The head of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) and senior leaders from the US and Iraqi governments were to gather at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian for the return of the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet, a 6in-by-5in clay artefact that forms part of an epic poem considered to be one of the world’s earliest works of literature.
The rare piece had once been on display at the Museum of the Bible, the institution built and led by Hobby Lobby chief executive Steve Green that opened in Washington in 2017.
A looted 3,500-year-old cuneiform clay tablet from ancient Mesopotamia, which was seized by authorities in 2019 and officially forfeited by US retail chain Hobby Lobby in July, was due to be ceremonially returned to Iraq on Thursday.
The handover ceremony in Washington DC was both a victory for US and Iraqi officials and a symbolic warning to looters that both governments are committed to eradicating the illicit trade in cultural artefacts.
The ceremony ended a long effort to return the priceless artefact to its homeland and spotlights the continuing fight against cultural smuggling. While the fragment of the Gilgamesh poem is the star of the event, it represents more than 17,000 items that US officials have returned to Iraq.
Unesco Director General Audrey Azoulay describes the restitution as historic and says it is crucial to Iraq’s recovery. The tablet is expected to be sent to Iraq and displayed at the National Museum in Baghdad, she says.
“The Gilgamesh tablet is the most symbolic of the 17,000 cultural objects that were seized,” Azoulay writes. “The 3,500-year-old Assyrian tablet contains a segment from the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh poem, which is considered one of the oldest literary works in history. It is a founding story that has inspired the great monotheisms, because this myth has been reinterpreted again and again. It also influenced The Iliad and The Odyssey. It is, therefore, a jewel of our common humanity and a bulwark against all obscurantism and the identities which pull us apart.
“Having the Gilgamesh tablet returned to Iraq and displayed in the National Museum in Baghdad is also a major step forward in the return of the cultural heritage that was looted from Iraq during decades of conflict. This is crucial to Iraq’s reconstruction and recovery.”
Highlighting the return of the artefacts could deter the continued looting and trade, says Katharyn Hanson, a cultural heritage preservation scholar at the Smithsonian Museum Conservation Institute, which has worked with Iraqi cultural heritage practitioners for many years.
“We don’t see big repatriations like this as often as we should. I have a lot of hope that it is raising awareness of the issue,” Hanson said last week. “This is going to be a joyous event. The Gilgamesh poem holds a special place in human history, in Iraqi history.”
Hobby Lobby bought the tablet for almost $1.7m (£1.24m) in 2014 to display at the museum being built. The artefact is thought to have been looted from a museum in Iraq in 1991 and smuggled into the US in 2007, according to Unesco. It was seized by US officials in 2019, and in July, the US District Court for the Eastern District of New York ordered Hobby Lobby to forfeit it.
The looting and sale of cultural artefacts have increased because of the armed conflict in the region, Unesco says. Although the extent of the looting is unknown, the organisation estimates that the United States represents 44 per cent of the global art market.
The recovery of looted artefacts is slow and difficult, said Lazare Eloundou Assomo, Unesco director for culture and emergencies.
“Some have false documents and it takes years to detect them,” Assomo says. “To this, add the fact that every country has its own legal framework, judicial framework and laws regulating the art market.”
The handover spotlights the collaboration between the US and Iraq, both signatories of a 1970 Unesco convention that created a legal framework for preventing the trafficking of cultural items and ensuring their repatriation, Assomo says. Iraqi officials also note the efforts of the Bible Museum’s leaders in facilitating the return of what they described as a record number of artefacts.
“In May 2020, when we learned of the fraudulent import and documentation supplied for the item by previous owners, we announced our full support of the US government’s efforts to return this item to Iraq,” Jeffrey Kloha, the Bible Museum’s chief curatorial officer, writes.
“We are grateful for the work of the ambassador of Iraq, Fareed Yasseen, and the US State Department for helping us restore this and other items to the Iraqi people. We look forward to future opportunities to collaborate with our friends in Iraq to study and preserve its rich cultural heritage.”
The ceremony also highlights the importance of cultural diplomacy in the fight against the illicit trade of cultural property, Azoulay says, adding that she hopes it serves as a model.
“This restitution is unprecedented, both in terms of the number of items and their value. We expect that this will send a clear message that the time when looted or illegally exported objects could be easily sold on the market is over,” she says. “We also need actors in the art market to play an active role to protect cultural heritage worldwide. Museums are reviewing their acquisition policies, while collectors and auction houses are now paying more attention to provenance information and adhering to professional ethical codes of conduct.”
The Smithsonian’s Hanson says the demand for ancient artefacts, especially those like the Gilgamesh tablet that are connected to the origins of writing, remains high and that makes it very easy, she says, “for bad guys to make a profit”.
“We lose so much information when an artefact is looted, when it is ripped away from its archaeological context,” she explains. Not only is the object removed from its country of origin but its connection to history also is severed. For example, Hanson says, the systematic excavation of an artefact like the Gilgamesh would provide scholars with specific location data and other potentially significant details.
“We don’t know what it was found around. Did it come from an intentional archive, or the trash? Was it carefully sealed for the future?” she says. “It’s exciting to see it go back, and I want that joy to overcome the sadness of what we’ve lost.”