In a remarkable turn of events, the long-lost Sassanid Soldier bas-relief, which was illegally taken out of Iran 35 years ago, has finally been returned back home. It was confiscated in England in 2016 and returned to Iran on 7 July 2023. According to the announcement of the Public Relations and Information Center of MCTH (Iran’s Ministry of Cultural Heritage, Tourism and Handicrafts), with the actions and follow-ups of the Ministry, this petroglyph has been reclaimed. After passing the necessary steps, this historical object will be displayed in the National Museum of Iran, the time of which will be announced. According to the charge d’affaires of Iran in London, there are further smuggled antiquities belonging to Iran, which the government is pursuing for their return.


Lost Sasanid soldier bas-relief in Iran national museum


The Story of the Sassanid Soldier Bas-Relief

The tale of the Sassanid Soldier bas-relief begins with its disappearance from Iran three and a half decades ago. The intricately carved stone panel, dating back to the Sasanian Empire (224-651 CE), vanished under dubious circumstances, leaving historians and art enthusiasts baffled. The journey of this artwork, which showcases the cultural richness of the Sassanid era, took an unexpected turn when it resurfaced in an international auction.

British Border Force officers encountered a suspicious package at London’s Stansted Airport in 2016, which was packed in a completely sloppy way to pretend it was not a valuable item. But according to the announcement of the Guardian newspaper of England, they came across a one-meter high relief that British Museum experts claim belongs to the Sassanid Iran and was cut from a rock around Shiraz to be sold at an auction in London.


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Theft from Iran discovered in England

This petroglyph, which is one of the works stolen from Iran, was discovered and confiscated in Britain about 7 years ago. It was originally belonging to one of the ancient sites of Iran known as the Sassanid Archaeological Landscape of Fars  and is very similar to Sasanian bas-reliefs in Taq-e Bostan . After the illicit removal, the object was smuggled into the UAE in 1988 and left there in 2006. Although the exact time of the departure from Iran is unknown, but according to the time of its arrival in the UAE, which coincides with 1988, it is likely that this work was illegally imported from abroad during the war Irano-Iraq and confiscated in Britain in 2016.

This ancient work that was smuggled into England was discovered and confiscated in 2016 at Stansted Airport in London. Supposed to be exhibited in the British Museum on loan for 3 months after proving its ownership to Iran, this petroglyph remained there for almost 7 years.


John Simpson, Senior Curator and Archaeologist of the British Museum’s Middle East Department, says: “We have almost never come across a rock figure cut with such a level of brutality; This work was incredibly cruelly cut and placed in a small box without proper packaging and the box was only secured with nails. This image was carved from a rock around Shiraz, but its exact location cannot be determined.


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International Auction and Legal Battle

News of the auction spread like wildfire, and Iranian authorities were quick to identify the stolen artifact. Recognizing the significance of reclaiming their cultural heritage, they launched a legal battle to retrieve the Sassanid Soldier bas-relief. The case garnered widespread attention and put a spotlight on the illegal trade of antiquities.


Ancient Persia: Target of Looting
Persia, now known as Iran, has a rich cultural heritage spanning thousands of years. Its ancient civilizations, such as the Mesopotamia, Achaemenids, and Sassanids, have left behind magnificent artifacts and archaeological sites. However, throughout Iran’s history, Persia has faced the unfortunate reality of archaeological looting. It can be traced back to ancient times when invaders and conquerors would often loot and plunder valuable artifacts and treasures. The conquest of Persia by Alexander the Great, for instance, resulted in the loss of numerous cultural artifacts and the destruction of historical sites such as Kermanshah, Persepolis and Susa. In recent centuries, Iran has experienced periods of socio-political unrest, providing opportunities for looters to exploit archaeological sites. Unstable governments, conflicts, and economic hardships have contributed to the rise in looting activities. Looted artifacts are often smuggled out of the country and find their way into the hands of private collectors, dealers and museums.


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The right to be withdrawn

In recent years, a number of objects that were taken out of our country years ago have been returned to Iran with the consultations that have taken place. The first media that announced the existence of this petroglyph in the British Museum was the Guardian newspaper. The Guardian wrote that the smuggled bas-relief was seized at the London airport by the British Border Patrol and is to be exhibited in the British Museum before returning to Iran. Officials of the British Museum have announced that they have received permission from the Iranian government to display this ancient treasure for 3 months, and then they will send it to the National Museum in Tehran. The Sassanid relief (Sassanid soldier) was transferred to Iran on the morning of Wednesday, July 7, after being displayed in the British Museum for 3 months.


Importance of the Sassanid Soldier Bas-Relief

A Window into Sassanid Artistry: The Sassanid Soldier bas-relief provides invaluable insights into the artistic prowess and military grandeur of the Sassanid Empire. Carved with meticulous detail, it showcases the mastery of Sassanid sculptors in capturing the human form and depicting military attire and weaponry. The bas-relief stands as a testament to the artistic achievements of the time, serving as a visual record of the Sassanid Empire’s glory. By reclaiming the bas-relief, Iran has regained a piece of its history and reaffirmed its commitment to preserving its cultural identity for future generations.




What is the Lost Sassanid Soldier bas-relief?
The Sassanid Soldier bas-relief is a carved stone panel dating back to the Sassanid Empire, which ruled over Iran from 224 to 651 CE. It was found during an illicit excavation and smuggled to England. 
How are looted artifacts smuggled out of Persia?
Looted artifacts are often smuggled out of Persia through well-established smuggling networks. They are transported through illegal channels, hidden within other goods, and eventually make their way to international markets.
Why is the return of the bas-relief significant?
The return of the Sassanid Soldier bas-relief is significant because it represents the recovery of a stolen cultural artifact. Its retrieval symbolizes the efforts to combat the illegal trade of antiquities and highlights the importance of preserving and protecting cultural heritage.
How was the bas-relief recovered?
The bas-relief was recovered through a legal battle after it resurfaced in an international auction. Iranian authorities identified the artifact and launched efforts to reclaim it, leading to its eventual return to Iran.
What does the Sassanid Soldier bas-relief depict?
The bas-relief depicts a soldier from the Sassanid era, showcasing the military attire and weaponry of that time. 
Why has Iran been a target of archaeological looting?
Persia’s rich cultural heritage, spanning thousands of years, has attracted the attention of looters and collectors seeking valuable artifacts. The historical significance of Persia and the global demand for Persian antiquities contribute to the targeting of archaeological sites.
How does archaeological looting impact Persia's cultural heritage?
Archaeological looting erases the context and historical value of artifacts. When items are illegally removed from their original sites, the information they hold about ancient civilizations and their practices is lost forever. It hampers our understanding of Persia’s rich cultural past.
Can other looted artifacts be repatriated to Persia?
Efforts are underway to repatriate looted artifacts to Persia. International agreements and cooperation between nations are instrumental in facilitating the return of stolen cultural treasures. Repatriation allows Persia to reclaim its lost heritage and preserve it for future generation