Iraq’s Foreign Ministry handed over to the Culture Ministry on Tuesday more than 17,000 ancient artefacts retrieved from the US, the most returned to date.
The priceless relics date back as far as 4,000 years. They were looted from Iraq and smuggled onto the black market over the decades, mainly after the 1990s Gulf War, when former dictator Saddam Hussein started to lose control of many remote parts of the country.
The objects were flown back to Baghdad on Thursday in large wooden boxes in the private plane of Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi.
He had been on a state visit to Washington, DC, where he met US President Joe Biden.
Many of the objects were seized from the Oklahoma-based Hobby Lobby. The chain of arts and crafts shops was forced by the US government to relinquish the items in 2017 and fined $3,000,000 for failing to act on expert advice that the objects may have been looted or to declare their provenance to the authorities.
A museum official told The National the items were all excavated illegally and that Iraqi experts will catalogue the pieces within days before putting them on display.
“Many of these objects are tablets, [a] few figurines, cylinder seals and clay seal impressions that document commercial changes, administrative, religious or daily life from the Sumerian period,” the official said.
“We still don’t know exactly the details of these items or what’s written on them. The only information we have for some of them comes from foreign experts, upon request from US authorities during the investigation.”
Not all the items are in good condition and many are fragments, while some still have salt encrustations, he said. But he confirmed two rare tablets are among them.
The first is a fragment of clay dating back 3,500 to 4,000 years. It is part of the Gilgamesh Epic, the oldest known surviving piece of literature.
The 127mm by 152mm fragment is known as the Dream Tablet and is written in the Sumerian language. In the epic poem, the hero describes a dream to his mother, predicting the arrival of a new friend.
Last century, archaeologists unearthed 12 tablets inscribed with the poem in the ruins of a library in a palace in Nineveh in northern Iraq. They were written in the Akkadian language, suggesting the work’s enduring cultural relevance after the Uruk period.
Parts of the epic give details of Biblical stories including Great Flood and the Garden of Eden, mentioned in the Old Testament.
Some of the tablets, the official said, mention a previously unknown city known as Irisagrig. The tablets document daily life in the city and the government’s activities.
Although US authorities seized the objects from Hobby Lobby in 2017 and handed over the first batch the following year, a full handover was delayed many times as the Iraqis could not afford to charter a plane to collect them, the official said.
While the looting of antiquities was widespread before 2003, the problem came to the fore after the US invasion.
When Baghdad plunged into chaos days after the toppling of Saddam Hussein, looters burst into the Iraqi National Museum, making off with scores of priceless artefacts and leaving the floor littered with shattered ceramics.
The US was widely criticised at the time for failing to protect the site.
Plundering intensified when security nationwide collapsed and security forces fought a series of insurgencies.
In the years that followed, thousands of archaeological sites were left unsecured, even those near large cities.
Iraq has since retrieved thousands of artefacts, but at least 15,000 pieces from the museum are still missing, as are undocumented pieces from the archaeological sites, the official said.
“Thieves are still digging in these sites, but the plundering is not widespread like in the years that followed 2003, given the increased security measures.”
Modern Iraq is home to the world’s first civilisations. They span 7,000 years of Mesopotamian history, including the ancient Babylonians, Sumerians and Assyrians.