Gold jewelry and other precious items recovered from royal tombs excavated at the ancient Assyrian capital of Nimrud, and objects from the royal cemetery at Ur, have been found where they were stashed for safety—in a vault below the Central Bank in Baghdad—before the onset of the Gulf War in 1990.
The 2,800-year-old treasures — which are regarded by some archaeologists as rare and precious as the objects found in Pharaoh Tutankhamun's tomb — were in three cases that had been sealed and secured in the underground vault. The cases were not found until last week because the basement of the bank was flooded, possibly deliberately by bank officials as a way to protect the treasures from looters.
A team from the television series National Geographic Ultimate Explorer in Baghdad organized the draining of well over half a million gallons (nearly two million liters) of water from the flooded bank vaults.
A documentary producer for 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 in the United States 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."
Draining of the Central Bank's vault levels to gain access to Iraq's currency reserves, needed to pay salaries throughout the country, led to confirmation that the cases containing the Nimrud treasures were still intact.
"We have assistance from our friends [at] National Geographic who brought [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," he told the Ultimate Explorer team which helped the bank drain the water from the basement.
"The bank was flooded right up to the ground level," said Gayle Young, director of story development, Ultimate Explorer. "It took three pumps and three weeks to get all the water out. At first the water kept flooding into the bank as fast as we pumped it out, but then it was discovered there was a valve that was open. Once we were able to shut that off we could drain all the water and the bank officials gained access to the vaults," Young said.
Young said the three boxes that contained the treasures were found in the seventh vault that was inspected, exactly where it was believed they would be. An archaeologist who placed the seals on the boxes confirmed that they had not been broken.
Muhammed said that he asked that employees of the Central Bank observe the opening of the boxes, and the verification and listing of their contents. "The pieces belong to Iraq and not only to Iraqi Museum, and we at the Central Bank of Iraq feel we have a share in these boxes because we kept them for 14 years since 1990," he said.
Draining the water from the vaults became a priority, not only to determine if the treasures had escaped the looting that had taken place on the bank's upper floors during the recent war in Iraq, but because the authorities urgently needed to recover the country's cash reserves.
"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, advisor to Iraq's Ministry of Finance.
Cash was recovered, wet but intact. The "water was impregnated with soot and not as we feared with sewage, so it's just like they've been through the washing machine and the money is clean," Nel told the Ultimate Explorer team. "We were able to pump the water out of the vaults, which means that we could get access to the dinars that were stored there, which was essential for us to be able to pay April salaries throughout the country. "
Confirmation that the treasures of Nimrud are in safe custody will be a relief to the archaeological and art communities. There have been widespread fears that they were looted along with thousands of artifacts stripped from the Iraq Museum and archaeological sites in the chaos of the war in Iraq and its aftermath.