When Treasure Slips Below The Waters: Iraq’s Hidden Cache


In Iraqi Arabic, a kelek is an inflatable raft used in southern Iraq to navigate the waterways of the river and marsh regions of the Shatt al-Arab.  Their buoyancy is made possible by the use of watertight animal skins.  In 1856, a group of these rafts was moving along the delta of the Shatt al-Arab in southern Iraq; it was carrying a precious cargo of Assyrian antiquities in the form of immense carved statues.

Also included were carved reliefs, funerary objects, and similar artifacts of great value.  They had been recovered from dig of Sargon II’s ancient capital at Khorsabad.  Some of these statues were huge, each weighing about 30 tons.  Near the village of Kurna, the flotilla of rafts was attacked by bandits who infested the area during this lawless period.

During the struggle that took place to fend off the bandits, many of the rafts were punctured and sank, taking their precious cargo to the bottom of the delta.  Some of the statues were salvaged and eventually made it to the Louvre Museum in Paris.  But most of them remained where they were; the technology of the time was simply not advanced enough to raise them.


About one hundred years later, a French diplomat named Pierre de Vaucelles found a reference to the lost artifacts in a library and tried to mount an expedition to recover them.  Inquiries were made to the Iraqi government; even explorer Jacques Cousteau was enlisted in the scheme.  Unfortunately the project never got off the ground:  the Suez Crisis of 1956 had inflamed anti-Western sentiment in the Arab world, with the result that the permissions that had previously been granted by the Iraqi government were now revoked.

There was one last act in this sad drama.  There was a Japanese expedition to search for the buried antiquities during the 1960s.  The problem was that the topography of the region had changed so much since 1856 that previous maps were no longer of any use.  The changing course of the waterways in the Shatt al-Arab meant that the statues were now buried somewhere on land, rather than at the bottom of a body of water.

One suspects that with the technology currently available, any reasonably diligent investigation would be able to locate the cache of treasures.  If so, then the final act in this drama has yet to be written.

4 thoughts on “When Treasure Slips Below The Waters: Iraq’s Hidden Cache

  1. The Arab world never really recovered from the devastation wrought on by the Mongols. Who knows how much culture was lost in the sack of Baghdad?

    It’s sorry to see Iraq and Syria getting devastated once again all thanks to certain external powers. People there can’t seem to catch a break.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. It’s stories like this that made me want to be an archeologist when I was a kid. Even now, there’s few things that sound more exciting than the idea of an archeological expedition for a lost treasure in the Middle East, sans the bloody mayhem going on right now. That part only looks romantic or adventurous in movies.

    Liked by 1 person

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