that faces the Mediterranean Sea.

A museum employee said the recovered objects had once been part of the institution's 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.