Antiquities Missing From Libya

A great deal is being written about the missing "Benghazi Treasure" so I thought it might be worth doing a quick blog post about it. I was sent photos of some items, but mostly these were scans of old photocopies of old reports, with highly unhelpful descriptions ("lots of coins") and photos which are useless in trying to identify the items (one rusty old arrow head looks pretty much like another after the photograph has been photocopied a few times ...).

Firstly, the Benghazi Treasure does not come from Benghazi - it was stored there after the Italians who'd originally excavated it returned it. It was stored in two old wooden military chests in the bank, and the inventories I've been shown suggest that many of the coins went missing between the time the excavators found the items, and then between the time they handed the chests over to the Libyans, and ... well, the last time someone did an inventory and typed it up using an old typewriter. Most of the coins were still there 'then' (at the time of the last inventory) and included some 700 silver coins, more in bronze, but none in gold. The coins dated from the Hellenistic to Islamic periods, and were not found together, so were not a 'treasure' in the sense of having been found together, but rather were gathered together by various excavators over decades.

The published pieces, illustrated in this post, all come from the temple of Artemis at Cyrene.

I'm not trying to downplay the issue of looting, but from a logistical point of view very few of the other items were photographed, and those that were tend to be relatively minor and so will be hard to identify should they appear on the open market.  The bronze eagle above, some 10 cm high, is not particularly distinctive. These black jugs are ancient but of a very common form, and so will be hard to spot:

Ditto this black glazed lamp:

The graffiti on these should make them easier to identify:

As should the decoration on these:

I love the shape of this little Proto-Corinthian pot!

This is one of the gold pieces in the Treasure: a circa 5 cm long foil plaque depicting a battle scene. There are very few Archaic gold plaques that have been excavated, so if it has not already been melted down, hopefully someone will spot it soon:

This jewellery, particularly the acorns and the siren pendant, should be reasonably distinctive and easy to spot if they appear on the art market:

These pieces are gilded silver:

One part of the "Benghazi Treasure" was found together, at the temple of Artemis within the sanctuary of Apollo at Cyrene. It was excavated between 1928 and 1930 by the Italians, and they found a votive deposit dating from the 7th and 6th centuries BC under the later Classical temple of Artemis. The gold plaque was found in this deposit, along with pottery such as this proto-Corinthian skythos:

From the Classical temple of Artemis, built at the end of the 5th or beginning of the 4th century, comes a nice series of terracotta votives dating to the 5th and 4th centuries, which were found in the treasury on the north side of the temple. There were nine figures in all, depicted seated (one may have been standing); although other treasures were deposited there, including a limestone head, these terracottas have the advantage of having been photographed and published in L. Pernier, "L'Artemision di Cirene," in Africa Italiana 1931:4, p. 217, fig. 37; p. 218, fig. 38 (see also here).

This figure is described as standing:

The "Benghazi Treasure" is an amalgam of various finds made by the Italians in Libya, which they displayed for years in the the Museo Coloniale of Italian Africa in Rome, and returned to Libya in 1961. It's been sitting in the bank since then, largely forgotten, which is why Libyan archaeologists suspect the theft was an inside job. Very few of the pieces were published, but some were, and hopefully this will help identify them ... oh, and the 'good' thing about Mussolini isn't just that he made the trains run on time, but also that he published a whole journal devoted to what he described as Italian Africa (available online here), so if I had a bit more time to plough through the series I'm sure I could find photos of more of the missing items, such as the glass necklace in the photo with the terracotta heads:

And this is the missing limestone head:

And this bronze handle was also from the treasury:

Some Phoenician beads excavated at the site attest an earlier pre-Greek phase:

As do these Egyptian faience scarabs and eye:

Small finds of amber and cornelian, and glass: notable is the small oil lamp which is made of silver:

The bone and ivory finds:

 The gold plaque probably originally decorated a scabbard, and this photo is of a cast taken from it:

Hmmm ... I have to admit, it wasn't all that hard to find these images online, so at this point I'm beginning to smell a rat when it comes to Libyan archaeologists claiming the pieces stolen were unpublished and unphotographed - the coins were, but the treasures from the temple of Artemis at Cyrene ARE published.

Update - some of the coins were photographed in Italia Numismatica, 10 October 1958. I don't have access to it, but those buying coins from Cyrene should check it to make sure they are not buying looted coins. It's not clear if the modern photos to the right are of the looted coins or of similar ones:

Also, Paul Bennett, head of The Society for Libyan Studies, emailed me via a colleague to say that the items in this post from the temple of Artemis at Cyrene were not looted from Benghazi. Since UNESCO and Interpol, as well as Libyan archaeologists, say they were, I feel it's better to leave the photos up until he can provide evidence to support this.


  1. It should be noted that after the remaining inventory of the treasure that there are about 1000 coins gold and silver and bronze and other finds still exists not steal

  2. no gold coins, huh? the Libyan revolution has produced so much fantasy masquerading as fact . . . thanks for all your meticulous work on this, and I do hope the archaic gold plaque surfaces sometime soon. like you, I'd go for the proto-Corinthian pot so fingers crossed for that one too.

    knowing the revolution as we now do, though, can we be sure that ANY of this has actually happened given the locals' proven tendency to excitable exaggeration? has somebody at the bank perhaps just nicked a bag of coins and left the rest in chaos? what you illustrate hardly looks saleable, unlike the stuff that was stolen from the Baghdad museum. and the contents of the various museums, which I saw and photographed a few years back, look to be safe . . .

  3. I've had a few of the images for a while, and my feeling is that most of the items would retail for a couple of hundred dollars at most. The people I've heard from out there are poo-pooing the story of items being in Egypt now. My feeling is that it was a last ditch attempt to loot by one of the pro-Gaddafi lot, but it's confusing as it seems not all to have been stolen

  4. Truth is a double edged sword and I commend your fortitude in brandishing this weapon of freedom.

  5. Reuters http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/10/30/libya-treasure-idUSL5E7LU0G420111030 report a dealer in the local souk with BRONZE coins, exactly as would be expected from your analysis of the inventory.

    for the rest, they are buying in to the OMG total disaster mode; good copy and comfort reading for those who want their pre-set prejudices confirmed about anything North African . . .

  6. I find it disturbing that they automatically assume that the bronze coins being sold by a local dealer are suspect. Without photographs or a list with detailed catalogue citations such statements only serve as propaganda.


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