Thousands of ancient artefacts looted from what is believed to be a lost Sumerian city are on their way back to Iraq after being smuggled into the US as ‘ceramic tiles’.
Customs officers handed the priceless treasures – including 4,000-year-old clay tablets filled with cuneiform writing – over to the Iraqi ambassador to Washington on Wednesday.
They were seized last year from one of America’s best-known chains of craft stores, Hobby Lobby, whose evangelical Christian owner had been assembling a huge collection of religious manuscripts and artefacts. It agreed to pay a $3 million fine and forfeit the items.
They comprise about 3,800 relics, including tablets and clay bullae – used as seals – that originated in ancient Mesopotamia. Many of the tablets are believed to offer a tantalising glimpse into the lost city of Irisagrig, a Sumerian settlement whose location has never been found.
Taking custody of the collection during a ceremony at his residence in Washington, Fareed Yasseen, the ambassador of Iraq to the United States, said: “These pieces are very important to us and they should be returned home to Iraq, to the rightful owner of these pieces.”
The handover marks the end of an investigation that highlights the lucrative black market in antiquities and the battle to thwart smugglers.
The trade in relics from the Middle East has been under particularly intense scrutiny. Years of conflict have made it difficult to protect treasures at museums and universities while in recent years Isis has plundered historic sites to fund its war machine.
There is no suggestion terrorist groups were involved in this case. But in settling a civil action last year Hobby Lobby admitted it had failed to understand the risks in acquiring such items and had relied on the expertise of dealers and shippers which led to what it described as “regrettable mistakes”.
Steve Green, the company’s president, said at the time: “We should have exercised more oversight and carefully questioned how the acquisitions were handled.”
He is behind the Museum of the Bible, which opened in Washington last year, but says the items were never destined for that project.
Court documents reveal that the company began to assemble its collection in 2009. According to the complaint, Hobby Lobby was warned by an antiquities expert that items being offered for sale may include objects looted from archaeological sites in Iraq
Even so the company went ahead with an agreement to buy more than 5,500 artefacts, including tablets and bricks inscribed with cuneiform – an ancient system of writing developed by the Sumerians in ancient Mesopotamia – as well as bullae and cylinder seals for $1.6 million.
More than 10 packages were sent via a UAE-based dealer to addresses in Oklahoma labelled ‘ceramic tiles’ or ‘clay tiles (sample)’.
However, they were spotted by customs officers who discovered that company employees had deliberately avoided import controls on items from Iraq.
Many of the 450 tablets date from the Ur III and Old Babylonian period (2100-1600 BCE) and include legal and administrative documents detailing contracts and inventories of goods. Others contain early religious texts or incantations, which were used in magic ceremonies.
Eckart Frahm, a professor at Yale University who was asked to help authenticate the materials, said the tablets used month names which had only ever been seen in documents from Irisagrig.
“They are not necessarily super-spectacular, but they allow us a glimpse into the micro-historical social and economic realities of a city that really thrived in the 21st Century BCE,” he said.
They included administrative details such as rations issued to female weavers and food distributed to the ‘dogs of the palace – which appeared to be rather well fed.
However, the value of the documents to archaeologists was reduced when they were pulled from the ground, according to Elizabeth Stone, a professor at New York’s Stony Brook University, who was also asked to assess the treasures.
“They have been ripped out of their context and their context is what is going to give real information about the past,” she said.
“What’s really wicked, in terms of buying objects, is that the amount of material which is destroyed to find one seal is enormous.”
She added that she believed they were most likely dug from the ground in the period after the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Richard Donoghue, US attorney for the eastern district of New York which worked with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) on the investigation, said: “The Republic of Iraq, standing on the land that was once home to the storied city-states and kingdoms of Mesopotamia, has a celebrated heritage as a cradle of civilisation.
“We are proud to have played a role in removing these pieces of Iraq’s history from the black market of illegally obtained antiquities and restoring them to the Iraqi people.”
Wednesday’s event was the first repatriation of cultural property to Iraq since March 2015, when ICE returned ancient antiquities and Saddam Hussein-era objects, including a limestone sculpture of the head of Assyrian King Sargon II.