By Khalid al-Ansary
BAGHDAD, April 1 (Reuters) - Iraqi archaeologists have discovered 4,000 artefacts mostly from ancient Babylonian times, including royal seals, talismans and clay tablets marked in Sumerian cuneiform — the earliest known form of writing.
The treasures came to light, the Tourism and Antiquities Ministry said on Wednesday, after two years of excavations across 20 different sites in the regions between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the land ancient Greeks referred to as "Mesopotamia".
As well as Babylonian artefacts, there were finds from the ancient Persian empire and more recent medieval Islamic cities.
"The results of this excavation are evidence that Iraq’s antiquities aren’t going to run out any time soon," Abdul-Zahra al-Telagani, spokesman for the Tourism and Antiquities Ministry, said.
"They also give us the incentive to continue to work to rehabilitate our ancient sites to become tourist attractions."
The artefacts will be transferred to the National Museum in Baghdad, which remains in need of restocking since looters stole approximately 15,000 artefacts after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. Some 6,000 have since been returned.
Iraq, which lies in the heart of a region historians call the cradle of civilisation, is hoping a decrease in violence to levels not seen since late 2003 will encourage tourists to visit its ancient sites.
Potential highlights include the Biblical city of Babylon, fabled home to the Hanging Gardens, the Assyrian city of Nineveh in the north, relics of numerous medieval Islamic citadels, and some of Shi’ite Islam’s holiest mosques and shrines.
Iraq witnessed its first group of Western tourists last month, and officials hope more will follow.
Abbas Fadhil, the head of the excavation team, thinks some of the finds may be hugely significant.
Of the two rare talismans dug up, one shows a face carved in Sumerian style framed by a triangle. The other is a red stone with a running antelope carved into it.
Qais Hussein Rasheed, acting head of the antiquities and heritage committee, told reporters Iraq still had a big problem with looters ransacking archaeological sites.
"These sites are vulnerable to endless robbery by thieves, smugglers and organised gangs because they are not protected," he said. "We have asked the relevant ministries to allocate policemen but haven’t received very many so far." (Writing by Tim Cocks; editing by Stephen Wood)