450 Stolen Sumerian Tablets are on Their Way Back to Iraq, but it is Just the Tip of the Iceberg
450 Stolen Sumerian tablets are being repatriated to Iraq with a ceremony in Washington D.C. on May 2. Many of the cuneiform texts come from a mysterious city called Irisagrig – a land from which looted artifacts are becoming increasingly common in the antiquities market.
The majority of the Sumerian tablets are inscribed with legal and administrative documents showing contracts or inventories, however a few are incantations. Thus, the artifacts provide a certain mix of public and private details. Live Science reports most of the tablets were created between 2100 BC and 1600 BC.
A cuneiform tablet seized by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) from Hobby Lobby. (U.S. Attorney's Office Eastern District of New York)
The texts’ primarily have their origins in Irisagrig, “a Sumerian city never excavated before and whose location remains unknown,” according to Manuel Molina, a research professor with the Spanish National Research Council. Molina suggests that Irisagrig is located somewhere near the Tigris.
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Molina discussed the immensity of the looting problem in Iraq and the large quantity of artifacts appearing from mysterious Irisagrig in a paper titled On the Location of Irisaĝrig. He wrote:
“Large scale illegal excavations of unprecedented proportions were carried out just before and after the war through vast areas of Iraqi soil, destroying sites and making some of them irrecoverable for archaeological research. One of the effects of this tragedy has been the appearance on the antiquities market of hundreds of unprovenanced cuneiform tablets purchased by private collectors and institutions.”
Craig Barker agrees that artifact looting has been a major issue for Iraq since 2003, by writing, “The looting is regarded as one of the worst acts of cultural vandalism in modern times, but much more of Iraq’s rich cultural history has been destroyed, damaged or stolen in the years since. Indeed the illegal trade in looted antiquities is growing.”
Gold and lapis bowl from Ur, Iraq Museum IM8272. Current status is unknown. (Oriental Institute Lost Treasures from Iraq database)
There has been some success in repatriating looted cultural heritage objects from Iraq. As Barker notes,
“One of the most successful programs was an amnesty granted by authorities that saw almost 2,000 items returned by January 2004, and a further thousand items seized by Iraqi and US investigators […] Initial returns were largely local. One early success was the famous Lady of Warka , dated to around 3100 BC; she was recovered by investigators at a nearby farm following a tip off. Others have come home following international investigations (a large number of objects seem to have travelled through London and New York in the aftermath), such as a statue of Assyrian king Argon II seized in New York in 2008 and returned to the museum in 2015. Likewise the heaviest item stolen, a headless statue of the Sumerian king Entemena of Lagash was recovered in New York in 2006 with the help of an art dealer.”
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Iraqi Col. Ali Sabah displays ancient artifacts Iraqi Security Forces discovered in 2008, during two raids in northern Basra. (Public Domain)
The 450 looted Sumerian tablets on their way back to Iraqi possession were seized from a company called Hobby Lobby by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). A civil complaint filed by New York federal prosecutors, describes Hobby Lobby as “a nationwide arts-and-crafts retailer based in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.” The company’s owner, Steve Green, is an antiquities collector with an estimated collection of about 40,000 artifacts – all acquired since 2009. Green played a role in creating the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C.
Hobby Lobby had to turn over thousands of clay bullae (a small clay seal with an inscription stating the items owner) and cylinder seals alongside the cuneiform tablets.
Clay bullae seized from Hobby Lobby. (U.S. Attorney's Office Eastern District of New York)
Top Image: A cuneiform tablet seized from Hobby Lobby. This tablet contains economic/administrative information. Source: U.S. Attorney's Office Eastern District of New York