Some good news for cultural preservationists and the archaeology community: a rare Tyrannosaurus bataar skeleton that was illegally excavated from Mongolia, reassembled, and then auctioned off for $1.05 million at Heritage Auctions in New York City has been returned to Mongolia by U.S. officials. “We’re working with our foreign counterparts to protect heritage just as we would like them to protect our heritage,” John T. Morton, director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, told the New York Times.

The impressive skeleton, which measured eight feet high and 24 feet long, was assembled by a commercial archaeologist (or fossil hunter) from Florida named Eric Prokopi. The rare dinosaur, which is just slightly smaller than a Tyrannosaurus rex, has only been found in the Gobi Desert of Mongolia, and Mongolian law has declared its fossils objects of national heritage that it is illegal to trade or export. Prokopi is cooperating with authorities and is free on bail as he awaits sentencing. It has not been proven, but seems likely, that he personally dug up the fossils in Mongolia, smuggled them out of the country, and then shipped them to the U.S. by giving false countries of origin. But scientists did prove beyond a doubt that the bones originated in Mongolia, and therefore can only have been taken out of the country illegally, whoever may have done so.

Perhaps this case will be a wake-up call for Prokopi, who seemed to wonder, when speaking with New Yorker reporter Paige Williams earlier this year, why obtaining this dinosaur was such a big deal. “One thing I was wondering is if any of these paleontologists you’ve talked to have given their argument of why paleontology is important,” he said. “It’s not like antiquities, where it’s somebody’s heritage and culture and all that.”

Photo: A Tyrannosaurus bataar similar to this one was returned to Mongolia earlier this week. Photo via Wikipedia.