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Australia to return smuggled treasures

artefacts
Pictured above are two Iron Age bangles containing arm bones dating from 100 to 300 AD that were illegally looted from archeological sites in northwestern Cambodia. A Melbourne art dealer attempted to sell the artefacts online before the matter was brought to the attention of Australian authorities.

The Australian Government today announced the repatriation of artefacts and human remains to Cambodia that were stolen and put up for sale on the auction website eBay, in a ceremony at the Cambodian Embassy in Canberra.

The 30 Iron Age artefacts, which date from 100–300AD and were looted from archaeological sites in Cambodia’s northwest, include bronze earrings and wrist and leg bangles containing remains of arm and leg bones.

Eleanor Dean, director of public affairs at the Australian government’s Office for the Arts, said the government was alerted to the attempted sale in March last year.

“The Australian Archaeological Association alerted the Australian government that the human remains and ornaments were on eBay,” said Dean, adding that investigations into the smuggled artefacts were ongoing.

According to an OFA statement, a Melbourne-based antique dealer and gallery operator had attempted to sell the artefacts on eBay and the gallery website, and then through the gallery after the Australian government and the AAA had the artefacts taken offline.

The artefacts were recovered in September last year after the Australian government and Heritage Watch approached the Cambodian Embassy and the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, requesting the seizure and repatriation to Cambodia.

“The return of these artefacts demonstrates the cooperation and understanding between Cambodia and Australia in protecting cultural heritage and combating the illegal trade of cultural property,” said Cambodian Ambassador to Australia Sounry Chum in an OFA press release.

Dr Dougald O’Reilly, director of Heritage Watch and lecturer at the Australian National University School of Archaeology, said that some of the artefacts made for gruesome viewing.

“These things have just been removed from their burial [sites] with all of the bones inside them, so the arm bones and the leg bones were intact in the bangles, presumably to preserve the integrity of the artifact.

“There are even infant remains in some cases with these smaller bangles.”

O’Reilly said the artifact’s repatriation was a major achievement in curbing the antiquities trade.

“[Looting] is still an issue across a lot of parts of Cambodia,” he said.

“This is something that really started around the year 2000, and it has been an ongoing problem for many years now. Even today we still find that people are looting burial sites,” he said.

“We’re really at risk of losing all our knowledge of how Angkor came to be, because these artefacts predate Angkor.”

A representative from the Cambodian Embassy in Canberra said that Cambodia works closely with other countries to combat the smuggling of antiquities.

“We have a very good operation with other countries,” she said.

“We can operate to combat the trafficking.”

Som Sokun, secretary of state at the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, said that he was pleased that Australia was returning ancient artefacts to Cambodia.

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