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Ancient Cuneiform Tablet Returned to Iraq from US

Ancient tablet
A 4,000-year-old cuneiform tablet and a prism that was used to teach writing which had been looted in Iraq in the 1900s are being repatriated back to the country. Credit: US Immigration and Customs Enforcement

An ancient cuneiform tablet and prism will be returned to the nation of Iraq after investigators from the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency transferred the ancient artifacts to the Iraqi consulate in Los Angeles recently.

One of the team of investigators says that the 4,000-year-old tablet and prism were “almost certainly” looted from the war-torn Middle Eastern country, which experienced a wave of looting after the US invasion.

However, scholars whom the agents consulted about the find suggested that the artifacts had been looted from what is now Iraq back in the early 1900s. The prism was used to teach children the cuneiform writing system, according to a report from Smithsonian Magazine. Both objects are at least 4,000 years old.

Ancient tablet just latest treasure repatriated by US authorities

The Art Newspaper reports that special agents who work for ICE formally presented the priceless artifacts to Iraqi authorities during a January 20 handover ceremony at the Iraqi consulate.

Iraqi Consul General Salwan Sinjaree said in a statement released by ICE “We appreciate (the) ongoing efforts and coordination to repatriate two extremely rare ancient Iraqi artifacts.

“These efforts highlight the significant cooperation between the Iraqi and American authorities,” he added.

Although the objects are thought to have been looted as long as a century ago, the tablet came to light only when an American purchased it via an online auction in July of 2020.

That caused United States Customs and Border Protection officers to move in and seize the tablet after it was shipped from the United Kingdom without proper documentation, according to the statement.

The prism had a different journey, with law enforcement officials only coming upon it in a warehouse last year. The owner of the cuneiform prism had stated that they had hoped to donate it to a museum collection upon their death but the person had been unable to provide proof of ownership.

The Los Angeles Times reports that at that point, a local gallery turned the artifact over to ICE agents.

As it turns out, the prism is exceptionally rare, with only two other such objects known to exist in the entire world. A expert in Sumerian literature told ICE authorities that the prism dates to the Old Babylonian Period, from 2000 BC to 1600 BC and that it most likely came from what is now Iraq.

That scholar said that one of the other prisms is part of the collections at Yale University; the current whereabouts of the third are currently unknown.

Neither the cuneiform tablet’s buyer and seller nor the Los Angeles gallery will face any criminal charges whatsoever because they cooperated with authorities.

Chad Fredrickson, a special agent from Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) who was in charge of the case, told the Los Angeles Times that he showed leniency to all those involced, explaining “Somebody who buys something at an online auction and knows nothing about it, I’m not looking at them criminally.”

Iraq, with cultural riches that are second to none as the cradle of civilization, does not permit artifacts of cultural significance to be exported without the consent of the government, and no approval had been granted for either the prism or the tablet. At present, the exact provenance of the tablet and prism is still unclear, but according to Fredrickson, they were “almost certainly” looted from Iraq.

Eddy Wang, an acting special agent in charge of HSI Los Angeles, said in the statement that “Investigating cultural property and antiquities is a unique part of our mission at Homeland Security Investigations. We are proud to return these artifacts, steeped in history, to the people of Iraq.”

The Iraqi consulate in LA will transfer the cuneiform tablet and prism to the Ministry of Cultural Affairs in Iraq, which will then send them to a museum in the country.

That war-torn nation saw some of the most widespread looting in recent decades after the invasion of the country under former President George Bush. Museums were attacked and looted by ISIS, with many priceless antiquities smashed and destroyed while other movable objects were spirited away by, or sold to, invading troops.

These pieces are now continuing to show up in museums and in private collections all over the world.

But authorities around the globe are repatriating as many of these priceless items as they come across, with international databases full of objects that are known to have been looted.

Just last year, United States federal authorities returned over 17,000 looted artifacts to Iraq. Among the most spectacular of these was the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet, a 3,500-year-old cuneiform tablet forfeited by the American company Hobby Lobby in July of 2021.

US officials handed over the tablet to Iraq during a moving ceremony that was held at Washington, D.C.’s Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in September of last year.

The International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol) conducted a survey last October which showed that the number of illegal excavations and artifact lootings “continued unabated” during the pandemic.

Sometimes, this practice “even surged to new heights,” it stated. During 2020 alone, it added, Interpol tracked the seizure of 854,742 pieces of cultural property, including coins, paintings, sculptures, archaeological objects and written materials.

Interpol has now created an easy to use database for all known looted artifacts which is downloadable in an app, available here. All it takes for someone who suspects that an object may have been looted is to take a photo of it and the database will flag the object if it is known to have been looted.

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